Category Archives: Reviews

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.


Filed under General Tech Stuff, Reviews, UC&C

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.


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…


Filed under General Tech Stuff, Reviews

Voodoo Music Experience 2012

VOODOO sculpture


The boys and I just wrapped up a visit for New Orleans for the Voodoo Music Experience 2012. What a fantastic time!

Friday morning I picked them up in Birmingham and we had a pleasant drive down to the city, stopping at Charlie’s Catfish House along the way. The boys were a bit nonplussed to be served whole catfish but that didn’t really slow them down. We got to the festival about 3:30pm and immediately started exploring. I was surprised that security didn’t turn me away because I was carrying a “professional camera” (you know, the kind with a detachable lens) but I wasn’t about to complain. After some wandering, David and Tom went to the EDM stage to see Nervo while Matt and I headed off to go see Thomas Dolby. We were no more than 10′ from the stage for the show, which was outstanding. I’ve been wanting to see Dolby in concert for 30 years and thoroughly enjoyed getting to do so at long last. Bonus: he has a new album and played a couple of cuts from it. Extra bonus: he was joined on stage by Michael Doucet, who plays a mean fiddle. (Set list: “Europa and the Pirate Twins”, “One of our Submarines”, “Airhead”, “Pulp Culture”, then “Spice Train”, “Evil Twin Brother”, and “The Toad Lickers” from his new album, then “I Love You Goodbye”, “Hyperactive”, and “She Blinded Me With Science.”)

DSC 0935TMDR gettin’ down

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After the show, I got to see my pal and (fellow Exchange MVP) Jason Sherry at the Thomas Dolby show. This was his 16th Voodoo show– an enviable record. I think he should win a prize. Matt and I also checked out Christian Ristow’s Face Forward sculpture, a giant metal head with an articulated, remote-controlled face, plus a giant metal crawfish whose antennae emit fire after dark.

DSC 0926show me your war face

We wandered around a bit more until it was time for the next EDM acts: JFK of MSTRKRFT, followed by Kaskade. (Actually, Die Antwoord was on stage but no way was I going to let the boys go see them; they are incredibly NSFW.) JFK put on a pretty good set but was not very engaged with the crowd. Kaskade, on the other hand, killed: fantastic set, good crowd involvement, and a great vibe. He was actually pretty laid-back; not really what I was expecting for an EDM set. Matt was able to talk us into the VIP area on stage rights so we were pretty close to the action, which was fantastic. David and Tom got right up front, too, which was a treat for them.

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Notice the cool hat he’s wearing

As you might be able to tell from the photos, my night photo technique needs some work. Most of the concert pics I shot were with my D5100 and Nikon’s 55-200 f/4. This is a great all-around lens but I need to remember to aim the focus points when I’m shooting from a distance. EDM stages are tricky, too, because there are often large backlit screens behind the performer. This wasn’t a huge problem when we were off to the side in the VIP area but it was a problem for Metallica, as you will soon see.

Anyway, we went to bed exhausted but happy Friday, slept in a bit on Saturday, then skipped breakfast and went straight to Deanie’s Seafood. Of all the many restaurants in N’Awlins, this is one of the most resonant for me; it was one of my Aunt Betty’s very, very favorites and I have many happy memories of eating there with her when visiting the city. I wanted the boys to see it, and we had a delightful meal with bonus Aunt B storytelling thrown in. Then a quick drive back to City Park put us in position for another day of music. Saturday’s weather was quite a bit different– mid-50s with a steady chill wind and heavy overcast for almost the entire day. Luckily we found the one food stand that was selling hot chocolate, Quintin’s, and patronized it heavily.

Saturday’s lineup was pretty strong. We had planned to see DJ QBert and Metallica as our two main acts; Tom wanted to see AWOLNATION, and there were a few fill-ins that we’d decided to try (like Jim-E Stacks). We briefly stopped by for Carmine P. Filthy’s set (prominently featuring this guy, so Matt and I didn’t stay for long); it was pretty repetitive. I caught a few minutes of Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, enough to decide that I’d give them a shot on Spotify. We connected with my cousin, world-famous sound guy and international man of mystery Chris Bloch. He got us into the mixing truck for Chicano Batman‘s set, where he spent a good chunk of time answering our stupid questions about audio production and mixing. As a bonus, I found that I quite liked the band’s mix of Afro-Brazilian-surf funk, so they’re now in my Spotify rotation. Another neat discovery: The Features put on quite a show near the hot chocolate place (though it took me a while to figure out they were singing “Golden Comb“, not “Golden Cone”).

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Chris hard at work; yes, he really does know what all those knobs do.

Tom went to the AWOLNATION show and went crowd surfing, which excited him no end. The rest of us used the time to explore the food booths; I had a couple of really delicious crawfish pies, while David had shwarma and Matt a hot dog. We migrated over to the Metallica area about 30 minutes before their show and got decent seats in front of the sound tower (though the two older boys didn’t stay there; they ended up in the mosh pit.) As for the Metallica concert itself: it exceeded my expectations, especially given that they were replacing Green Day, a band I’ve never really liked. They deployed some awesome pyrotechnics for “One”, and gave us a nice mix of old and new(er) stuff, including “Master of Puppets,” “Wherever I May Roam,” “Enter Sandman,” and “Nothing Else Matters.” For their first encore they came out and started playing “American Idiot” by Green Day then stopped– James said, with mock sheepishness, “That’s all we had time to learn” before launching into some back-catalog stuff, closing with “Seek and Destroy.”

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rock is serious business

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Lars looks suspiciously like my friend Scott Mikesell

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they were having almost as much fun as the crowd

After a solid two-hour performance, all of us were flat worn out. We went back to the hotel and got to bed about midnight, which was lucky given that we had made plans to meet Chris and Beth at Café du Monde the next morning at 7:30. The promise of beignets was enough to get the herd moving, and we enjoyed our bounty sitting on the levee steps overlooking the river and watching the sun right near Jackson Square.

IMG 1248After breakfast, we went back to the hotel to shower and pack; the stage acts weren’t scheduled to start until noon, so I figured we’d have time to go to Radosta’s for poboys. Nope– they’re closed on Sundays, so we drove back to the Quarter to go to Coop’s. Nope, they’re a 21-and-up place. We ended up eating more festival food, to which absolutely no one objected. We’d planned to see Dev, who never showed up– she couldn’t get out of NYC because of Hurricane Sandy. No one announced that to the crowd, unfortunately, so we waited around for a while and then eventually wandered off. (The excellent Voodoo mobile app did have a tiny scrolling ticker at the bottom of its main page that announced the news, but I’m not sure anyone actually saw it.)

