Podcast Update for June

Here’s your podcast update for June!  There’s actually a lot going on for what is usually considered an “off-season” for entertainment.  If you want, you can download my subscription list at http://www.noformatblog.ca/podcasts_opml.xml

Dropped Podcasts

I don’t recall dropping any subscriptions.  Good news!

Returning Shows

This list is somewhat long!  That’s really cool.

  • The Pitch is back!  Three new episodes came out, and while I was disappointed with the unannounced break I’m pretty happy there are new shows to evaluate.  Season 3 started June 14th and is now part of Gimlet.
  • Grant Lawrence is back on CBC Radio 3!  Which is now “Canada Sounds”, which I need to listen more for a proper evaluation.  I guess they got tired of doing the usual show of just playing cool music with the occasional feature.  Now it sounds like something tied even more strongly into Canada.  Episodes are short, it seems!
  • Radio Free Burrito – Wil Wheaton is trying to keep to a weekly schedule.  So far so good.  I’ve always liked this show, and it’s pretty much an audio version of his blog.  A show I usually listen to first as soon as it comes out.
  • Untold: The Daniel Morgan Murder – season 2 seems to be looking at the Daniel Morgan murder from a slightly different perspective, assuming that the listener is familiar with the story.  Leans heavily on the host’s new book.

Recommended Listening

  • Overthinking It Podcast episode 464: E.T.: I Learned it from You, Alien Dad! 
    • Why this episode?  Because for a long time I’ve been meaning to re-watch E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.  I keep seeing it on Netflix and I don’t think I’ve watched it in 20+ years.  This episode is a deep dive on what’s going on with the movie E.T. (as opposed to covering the apparently terrible Alien Covenant), and was really fun to listen to.  They touched on so many aspects that I’d never noticed before so I had to watch it.
    • Pair this listening with a viewing of E.T.  You won’t regret it!

New Subscriptions

Just one – Back to the Futurama.  For the longest time, Futurama Pedia was the only Futurama podcast around but that’s changed!  Back to the Futurama is going through all of the Futurama episodes in order, from what I can tell.  I haven’t listened through everything, and still need to finish listening to their Space Pilot 3000 episode.  But it’s pretty good!

Got any podcasts you’d like to recommend?

Sony Xperia M4 Aqua Review

I recently had to send my regular phone in for repair (I got it back today!  Quick service, Rogers!), and received a Sony Xperia M4 Aqua as a loaner unit so I could still function in the real world.  Here’s a review of the device and my short time with it.

The Screen

My “daily driver”, as the tech junkie parlance goes, is a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, which sports a 5.5″ screen.  It’s capable of displaying what Samsung calls WQHD or something.  Either way, it’s a really good screen, so this is the first thing I noticed on the Sony Xperia M4 Aqua.

The Xperia’s screen is 5.0″, so not significantly smaller than what I’m used to.  The resolution is only 720×1280, a rather large dropdown from Samsung.  But everything on the Xperia is bright and generally looks good.  This probably sounds strange, but everything looks “flat” but that works for the device build (which I’ll get to).

The adaptive brightness seems to work really well, and really quickly.  I was outside BBQing Monday night, in bright sunlight; at first it was hard to read the screen but within seconds the brightness dialed up and I was able to read it no problem.  Admittedly it’s probably a tad slower than most high-end devices but it’s good enough for me.

Software

I was happily surprised to see that the device launched with Android 6.0.1.  I was expecting to see Android L, as I knew pretty much nothing about the Xperia line.  For a 2 year old device, that kind of OS software support is pretty good.

It looks like Sony has kept a mostly stock Android feel to the device, unlike Samsung which layers on its TouchWiz experience that makes their version of Android look very different from stock.  The only reason I recognize the stock look of 6.0.1 is because I briefly used Cyanogen on my old Galaxy SIII a couple of years ago, and it looks pretty much like what I see on the Xperia M4 Aqua.

I quickly installed Nova Launcher on top of it though, so my user experience was almost identical to what I’m used to on my S7.  I wasn’t really a fan of Sony’s default interface, and they install a lot of bloatware.  Luckily I was able to ignore or disable most of it to be able to dive into actually using my device.

Performance

I noticed some sluggishness with the phone – but that’s going to happen when the chipset used is significantly inferior to what I’m used to.  I don’t understand the full differences but suffice it to say, it is noticeable.  However, there were only a handful of times when I felt annoyed by the lag on the device, so overall I’d say it’s acceptable.

Plus, I turned on Developer Options and turned off all of the animations – and that made a huge difference.  Cosmetic perhaps, but it worked for me.