We were soon back to the EDM stage for Modestep, self-described as a “live four-piece bass-heavy band from London.” They sure were! However, there was enough swearing that I made Matt leave about half an hour into the show, which was too bad– it was excellent otherwise. Plus they were playing in full sunlight, which was not only very pleasant but provided superb lighting for taking pictures.

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 this makes me think of John McEnroe saying “you cannot be serious”

DSC 1064someone’s having a good day at work

More festival dinner, then it was time to head over to Skrillex! The crowd for his show was huge– probably 2/3 as large as Metallica’s, but in a much smaller area. We all packed up towards the front, which was fantastic until the crowd started squeezing us. Even that was OK because we were all dancing more or less in unison. Even the crowd surfers were fun… until one of them got dropped more or less on Matt’s head. After that, he and I watched the rest of the show from a more open space towards the back of the crowd. I was far enough away that after it got dark none of my pictures were really spectacular; this is probably the best of the lot.

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He played an absolutely killer set, including a remix of the theme from “The Fresh Prince” and a variety of his own songs. I was worn out from dancing by the end of the set, which is a sure measure of how good it was– it takes quite a performance to get me to shake my groove thang. (But don’t take my word for it; see this review.)

Immediately after the Skrillex set, we went back to the parking lot and drove straight through, arriving back in Huntsville about 2:45am. Matt and Tom slept pretty much the whole way; David lasted until about 12:45 and he zonked out too. Great time, and maybe we’ll do it again next year. The End.

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Filed under Friends & Family, General Stuff, Reviews, Travel

John Miller’s NRA Defensive Pistol class

[updated 22 Sept to add 3 new videos that Greg took during the course– they’re at the bottom of the post.]

If you’re going to carry a concealed weapon, you need to know how to do it responsibly and well.

Earlier this year, I got my Florida concealed-carry permit, and I’d been looking for a good training course to complement what I learned in the course I took in Pensacola. That course focused on legality: where are you legally allowed to carry, when and how much force are you legally allowed to use to stop a crime in progress, and so on. That’s critical knowledge, but it doesn’t cover the mechanics of concealed carry: how to carry, draw, and fire a weapon from concealment.

Because California has very few counties that will actually issue licenses to carry (LTCs), there have been very few classes on this topic in California, and most of them have been ad hoc. When I learned that the NRA’s new defensive pistol class was going to be offered by Total Commitment Firearms Training, I signed up. The course was scheduled for two days at Coyote Valley Sporting Clays, a beautiful facility (with excellent BBQ) where I’ve shot skeet and trap before. The course was to be held on their cowboy action range, which is elaborately decked out to resemble an Old West town, complete with hanging tree, saloon, and so on. This was festive but irrelevant, as all our shooting was done on three targets: the standard round target, the Transition II target used by federal law enforcement agencies, and the FBI “Q” target used by the FBI for handgun qualification.

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 the cowboy-action bank, which we didn’t use; our targets are visible through the right-hand window and door of the bank

I arrived about 10 minutes before class started and met John Miller, the instructor, and his wife Dottie. They had all the course materials organized and ready: the course manual, a few handouts, and the NRA “Personal Protection Outside the Home” course book. This book is used as the text both for the course of the same name (which focuses mostly on theoretical aspects of armed self-defense) and this course. I laid out all my gear and got ready to go (disclaimer: this picture is actually from day 2). John recommended bringing 300 rounds of ammo; I shot 195 rounds the first day alone, so I needed to buy more. The course also requires 3 magazines, 6 dummy rounds, eye and ear protection, a magazine pouch, and a strong-side belt holster (not shown because I was wearing them.) Oh, and a pistol. I brought my SIG Sauer 1911, although it is probably too big for everyday carry. I wanted to get really comfortable with shooting it (and I did), but something smaller might be better for everyday carry. (The picture’s also a little misleading because at the start of the course, you’re required to keep your live ammo in your car until the first course of fire– that’s why the dummy rounds were required.)

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not shown: BBQ, rattlesnakes, the swinging saloon-style doors in the bathroom

We were forewarned by the Coyote Valley folks that there was a good chance of seeing rattlesnakes– on average, about 1 per day shows up at the cowboy action range. Sadly, this was not to happen. Anyway, the first thing we did was talk for an hour or so about what we were going to be doing in the course, what was covered, what the range rules were, and so on. After that, we started practicing draws with and without cover– no shooting, just drawing and presenting the weapon. The NRA teaches that you draw the weapon, leaving it pointed down, then rotate it so your arm is parallel to the ground, then extend the arm and join with your weak-side hand. These are separate motions because you may only need to draw, but not point, your sidearm. John emphasized over and over that the way you practice and train will determine what you do in a real situation, so he was adamant that we practice drawing in the prescribed manner instead of just drawing and indexing, as I’d been taught in the Marines.

Side note: I suspect many of my hoplophobe friends (Martin, I’m looking at you, buddy) would be amazed at the emphasis the NRA’s curriculum puts on the defensive nature of this training. For example, the course guidebook advises you to avoid confrontations by not wearing clothing with offensive slogans or acting like a jerk (that’s my paraphrase, not their words.) This is a far cry from the guns-a-blazin’ stereotype that too many people have. OK, enough editorializing. On with the action.

For our first few courses of fire, we drew and fired, taking our time and concentrating on smooth execution of the mechanics. As the SEALs say, slow is smooth and smooth is fast– a very Zen way to express it, but nonetheless true. We then moved on to mixing dummy rounds into the magazine to simulate failures. Most of the people in the class (there were 8 total) had the same kind of rounds: the A-Zoom aluminum rounds. These proved to be devilishly hard to find on the ground; something with a brighter color probably would have worked better. Having the dummies mixed in with live ammo meant that we all quickly got proficient at clearing jams and misfires using the tap, rack, assess method: tap the magazine up to make sure it’s seated, rack the slide to clear the jam, and assess whether or not to continue firing.

During these drills, John would start us by yelling “THREAT!” or “GUN!” or “KNIFE!” from behind us, at which point we would draw from cover and fire at our targets. Then he got sneaky: he took a piece of tape with “THREAT” written on it, put it on his clipboard, and held it up behind us. This was a very effective way to teach us that you have to be aware of your surroundings, not just on what’s right in front of you. He followed this up by teaching us the “position of sul“, named after the Portuguese word for “south”. The purpose of this position is to get your pistol pointed down (thus “south”) but still in a position where you can very quickly pointed. (It’s also very useful for weapon retention, something we talked a good bit about.) The drills evolved so that we would draw, fire at a threat, go to sul, then reholster once we thought the threat was over with. We shot this way for a while, then it was time to wrap up day 1. (I didn’t mention the excellent BBQ lunch I had with fellow student Masood, but it was as good as ever. I recommend the pulled pork.)

On day 2, we started with the NRA-mandated discussion of different holster styles and types. John and Dan, a fellow instructor, brought in a few different “pocket pistols,” including the one shown below– a 5-shot .22 revolver. That’s too small for me; a Glock 26 is about the right size. In fact, after seeing John’s Kimber compact 1911 I am thinking that a compact 1911 might make a perfect everyday carry gun for me given the size of my hands and my overall build.

5 rounds of .22

On day 1, we’d shot the NRA-mandated course of fire, so on day 2 we shot mostly drills provided by John. We had a lively discussion about the range at which an attacker armed with a knife would begin to be dangerous. For example, suppose someone accosts you with a knife from 30′. That seems like a distance at which a close-in weapon like a knife wouldn’t be too threatening. We ran a drill known as the Tueller drill to test that. If you watch the video below, you’ll see Anne on the firing line with her weapon holstered. Greg is 21′ away from her, offset to the side so that he isn’t in her line of fire. When John shouts “go”, Greg’s supposed to run to Anne and attack her with a cardboard knife. Anne is supposed to draw and fire on her target. Who wins?


Not Anne, I’m afraid. She fired 3 rounds, 1 of which was a solid hit. Meanwhile, Greg was all over her. She would likely have been badly wounded or killed. So would Greg, of course. Thus we learn two things: firing accurately under stress is hard (Anne shot very well overall, so it wasn’t that she’s bad at it) and if someone is waving a knife at me from 21′ away I am going to consider him a serious threat and react accordingly.

Next up: the shoot/no-shoot drill. The idea here is simple: John set up an array of targets, some representing bad guys and some representing bystanders. On command, we’d turn, face the targets, and engage the bad guys. Then after each shooter, the next person would turn their back to the firing line and we’d rearrange the targets so that no one knew where everyone would be. This offered a number of great discussion topics. For example, suppose there are two bad guys: one nearby with a knife and one further away with a gun– what do you do? If you fire at a target that you can’t see behind, how do you know there isn’t an innocent bystander behind it? (Hint: you don’t, so you’d better not shoot unless absolutely necessary.) These drills require a great deal of concentration, as you might expect. In fact, the whole class was much more mentally demanding than I thought it would be; I left each day absolutely worn out.

For our next activity, we practiced shooting with our weak hand. I make a habit of always shooting a few mags worth of ammo with my left hand any time I’m at the range. It’s good practice, so I did well on this stage. That segued into drills to work on instinctive shooting, or shooting from the hip. From a distance of 1 yard, we had to draw and fire aimed shots into a target. This is much, much more challenging than it sounds like because you don’t really have room to extend your arm… nor would you have time to do so if you had to do it for real.

After another excellent lunch (more BBQ, of course), it was time to start shooting on the move. At first we moved either left or right only, then we advanced to moving left, right, and back in combination, then we did it all while using cover and concealment. Oh, and I forgot to mention: all along we had to be reloading as we shot: run out of ammo and you have to quickly drop your empty magazine on the ground, replace it with a fresh one, and let the slide go back into battery. John told us about a shooting in which four California Highway Patrol officers were killed at Newhall back in the 70s. At the time, the SOP for CHP was to pick up their brass on the range or after a shooting. All four officers were found with empty brass in their pockets– while they were gathering their brass after reloading their revolvers, their killers closed range and shot them. This was yet another opportunity for John to point out that the way you train will be the way you react under stress, so he had us dropping our mags and ignoring them until after the course of fire was over. I was well pleased with the Wilson Combat magazines I bought; they were smooth and functioned perfectly even with the cheap range ammo I bought from the Coyote Creek pro shop.

The last stage of the day was shooting for the qualification course. I don’t have the full course of fire handy, but it was seven or eight stages at various distances. For example, from 10 yards we had to fire five rounds, change magazines, and fire five more… in 12 seconds. This is plenty of time but it sure doesn’t seem that way when you’re shooting. To qualify, all 34 fired shots had to be in the “bottle” of the target. I qualified first try, but just barely.

I should note that one of the best aspects of the course was the interplay between the students. John emphasized within the first 10 minutes of the class that ego has no place in the study of pistol skills, and I appreciated the forthright and non-defensive way in which everyone gave, and accepted, constructive criticism. At the same time, we all recognized that this stuff is hard to master, so there was a good mix of encouragement and constructive criticism. I learned something from each and every one of my classmates: Anne had a superb smooth draw, Ross was probably the best at the rack, tap, assess drill, Greg’s accuracy was excellent, Masood was great at timing his shots, Alex was probably the fastest at reloading, Erik shot very well on the move, and Dan was probably the best all-around shooter. Their feedback helped me identify, and fix, many of my own weaknesses– so thanks for that, guys!

Overall, this was a superb course. John was an extremely effective instructor: personable, experienced, and direct. When he corrected my (many) mistakes, he did so calmly and clearly, without being discouraging or belittling. The drills he added to the basic course really added a lot of value. I feel much more comfortable with my skill level after taking the course; in fact I am thinking about taking it again with a different holster and my G26, just for the additional practice. I recommend it very highly.

After I originally posted this, Greg sent me 3 videos that he had taken. The first shows Alex running through the engage-3-bad-guys drill.

Next is Masood doing the move-and-fire drill.

Finally we have Erik doing the move-and-shoot drill.


Filed under General Stuff, Reviews

The Walking Dead videogame

Normally I am not a big fan of things that are bloody or gross. I don’t recall the last time I voluntarily watched a horror film, and I completely missed out on the epidemic of slasher and torture porn films like the “Saw” and “Hostel” series. Despite that, I started watching AMC’s “The Walking Dead” when it premiered and was immediately captivated. I have always been a fan of post-apocalyptic storytelling, which I blame on a childhood and adolescence spent eagerly absorbing Cold War-era science fiction, so the setting of the show suited me just fine. The ongoing emphasis on having to make the best possible choice from a set of bad alternatives, and often finding that that choice leads to a set of still more difficult choices, makes for compelling drama.