It was a bit slow to open the camera on demand, so quick pics are probably not going to happen easily.  But I didn’t get many photo ops while testing the device, so a very minor knock against the unit.

Speaking of which…

Camera

I own a Sony DSC-H300, so I was looking forward to some “camera synergy” with the Xperia M4 Aqua.  I wasn’t able to dig too deep with the settings but most of the familiar camera modes were there, including a pretty robust “Pro” mode, which I was happy was there.  I took a few shots – I think the quality is good, but not great.  Much better than the other reviews I read of the phone.

They definitely look better on a proper display than how they showed at the time on the device.

View post on imgur.com

View post on imgur.com

View post on imgur.com

Phone Build

Here’s where I felt the phone suffered.  It felt very cheap, like it was just a piece of plastic and not a phone.  It’s very light.  On the other hand, the device is apparently fully waterproof and features a dedicated camera button so you could take pictures under water if you wanted to!  That’s pretty neat.

I count this next app as a hardware “tick” because it requires physical components to work.  The Xperia has a built-in FM radio!  Yeah, not a big deal when you can stream things all the time…but sometimes I just want good old FM radio.  I used to have a Nokia phone that had a built-in FM tuner, and it was great.

Overall Impressions

You can probably tell from the body of the review that I enjoyed using this phone.  I was expecting something lacklustre, but was (marginally) blown away by the quality under the hood, even though it looks and feels like a cheap phone.

I would most definitely recommend this phone for someone who needed a cheap replacement, but it’s definitely not going to compare to a flagship device.  I might also consider finding a cheap unlocked version of my own to use as a backup / media device.  I was that impressed with it.

Back to Meal Tracking Apps

A couple of weeks ago, I did a comparison of MyFitnessPal and LoseIt!.  I was on the fence on which meal tracking app was best for me – I liked some of the features of LoseIt!, but I liked others of MFP.

I will be honest – I had to give up on LoseIt.  There were just a few little issues that led me to continue using MyFitnessPal.  The “biggest” of these little issues is that I have so much history built up in MFP.

History

Weight numbers, meals, recipes – there are just so many entries here that the app / website just means that my overall experience is tailored to my personal preferences and tastes just right.  You could argue that you can build that same history eventually with another app, but it’s one of those intangibles that is a barrier to entry for some other apps.

It’s the same reason a lot of other people I talked to on Reddit don’t switch to MFP – they’ve built up their own personal history with apps like LoseIt! and FatSecret.

App Connectivity 

This was another little factor.  While LoseIt! synced with my FitBit, MFP offers so many more connectivity options.  For a brief period I was without a FitBit, so I was able to sync with Samsung Health (which in itself is a great app).  I think MyFitnessPal is always going to win out over the other apps for connectivity, because it’s a much bigger app than the others and more services work with it.

User Interface

It’s funny – some people consider MFP to be ugly.  I think just the opposite – it’s sleek and well-rendered.  LoseIt! just doesn’t have the same kind of polish to it.  This is definitely the smallest of the little differences, because otherwise the apps function almost identically.

Recommendation

Like I said – my personal choice is MyFitnessPal.  If you need to decide which app you want to use – just choose one and go with it.  Don’t do what I did and use two apps side-by-side…it gets tedious, and that reduces the likelihood you’ll keep using the app of choice.

If you find that your app of choice isn’t working for you, switch.  If it’s working for you, don’t get tempted to choose another one just because someone else likes it better 🙂

May Podcast Update

Another month, another update!  As always, you can download my list of subscriptions by clicking on http://www.noformatblog.ca/podcasts_opml.xml.

Dropped Podcasts

Just one show, and I hate to do it this time because it’s not because of quality.  It’s quite simply because of quantity.  I had to drop Steele Wars because there were just too many episodes over an hour in length, all at 1+ hours (I think the most recent one was 118 minutes).  It’s too much podcast for me; but if you like Australian comedians and Star Wars, you should stick with it.

Podcast Suggestions

These aren’t new subscriptions for me, but rather some specific highlights of my listening in the last month.

S Town Companion – Alec Baldwin’s fantastic interview podcast, Here’s The Thing, recently had Brian Reed (writer of S Town) on the show to talk about his experience putting the story together.  Worth a listen if you enjoyed S Town.  Spoiler alert – do NOT listen to this until you’ve had a chance to listen to S Town.  The first part of the podcast is OK to listen to, but there’s a brief pause to let you catch up before they talk freely about it.