This is by way of scene setting: when I saw an Xbox 360 game based on the Walking Dead universe, I was curious enough to download it. It’s the first episode in a planned series of five. The game sets you in the role of Lee Everett, a convicted criminal who is on his way to prison when a car accident frees him from police captivity. He’s abruptly dumped into a world filled with zombies, where he quickly meets, and takes responsibility for, an 8-year-old girl named Clementine whose parents are missing. The story develops from there, as Lee and Clementine meet a variety of other survivors and travel to try to find Clementine’s parents and Lee’s family.

The story’s told in the visual style of the original comics, which I have not yet read; this is a bit jarring at first, because the graphics often look crude and, well, cartoonish, but that is by design. The ambient sounds and voice acting are both top-notch. I’m not sure what you would call it, but the scenery or set design is excellent as well; it very much evokes the feel of rural Georgia where most of the story is set.

There isn’t much I can say about the story without giving away key elements, so I won’t. I will say that the plot features a few characters from the television series, and that as Lee, you are forced to make some of the same kinds of difficult choices that other characters have encountered. The game developer claims that the choices you make in this first episode will influence the plot and gameplay both within this episode and in forthcoming episodes. I plan to go back and play it again, making different choices, to see how much truth there is to that. Interestingly, at the end of the episode, you see how your decisions compare to other players– for example, “You and XX% of players chose to…”. This is an interesting way to establish behavioral norms in the game world: did you make decisions the way other people did, or not?

The gameplay itself is fairly linear. If you remember old-school text adventures, where you would give the computer commands like “take rock” or “extinguish lantern” from a very limited vocabulary, you will feel right at home here. This is not an open world game: in each environment, the number of things you can interact with, and the number of things you can do with them, is quite constrained. Sometimes accomplishing your objectives is simply a matter of looking around until you find an appropriate object. Other times, you may find an object and have no idea what to do with it until you explore further. If you are used to a large open ended game like Fallout or Grand Theft Auto this can be frustrating. However, in this setting, the constraints are not too bothersome. I decided to look at this more as a television show (with lower resolution and more interactivity) then as a videogame (where I would expect to have a much broader range of action), so in that light it turned out to be pretty good.

One caution: the game is rated M for graphic violence and bad language. There is plenty of both. This isn’t a game for the kiddies by any stretch, although the violence is not as gross as the television show (though the language is far worse.)

I am looking forward to the next 4 episodes.

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Fog Creek Copilot

Sometimes I have to do remote computer support for friends and family members. In days of yore, this meant smashing the phone handset between my ear and shoulder while typing, and frequently asking the person on the other end of the phone questions like “well, what buttons do you see?” and “are you sure there isn’t a menu option that says X?”

Since about 2005, I’ve been using Fog Creek’s Copilot service instead. Copilot is simple, cheap, and fast; you go to the website, put in your name, and get a 12-digit code. You (as what Copilot calls the helper) either read that code to the person being helped or have the web site e-mail it to them. They put the code in too; both you and the other person download a small executable, which is prestamped with the code. When both ends have the executable running, you get a screen-sharing session with the remote machine.

Copilot essentially uses the VNC protocol to transfer screen images and mouse movements, which are all “reflected” off a Fog Creek server (details here). This approach works well through firewalls and proxies, and its performance is decent over low-bandwidth connections. The client has the ability to reconnect after temporary interruptions in network service, which is handy.

Pricing is reasonable: $5 for a 24-hour “day pass”, with free usage on the weekends. There are other pricing options too, but I don’t use the service often enough to need any of them. Fog Creek positions Copilot as a useful tool for corporate help desks, which is probably true.

One interesting thing to know about Copilot: when you purchase a day pass, it’s good for 24 hours. However, by default the helper can only use the day pass from the original computer. Suppose I start a session as a helper using my Mac at home, then I want to use the same session the next day (within the 24-hour window) from a different computer. Because the executable you run on the helper’s computer has a unique key, you can’t just start a new session, and there’s no place for the helper to put in an invitation code. The Copilot FAQ says to follow the instructions to reconnect, but there aren’t any! After a few fruitless minutes of poking around, I called their toll-free support number and within two minutes had the answer: if you start helping someone on computer A and then move to computer B, Fog Creek tech support has to send you an e-mail containing a link to the correctly-stamped version of the executable. They did, and I was able to use it without problems.

So, the next time someone asks you to help fix their computer (and you’re actually willing to do it– not always a given), give Copilot a try. I’m a fan.


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Attached (Levine and Heller)

I am not a big fan of self-help books. The ones I’ve encountered tend to either be vapid and vague or so full of jargon as to be worthless. Perhaps it’s the influence of too much Nietzsche, but I generally believe that most people can solve their own life problems if they make a genuine effort to do so. (Of course, that’s not always true for things like clinical depression.) Clearly there are lots of biological influences that shape our brains and bodies, and thus our perceptions and actions, but that’s not the only explanation.

So when a friend of mine suggested I read Levine and Haller’s Attached, I was skeptical. The subtitle, “The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find– and Keep– Love”, didn’t ease my skepticism any. Usually when something is described as a “new science” it’s anything but. However, I am determined to be more introspective going forward, and to better understand myself as a person, so I figured I’d give the book a try. After all, I could always get a good laugh if it was worthless.

Reading the book, however, changed my mind completely. Heller and Levine present a well-reasoned case, backed by Actual Science, that there are biological attachment mechanisms that in large measure govern how we relate to others. They focus on romantic attachment, but much of what they say can be applied to familial or even work relationships. According to them, human attachment behavior falls into three categories: secure people are easily able to form stable, lasting relationships with good emotional intimacy; avoidant people unconsciously seek to create distance when an intimate partner starts getting too close, and anxious people continually try to increase intimacy with their partner by drawing them closer. The avoidant and anxious attachment types both engage in what the authors call “protest behavior”– in essence, acting out. Avoidants do things like belittling their partner or recounting how great their ex was, while anxious types act clingy, attempt to incite jealousy, and so on.

The book is loaded with anecdotes about various behavior, good and bad, of couples who participated in Levine and Heller’s research. Most of these are pretty obvious; it’s easy to identify who’s stable, who’s anxious, and who’s avoidant in each vignette. However, they offer some concrete and actionable strategies for identifying your own attachment type, dealing with people of other types, and understanding the attachment style of your partner. They present these strategies as a means for those who are dating to pick suitable partners (e.g. anxious and avoidant people generally make a terrible pairing) and for those who are already paired to better understand their partners’ styles and how to interact with them.

I enjoyed the anecdotes; more importantly, I found the analysis of each attachment type to be well-reasoned, and I could certainly identify my own style based on the questionnaires in the book. Reading the book helped me make sense of a number of things that I hadn’t fully understood before, so it met my goal of equipping me with a bit more self-knowledge. In that light, it was money well-spent. Recommended if you’re into self-help books; if not you might prefer to get it from the library and read the first few chapters before deciding.

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The Detachment (Eisler)

I’ve written about Barry Eisler’s books before. Executive summary: I love ’em. The plotting, pacing, and atmospherics are top-notch. His characters’ motivations are logical, meaning that their actions are plausible (however ill-considered they may be.) He writes crisply, without excessive baggage. And of late, his books have been increasingly topical.

The central plot behind The Detachment is that a shadowy cabal is apparently plotting a coup attempt against the US government. I say “apparently” because there’s conflicting evidence, and some of those involved are, shall we say, not entirely forthcoming about their motives or plans. I don’t want to say much more about the plot than that, other than that it’s well-supported by real-world events. Eisler continues his habit of including a few pages of references to descriptions of those events, too, perhaps as a guard against accusations that his imagination’s overwrought.

Most of the characters from Eisler’s previous work are here: John Rain, Dox, Ben Treven, and Daniel Larison, and Scott Horton, along with a few lesser folks. I have to say that I find it jarring to see Larison and Horton used as character names given their real-world prominence as bloggers. It wasn’t so bad in the first book where Eisler did it, but it started bugging me from about page 10 in this book.

That’s about the only fault I can find with The Detachment, though. Completely apart from the quality of the writing, I applaud Eisler for his foray into self-publishing. He’s clearly put his money where his mouth is by pricing and shipping his books on his own. The Kindle edition was $6. $6, I say! That’s half the cost of a movie ticket for something that provided several hours more entertainment than the average movie, plus it automatically showed up on my Kindle the day of its release.

Apart from making me happy, Eisler’s decision to self-publish meant that he could cut down the cycle time for publishing and get the book out sooner; the book felt fresh because in the first few pages, there’s a mention of the Tohoku earthquake (which you may know better as the Fukushima earthquake), and there are a number of other fairly recent topical references embedded in the text. I’m delighted to report that, unlike most mainstream titles, there were very few typos or grammatical errors in the text. Anyone who claims that self-publishing will inevitably lead to lower-quality books isn’t playing straight. It certainly doesn’t have to.

In closing, three grace notes: first, I love it that he threw in a Piaggio P180; I admire N7PA every single time I see it at the Palo Alto airport. Second, Eisler’s sex scenes in prior books have drawn lots of attention. There’s only one such scene here; it’s only about three lines long, and it made me laugh so hard that the passengers around me on my SJC-SEA flight looked at me as though I were crazy. Third, the book is available for Kindle users a few weeks before the paperback version ships, which (as a die-hard Kindler) I appreciate.

Verdict: very highly recommended, but you should probably read his other books first for context. (Secondary verdict: Alex Berenson, please call Eisler and figure out how to self-publish your books from now on too.)

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Henge Dock mini-review

As part of my ongoing downsizing, I sent both my 2008 MacBook Pro and my 2006 Mac Pro to the great used computer yard in the sky and consolidated to a single 2011 MBP. After years of using ThinkPads with docking stations (and being well pleased therewith), I went looking for a Mac equivalent. When I’m home, most of the time I’ll be working at my desk, but when I’m not home the MBP needs to go with me, and I didn’t want to mess with endless plugging and unplugging of cables.

A friend at Microsoft mentioned the Henge line of docks, so I ordered one to try it out. I liked their look, and I liked the fact that there are no mechanical parts (like the old NewerTech claw-style dock I had back in the day.)

When the dock arrived (promptly, I might add), I immediately got to setting it up. Here’s what it looks like with the cables installed:

cables through slots

Each cable is installed in a slot cut into the dock. You fasten the cable connector into the slot with a setscrew. Henge includes extension cables that fit into the slots; the idea is that you put in the extension cables you want connected, fasten their setscrews, and dock your laptop. I quickly assembled everything and docked my laptop. Although it fit, it wouldn’t wake up from sleep. The MacBook Pro requires 3 things to wake with the lid closed: the power adapter, a keyboard or mouse, and a video display must all be connected. I quickly determined that this wasn’t happening, but I couldn’t tell which because the shape of the dock prevents you from seeing the plugs. I put it aside for another day, then last night, I decided to experiment some more to try to get the dock working.

I pulled the cables through the dock openings so there was enough slack to plug everything in without fully docking the laptop. This let me verify that everything was plugged in. I have the MagSafe, 2 USB, DisplayPort, and audio out cables in place. This took me a while because I accidentally pushed the head of the video cable all the way through the dock opening and then couldn’t get it back through! After a bunch of fiddling, I finally got the connector back where it belonged.

Flushed with success, once that was done, I was able to ease the plugs back into the dock openings and screw them into place. I docked the laptop, woke it up, and enjoyed working with it for a couple of hours.

Unfortunately, the video adapter (I’m using Apple’s DisplayPort-to-VGA) wouldn’t seat until I manually jiggled it. The plug fits in the opening in the dock, but in its default position it’s ever-so-slightly misaligned with the opening in the MBP case, so it won’t seat unless I rock the MBP back and forth.

After some jiggling and rocking (boy, that sounds wrong), I got it to seat and worked with my machine docked all last night. This morning, I undocked it and tried to redock it, and the same problem– the USB plugs engaged (so the external keyboard was active) but the video plug didn’t seat properly.

When I e-mailed them, Henge told me that some Apple VGA adapters are sized funny and that I could either try another adapter or trim the one I had to remove some of the excess plastic. They kindly offered me a discount coupon for their brand of adapter, which is basically an extension cable that simplifies the routing quite a bit. I have a Monoprice DVI adapter that I’m going to test tonight. I like the industrial design of the dock, but if I can’t make it work reliably, back it goes.

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Monterey Bay Aquarium Underwater Explorers

Matt wants to be a marine biologist, so for Christmas we gave him a trip to dive the Great Tide Pool at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Today was the big day. We headed south about 0800 for a 1000 program and made it there with no problem; it was chilly and a bit foggy, as forecast. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an inhaler for him but had (stupidly) written down on the medical form that he required one. Arlene went to our local CVS and got them to fax a prescription down to the CVS right near the aquarium. Inhaler in hand, we got into the 1130 program without incident.