Anthology – Host Matt Hurt is back covering season 2 of The Twilight Zone.  Every other episode is a bonus episode where he reviews Dimension 404 – a show I’m interested in hearing about but probably won’t watch (too much TV available!).  One episode I enjoyed in particular was his panel about hosting a solo podcast; not directly related to his source material, but was interesting to hear his perspective on podcasting.  You can find that episode here: https://anthologypod.com/2017/04/20/specialep1/

Unplayed Suggestions

This is a weird category, but this is my so-called “to do” list for podcast listening.  I listen to a lot of podcasts so I just haven’t gotten around to it, but this suggestion came from my brother on Twitter.

WTF with Marc Maron Episode 768 – Billy West I’m a big Futurama fan, and Billy West is a huge part of that show.  He also has his hand in almost every possible voice over venture in existence.  I will get to it eventually!

Got any suggestions of your own?  Let me know!

 

Meal Tracking App Showdown: MyFitnessPal vs Lose It!

Meal Tracking App Showdown: MyFitness Pal vs Lose It!

I’m almost certain I’ve written about these two apps before, but almost doesn’t equal 100%.  Plus, I’ve only just recently started comparing the two apps again, based on a post on /r/loseit over on Reddit.  I’m pretty sure that the app and the subreddit are entirely unrelated.  I’m going to try to keep this somewhat brief, and do a back-and-forth comparison of what each app offers.

Note that I’m focusing on the apps – and not the website versions.

The Home Screen

LoseIt!: As soon as you launch the app, you’re taken directly to your food diary page.  All of the meals are visible, and when you start a new day you can see a breakdown of how many calories the app suggests you eat per meal.

At the bottom there are tabs pointing to “My Day”, “Log” (the selected tab), “Social”, “Goals”, and “Me”.  There are options at the top to “Go Premium” and a breakdown of your calorie budget, calories consumed so far (“Food”), exercise calories, net calories, and how much you’re over/under.

There’s also a blue “+” button that lets you add food, exercise, or a weight update.

MyFitnessPal: The MFP app launches to your “Feed”, which starts with a summary of your calories remaining – Your goal – food +/- exercise = remaining calories.  This is followed immediately by an option to add a status update, and then either an ad or an MFP article.  On my feed today, I had an article, an ad, and another article before one of my status updates from yesterday.

There are no tabs immediately visible, but there’s a standard Android “Hamburger menu” with options to all of the app sections, and a similar “+” button to add a status, water, food, exercise, or weight update.

Winner: LoseIt! has a much better interface on startup.  It takes me directly to the information I want – the food diary – and gives easily visible options for navigating the app.  However that isn’t to say that MFP is ugly or unusable.  The difference between the two is basically a 4/5 for LoseIt and a 3.5/5 for MFP.

Food Diary

LoseIt!: The main focus of the app, the Food Diary as mentioned gives you a breakdown of your daily goal and how many calories you have left at the top.  Further down, each meal is broken down to Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Snacks, and exercise.

There’s a calorie budget for each meal – for example, I have 649 calories available for lunch, 973 for dinner, etc.  I believe that the app has a formula to give different a percentage of your daily goal to each meal, giving more weight to larger meals such as lunch and dinner.  I’m not 100% sure how it works but it adjusts your meal budgets as you enter foods in other categories.

There are “+” buttons beside each meal to allow you to quickly add a food to the desired category.

MyFitnessPal: The layout for MFP is very similar to LoseIt!.  MFP does not show a calorie budget per meal, but has quick options to add food next to each category.  There’s a “three dot” menu that lets you “Quick Add”, letting you add an entry strictly for calories (and more, if you subscribe to premium MFP).  There are buttons at the bottom to add notes, and also to a Nutrition pie chart which shows you how your calories are divided between meals.

Winner: It’s a tie.  The difference between the two apps is negligible and pretty much comes down to aesthetics.  MFP might barely get the edge because you can customize your meals in the diary settings (I have a “Drinks” category in addition to the usual categories), but LoseIt! gains an edge for the suggested calories per meal being visible.

Food Database

Spoiler: it’s a tie!  Let me explain.

Both apps seem to have comparable databases – so far, I haven’t come across a food item that’s been in one database and not the other.  This was my previous knock against LoseIt! – it didn’t have the same database as MFP.  This doesn’t seem to be the case here.  There have been a few occasions where I couldn’t find a specific food item, but it’s been missing in both databases.

MFP gets the edge for customization.  I’ve noticed that it’s a lot easier to add food by specific weight (I use a food scale, so this is important).  Most entries for MFP have an entry for “1 gram” or “1 mL” or something similar where I can enter 125 or something when I eat less (or more) than the suggested serving size.