After a short safety briefing, the guides (one for every 3 kids) helped Matt and his teammate suit up. First came a layer of fleece, followed by a dry suit and booties, then a balaclava, then a mask, tank, BC, and regulator. Once the kids were all fully suited, they got into the tide pool for a good 40 minutes of swimming around and observing. He had a blast (as these pictures clearly show), and he pretty much hasn’t stopped talking about it since. Well worth the $59.

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Steal Across the Sky (Kress)

“Steal Across the Sky” (Nancy Kress)

I tend to think of Kress’ books as character novels. The plot is secondary; it’s there as a device to help us understand the characters, their motivations, and their inner lives. From that point of view, this is quite a successful book. It focuses on a small group of people who are chosen to be “witnesses” after an alien race (calling themselves “the Atoners”) recruits humans to go to other planets and, well, witness what they see.

The “other planets” turn out to be populated by humans, although there are some key differences between Earthlings and these other humans. The others, you see, can communicate with the dead– the Atoners are atoning for having genetically modified Earthlings to remove that ability.

This sets the stage for a complex set of interactions between several of the witnesses. The richness of these interactions, and the characters, is what made this book a success for me. I don’t want to spoil it by telling you too much about them; it would cheat you out of discovering the characters if I explained them in too much detail.

Recommended, provided you’re not looking for a hard SF space opera or a plot-driven joyride. This book is neither but it rewards the thoughtful reader.

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The Trade of Queens (Stross)

The Trade of Queens: Book Six of the Merchant Princes

So here’s the thing. If you liked the earlier books in this series, you will find this, the last installment, to be simultaneously enjoyable and frustrating. Enjoyable, because it closes the story arc in a convincing way, one that leaves open the possibility of future books in the same universe. Frustrating, because it very much seems to be a short appendix to the previous book, plumped into book length by unnecessary repetition.

There’s also the political angle: Dick Cheney (never named, merely code-named WARBUCKS) was helping the Gruinmarkt Clan smuggle drugs into the US; he becomes President after he manipulates the Clan into attacking the US with nukes, after which he conveniently has a heart attack so that Don Rumsfeld can become President. I mean, come on. This probably pleases a certain segment of the population, but it didn’t do much for me.

Not a bad read, though it was helped for me a bit because I’d read this exegesis by the author before I actually read the book. Recommended if you’ve already finished the preceding books in the series; eminently skippable otherwise.

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A review of our cruise on the Disney Wonder

One of the unusual things about California that we’ve had to adapt to is the presence of two school vacation breaks: one in the usual April timeframe and one in mid-February. The kids call it “ski week” because lots of folks use it to go to Yosemite, Tahoe, or other places. For instance, our Scout troop traditionally goes snow camping at Yosemite during this time.

This year, we took advantage of the off week to give my mom a Christmas present: we took her on a four-day Disney cruise, followed by three days at Walt Disney World, with four of her five grandsons. (The fifth is only 17 months old, so he wasn’t really invited.) Ski week was the perfect time for us to combine the two, so we started making plans just after Thanksgiving and had everything squared away by early January. This was no small feat, given that we had to coordinate travel and activities for people from California, Vermont, and Louisiana.

Logistics I started by contacting Vacations to Go, the cruise agency we used for our previous Princess cruise. They do an excellent job of handholding, which in this case was warranted by the complexity of our plan. Their agents are all home-based, and the one we drew (Judy Hastings) did a terrific job. They’re like Amazon in that you get mostly-automated communications from them at major milestones, telling you what to do (or what’s ben done.) We reserved category 12 staterooms, the least expensive (and least fancy) kind– but more on that in a minute.

Disney offers web-based booking for all the shore activities. We used their booking system for a couple of activities and found others by using the web. Our particular cruise stopped for a day in Nassau, a day at Disney’s Castaway Cay, and spent the final day at sea.

For air travel, we were pretty much stuck. We wanted to leave the 13th, so we’d have a day of buffer in case of travel delays. Julie and Mom both had much shorter travel legs than we did, so to maximize our time with them we wanted early flights. That left us stuck with US Airways, which I hadn’t flown in at least 12 years. Service was perfunctory; everything except soda costs extra (want a blanket? that’ll be $7), and we spent an extra hour in Phoenix because one of our FMS computers needed replacement. The fare was outrageous, but at least we got the times and dates we wanted. Enough said about that.

When we arrived, we took the shuttle to the Embassy Suites near MCO. This enabled us to gather and have a little together time before heading to the ship the next morning. We had considered staying at the Hyatt at MCO itself, which would have made the process of getting to the ship a little simpler. However, they were full. Oops. The Embassy Suites was plenty nice for a one-night stay, and we all love their breakfasts.

The next morning, Tiffany Town Cars picked us up exactly on schedule and drove us from Orlando to Port Canaveral. They came recommended on one of the Disney-themed forums I’d been haunting. For $125 for a party of 8, it was a pretty good deal. Disney offers transport too ($35/person each way), but only from MCO to the port.

When we arrived at the port, things were in a bit of a rumpus. The Disney Magic was late in arriving due to high seas during its prior-day stop at Castaway Cay. Our area was filled with frazzled people who had just gotten off the Magic, plus frazzled people who wanted to get on it but didn’t realize they were in the wrong place. We arrived at about 9:30 am. Disney usually opens the terminal for arrivals at about 10am, so we didn’t have too long to wait– it just seemed like a long time because of the unseasonably cold weather.

The check-in process was smooth, as you’d expect. We showed our passports to the nice trainee behind the counter, turned in our cruise contracts, got our pictures taken for our “Key to the World” cards, and settled down to wait for boarding to begin. Arlene spent nearly 90 minutes in line to register Matt and Charlie for the kids’ activities aboard, but some kind of computer problem kept registration from working until later when we were aboard.

All aboard! Protip: get on the ship as early as possible on your departure day. You can swim, play on the sports courts, eat, and explore (all of which we did… well, except for the swimming; it was about 50* and windy.) We boarded as soon as they’d let us and went to Parrot Cay, one of the four onboard restaurants, for lunch. (There are also several places to get fast food, but I don’t count those as restaurants.)

The lunch buffet was a solid “OK”– I thought the quality and range of choices were better on Princess, but this was by no means bad stuff. Arlene got a piece of truly vile gluten-free cheesecake– we’re not sure, but we think it might have been made lactose-, sugar-, and gluten-free, meaning it was probably made with goat’s milk and Windex.

We spent time ranging around the ship and discovered our staterooms a little after 1:30p, the time when Disney releases them from housekeeping. Despite their small size, the rooms we had were nicely appointed with a queen bed, a fold-out futon-style sofa, a (very) small desk, and a 27″ flatscreen TV showing unlimited Disney programming. (Boo hiss: no Olympics, as they’re carried this year on rival network NBC.) Our bags arrived later, as did some terrific cruise gift baskets that Julie had ordered for us.

Our first night’s dinner was at Animator’s Palette. You can probably guess the décor theme; if not, this might help. Our dinner was superb, and our table staff (Faisal and Kevin) did a great job of taking care of us. On Disney, you dine in a different restaurant each night, but you keep the same table staff. We filled a table for eight all by ourselves. The ship had several kinds of gluten-free bread for Arlene (though they would always bring her at least three pieces of it at each meal, more than she could eat), and they were always able to adapt entrées for her without any difficulty.

There are lots of odd angles in this particular restaurant, which I think contributed to Matt and Tom both complaining of seasickness during dinner. They ended up going to bed semi-early while the rest of us went to see the “Golden Mickeys” musical. As you would expect, this was superbly produced and performed, and those of us who saw it loved it. We put some anti-nausea wristbands on the kids and that (along with a good night’s sleep) helped a lot. The two anti-nausea drugs they sell aboard ship aren’t safe for asthma sufferers, so keep that in mind if you’re going to sea.

Nassau We got into Nassau about 9am and promptly split up: Mom, David, Tom and I hit the port while Julie, Charlie, Matt, and Arlene went on a dolphin visit. I’ll leave it to Arlene to describe that (and show off the tons of pictures she took). As for the port: meh. It was pleasant to walk around in the sun, but other than that it was pretty bland. Mom and Tom went off to their snorkeling outing, so David and I had time for a quick lunch together before our own snorkel trip. Mom and Tom got the better end of the deal; their expedition went to an area with a crashed Cessna, and they baited the water to attract fish instead of selling little baggies of fish food. I took a ton of pictures and video using the underwater camera case that Julie and Paul gave me for Christmas, but the results were a bit disappointing (I’ll upload them once I have more bandwidth than this airport offers); the camera’s autofocus system had a hard time coping with fast-moving fish.

Everyone made it back to the ship with stories to tell, so we had a lively dinner at Parrot Cay. This dinner featured their “island menu”, which was uniformly excellent. Everyone loved everything, which might be a first. Either we were all unusually hungry or the food was unusually good.

Castaway Cay The next morning we arrived early at Castaway Cay. The weather was poor: 25-30 kt winds, rain, and low clouds. Disney cancelled most of the shore-based activities; Julie and I had Jet Ski time booked, and Arlene and Charlie were headed for the glass-bottomed boat tour. Too bad! The weather did eventually improve, and we were able to spend some time on the actual beach in the sun. Stingrays cruise very close in to shore, which was fun for the kids. There’s also a simulated fossil dig located in and around a real whale skeleton; this was very popular with Matt and Charlie. David spent the whole day with a pack of teens in a structured group activity and delighted in being away from his family (OK, maybe not, but he did have lots of fun!)

Lunch was a barbecue buffet that was pretty good. We spent time doing nothing much in particular; although we would have all preferred to be able to enjoy our scheduled activities, having a day off wasn’t so bad either! We sailed early, about 5pm, to get ready for the “Pirates IN the Caribbean” theme of the evening. Mom had laid on pirate clothes for all of us, so I was sporting a do rag, an earring, and an eyepatch when we went to dinner, which was again excellent.

The party itself was clearly oriented at the 5- to 12-year-old set: it was noisy, featuring a non-stop stream of Disney hits [sic]. The redeeming part in my mind was the shipboard fireworks. Disney makes much of the fact that they’re the only cruise line that can launch fireworks at sea, and these were beautiful (although nothing compared to the displays at WDW.)

A day at sea The weather was nicer on our last day than it had been on the preceding days, so we all got some sun, and the kids got to swim. Apart from that, it was a low-stress day, capped off by a French dinner at Triton’s, the poshest of the onboard restaurants. Arlene had duck; several of us had an excellent duck confit appetizer, and David and Tom both had (and loved!) escargot. I was really pleased by how well we all did at trying new foods, something that’s easy when you know the wait staff will just bring you something else if you dislike whatever you ordered. (Kids: don’t try that it home. It won’t work.)

A side note on kids’ programs Our day at sea good segue for me to talk about the onboard programs. We had kids aged 5, 8, 11, and 15, so we covered all the bases except the nursery. The 5- and 8-year-olds spent time in the Oceaneer Lab and Oceaneer Club, a big open space located on deck 5. Each kid gets a wristband with a small RFID tag, and each parent gets a pager. That way it’s easy for each party to keep track of, or contact, the other. The Oceaneer activities tended to be science-themed. Matt made Flubber, researched sharks, and so on. Charlie’s program was more activity-themed, and Tom’s (aptly named the “Out and About” club) was a nice mix. For example, one day they played dodgeball, then had a big trivia contest, then made their own pizzas for lunch.

David spent as much time as we’d let him in “Aloft”, the teen club on deck 11. Here the main attraction was the presence of other teens, plus lots and lots of food and games.

There was enough adult supervision for all of the programs that we felt comfortable letting the kids spend time there, and they enjoyed it immensely. This made it possible for us to have quiet adult time when we needed it. This is one of the major distinctions that Disney offers, and they deliver exactly what they promised. The kids clamored for more time in the programs, and we were happy to be able to mix that in with our other family activities.

Debarkation Disney wants the ship unloaded as fast as possible, so you pack your luggage and put it out in the hall the night before you arrive and they put it ashore for you. This worked quite well for us because we’d done it before, but in the morning I heard other families complaining about things they’d forgotten or mispacked. We had a sit-down breakfast at Triton’s, then a few minutes later we were off the ship, through customs, and ready to take the bus to Walt Disney World… but more on that another time.