On the other hand, LoseIt! has these options for some entries but not all.  Most of the time your best bet is to play around with the measurements to get as close as you can.  However, LoseIt! seems to have a better database for generic food items.  Sometimes you don’t have a barcode to scan – it’s helpful to have a generic item to get a rough estimate.

At the end of the day, the true test is whether or not I’m tracking accurately.  Here’s a breakdown of my entries from Monday through Wednesday.

 

Day MFP Calories LoseIt! Calories Difference
Monday 2174 2276 102
Tuesday 1263 1916 653
Wednesday 2968 2633 335

You can see that LoseIt! tends to be higher (in Tuesday’s case, a LOT), but from what I’ve noticed, the difference between each individual entry is not significant.  If I were forced to pick between the two databases, I’d probably go with LoseIt! – simply because it’s better to overestimate calories than to underestimate.

Connected Apps

Another tie.  Both apps have a pretty good array of apps that can connect and interact with each service.  Most importantly, both apps support FitBit.  The only difference is that MFP can write data to FitBit, but LoseIt! cannot.  This is not a big deal.

Both apps treat the FitBit data a bit differently.  By default, LoseIt! will not add calories burned by FitBit until you get to a certain threshold.  It figures out how many calories you should be burning to exist, and then only starts adding exercise calories once you’re burning more than its formula determines.

MyFitnessPal does the same thing, but a bit differently.  First, you need to enable negative calorie adjustments on the website.  Otherwise, it will add ALL calories burned by FitBit, but this is inaccurate since it’s counting calories you burn by existing (BMR).  MFP’s function is basically the same as LoseIt!, but depending on your overall activity, it either adds or subtracts exercise calories from your daily budget.  So if you move less during the day, it will add calories; if you move more, it subtracts.  You want to be on the subtraction side of things.

MFP gets a slight edge for having so many MORE services that connect to it, including Samsung Health.  I don’t think that LoseIt! can connect to this service yet.  But MFP also has a suite of UnderArmour apps because MFP is owned by UnderArmour.  Still, not enough to give it a win.

Overall Winner

I really hate to do this, but I’m going to have to cal a tie.  I’ve only been using both together for 4 days now, and I haven’t been able to choose a clear winner.  If I were told I had to uninstall one app and fire it into the sun, I would probably drop LoseIt!  But that’s because I have a longer history with MFP.

But it’s not that easy either, because LoseIt! has less intrusive ads.  This makes a difference from time to time, because lately MFP has been serving some inappropriate ads (some high-calorie Starbucks drinks appear in some people’s feeds).

If I were to recommend an app for someone just starting out, I think I would have to say LoseIt!  I think that in the long run, the folks at LoseIt! have more vested interest in weight loss and providing useful information without hiding features in a premium version.

In the end, if you were thinking of changing apps – I say go with what works for you.  I’m still giving both apps a good trial period before I finally decide, but I will definitely be thinking about my app showdown today before I do.

Web Comics Recommendations

Note: This is a re-post from my old blog, written back in December 2016.  I’m a bit busy this week but didn’t want to miss my schedule!  Hope you enjoy this post.

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The Strange Tales of Oscar Zahn
The Strange Tales of Oscar Zahn

I am by no means a comic aficionado; I leave that stuff up to people like Patrick & Dad.  However, I do enjoy comics, every now and then.  I’m not sure yet whether I prefer the physical article or reading on a tablet – more and more lately, tablet is becoming much friendlier – but I’ve always liked web comics, for sure.  I’ve gotten out of reading them lately, which is unfortunate.

Anyway, a few months back I asked the aforementioned Patrick for some free comic recommendations and he turned me onto City of Walls, available via LINE Webtoon.  In addition to CoW, I’ve found a few other gems hidden in the app.  I find that the “popular” and “featured” comics on Webtoon generally do not have me in their target audience, so I’ve had to do some digging.

Here are my recommendations from LINE Webtoon, in no particular order:

City of Walls – 3.5/5

I struggle with rating this one.  On the one hand, I really appreciate the art and level of detail; on the other, the writing leave me a little wanting.  Sometimes it’s got bad pacing…other times it seems just right.  I like the overall story though.  I don’t want to give away too much about it, so I’ll just say that the protagonists are kids in a fictional Asian city.  The world building is just great as well.