Table scraps A few miscellaneous notes and observations:

  • There’s cell phone connectivity aboard, but it’s crazy expensive. Don’t plan on roaming in the Bahamas, either: $2.99/minute for voice and an extortionate $19.99/Mb for data. (The shipboard rates are lower but I was too afraid to turn on my phone to find out what they were.)
  • Shipboard Internet service is slow and high-latency. Disney blocks outbound VPN connections, too. At least it’s expensive! I bought a 100-minute block for $40 and used about 75% of it checking mail and dispatching work on Wednesday, so that means I went two whole days without e-mail. Sigh.
  • Attention Anita: unlike Princess, Disney ships have ice cream from 0800-2300.
  • Julie recommended packing a power strip of some kind because each stateroom has only two outlets. I grabbed two of these and they were splendid– just what we needed.
  • Don’t bother taking your own snacks aboard. You’ll have plenty to eat.
  • I think the four adults, combined, read maybe 50 pages during the entire voyage. There were just too many other things to do to spend time reading.
  • Our stateroom was on deck 2, just below the dance club. We never heard a thing; the interior soundproofing is excellent, although you can hear hallway noise. We could also hear the ship’s thrusters loud and clear because we were so far forward. However, Disney doesn’t schedule port arrivals at 0700 like Princess does, so no one’s sleep was disturbed.
  • Don’t let the small square footage of the cheapest staterooms fool you– it was fine for three people.
  • The Disney cruise message boards talk about upgrades a lot. In theory, you can buy them before you board; you can ask for them at check-in, or you can attempt to buy one after setting sail. In reality, at most time periods Disney sells out. The purser told us that the only time they’ve recently had cabins available for upgrades was during the recent East Coast snowstorms.

Bottom line: a great trip, one we would definitely consider doing again.

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Walking Dead (Rucka)

This is Rucka’s latest book in the Atticus Kodiak story arc that started with Finder, and in my opinion it’s the best of the series so far.

The book opens with Kodiak and Alena Ciskova, the assassin from Critical Space, living in hiding in Kobuleti, a small town on the Black Sea. When their neighbor’s family is killed, and the neighbor’s 14-year-old daughter abducted, Kodiak begins to try to figure out what happened to her.

Mayhem ensues, along with visits to Amsterdam, Turkey, and Las Vegas (among others).

Rucka isn’t subtle. The theme of this book—the trafficking and sexual exploitation of young girls – makes for supremely unpleasant reading. Kodiak is forced to confront some despicable people, and this gives Rucka the opportunity to delve into some ends-justify-the-means internal dialogue that helped flesh out Kodiak’s character beyond that of a bodyguard-turned-reluctant-assassin.

Highly recommended.

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First look: Snow Leopard and Exchange

Given that I’m in Palo Alto, and that probably half of my coworkers use Macs, it’s no surprise that I installed Snow Leopard today. I’m not going to review the OS, or even the Exchange capability, but here are a few notes based on my long-time Entourage use (and not a little time spent with Outlook 2010 over the past few months). Herewith my thoughts:

  • The first thing I noticed: is smokin’ fast compared to Entourage EWS. I mean, we’re talking lightning. EWS has much improved sync performance compared to DAV sync, but leaves it in the dust when it comes to scrolling, searching, and message rendering. I haven’t tried to compare the two programs’ sync speed (and probably won’t, since it’s mostly relevant when you set up a new account).
  • Speaking of setup: I was able to set up 4 Exchange accounts in about 10 seconds each: enter e-mail address and password, then let Autodiscover do the rest. EWS Autodiscover works well most of the time, but occasionally it will fail to detect an account.
  • By default, Mail creates a single unified Inbox view– exactly what I use in Entourage (and what I wish for in Outlook 2010). However, nowhere can I find where Mail tells me how many messages are in a folder, something I like to keep track of.
  • I like it that uses the same sounds for sent and received mail that the iPhone does. On the other hand, I dislike the fact that you can’t change these sounds (on either platform). C’mon, Apple.
  • Ironically, older versions of Mail would hide some Exchange folders when you connected because Mail couldn’t handle them. Guess what? This version fails to hide some folders, such as “Conversation Action Settings” and “Quick Step Settings”, that Outlook 2010 creates as ostensibly hidden folders in your mailbox root. Oops.
  • Entourage seems to do a better job of masking temporary connectivity problems. When decides that one of my servers is unreachable, it grays out that server’s entire folder tree and puts the little tilde-looking icon next to the account name. By contrast, Entourage will discreetly add “(Not Connected)” to the account name and leave it at that.
  • iCal… well, what can I say? I still don’t like it after all these years. Yes, it syncs with my Exchange calendars now, but its visual display is ugly compared to Entourage (especially for overlapping events), it’s lacking in features, and the task support appears to have been hastily bolted on.
  • I’ve never been a user of the Address Book app. Given the way this version works, I’m not about to start. Too much wasted white space and too many missing features. For example, want to see someone’s management chain? Too bad, Address Book doesn’t show that. Feel like searching the GAL? Sorry, no can do (at least not that I can find.)

There are other problems, too– no support for setting your out-of-office status, for example. In terms of fit and finish, there are lots of little grace notes that Entourage gets right but that Apple stumbled with. To show just one example, take a look at these two screen shots, one for each program.

Microsoft EntourageScreenSnapz001.png   iCalScreenSnapz001.png

IMHO, Entourage does a better job all around. It tells me that my machine and my appointment are in different time zones. It clearly shows the important data about when my test meeting’s invitees are available. Once you type in an invitee’s name, there’s no way to delete the event in iCal unless you remove all invitees first. Attempting to close the window gives you a chance to edit or send the invite, but not get rid of it altogether. (Bonus: thought it was interesting that Entourage could get and display Atalla’s status (OOF, in this case) but that iCal couldn’t, even though I took the screen shots on the same machine and more or less at the same time.)

More broadly I don’t like going back to the world of having three separate apps for PIM functions. It reminds me of Sidekick for DOS. I much prefer the Outlook/Entourage model of having several different (but related) data types in one place. What makes this worse is that there’s relatively little integration among the Snow Leopard apps. For example, if you’re looking at a contact in Address Book and want to send that person a mail message– too bad. There’s no way to do so. You can, however, right-click an e-mail address in Mail to open that address’ contact card.

Still more broadly, these applications are not very flexible or customizable compared to Entourage. For example, let’s say you want your message reading pane on the right. Too bad! There’s no way in to customize it; you need WideMail or something like it, of which there is no Snow Leopard version (yet).

So, Snow Leopard delivers what Apple promised: basic Exchange integration. There are so many things that they’ve left out, though, that I remain disappointed, and I’m thinking that the Microsoft Mac Business Unit has a huge lead already as they move into full-scale development of Outlook for Mac


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