Zen Pencils – 4/5

Zen pencils is illustrated by Gavin Aung Than.  This is a series of stand-alone comics that are based on / inspired by actual quotes from real-life people.  Most of hte quotes seem to be about being creative or being true to yourself.  I do sometimes find it off-putting that lot of the advice about dropping everything and doing what you love doesn’t present a realistic sense of balance…


The Strange Tales of Oscar Zahn – 3.5/5

Author/Illustrator: Tri Vuong (works out of the RAID studio in Toronto).  This one has gorgeous artwork.  The story is only okay – I like bits and pieces of it, but I mainly stick with it for the beautiful art.  The current story – “The Last Soldier of Somme” – is set in WWI and seems to be going somewhere, but pacing can make it hard to follow.  Vuong is admittedly new to writing so I’m willing to cut some slack.  Either way – the character design for Oscar Zahn is fantastic.  It looks like Vuong has had this idea floating in his head for a while now.

There are more, but I feel like I need to get caught up with reading some of them before I can properly recommend them.  Until then – enjoy those three!

Gord Downie’s Secret Path

Secret Path Album Cover

Secret Path is an adult alternative album from Gord Downie (lead singer of The Tragically Hip), released in October 2016.  It was released with an accompanying graphic novel, as well as an animated made-for-TV film that aired on CBC in the same month.  You can read more about the production background of the album on Wikipedia.

Secret Path tells the story of an Anishnaabe boy named Chanie Wenjack, from Marten Falls First Nation, who died in 1966 while trying to return home.  He was escaping from an Indian Residential School.  All of the proceeds from this album and book are being donated to the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation project.

* – Note – the above paragraph was paraphrased slightly and partially copied verbatim from the Wikipedia article I linked to.

As a preface to this review, I want to say that I’m not a “strong” music reviewer.  When it comes to music, I don’t dive deep.  I know what sounds I like, and occasionally lyrics stand out to me.  Usually when I listen to an album, I don’t really look into the details about it beforehand.

However going into Secret Path, I was at least peripherally aware of the subject matter.  I knew that it dealt with an aboriginal boy who died in the 1960s, but didn’t really explore it much further than that.  It was always one of those “Oh I’d like to listen / read that, but maybe later” kind of things.

That really influenced my listening to this album.  I tried to focus on the lyrics when I listened to the album, but personally I have a hard time doing that.  For me, music is more about the overall sound and like I said, I don’t normally pinpoint on what’s being said (with a few exceptions here and there).

Knowing the subject matter, the album gave me a distinct atmospheric feeling.  Overall, the album gave me a feeling of being alone.  The first couple of tracks start out on a bit of a positive note – Chanie sets out to escape the residential school, and looking forward to going home.  But the rest of the album gradually descends into a gloomy tone, as Chanie faces increasing hardships.

Most of the instruments on the album are guitar and piano.  I think what really helps create this mental image is Downie’s voice, which is best described on this album as strained at times and haunting.  Everything fits together so well to tell this story.

In a way though, I think I should have listened to this album while reading the accompanying graphic novel.  I definitely will still pick it up and read it, but I think it would have helped me even more in understanding what was going on in the music.

Still, the album is technically very well done.  And I think that it does exactly what it sets out to do: tell the story of Chanie Wenjack and his ill-fated journey home.  You’re not going to hear these songs on the radio, and that’s OK.  That’s not what this is meant to be.  In one sense, it’s a bit of a disappointment that it might not get widespread mainstream attention (though I contend that since its release, it’s received a LOT of mainstream reviews, so it has received attention); but on the other hand, I appreciate that this project wasn’t undertaken with commercial success as the first thought.

I read a Pitchfork review of the album that Downie was approached by Broken Social Scene member Kevin Drew to record an album, and that Downie didn’t have any material – but he was writing about Chanie.  I don’t know why, but I get the idea of this tragedy nagging away at Gord Downie until he could get it out to the world.

I definitely recommend listening to the album, and I hope you follow my example by picking up the graphic novel and read that, too.

Other Space – A Review

Other Space is a 2015 sci-fi comedy show produced by Paul Feig, and is available online at http://www.shareotherspace.com.  I first heard about it from Engage, The Official Star Trek Podcast.  It was originally released on Yahoo! Screen, a service I’ve actually never heard of before until today.

Other Space stars Karan Soni, Bess Rous, Eugene Cordero, Milana Vayntrub, Neil Casey, Joel Hodgson, Conor Leslie, and Trace Beaulieu.  The show also features guest appearances from Dave Franco, Sarah Baker, and Bjorn Gustafsson.

Apparently, Other Space was conceived by Paul Feig in the early 2000’s but wasn’t picked up for development until he was working on The Heat.  The show is set in the year 2105, and has been described as “Red Dwarf, USA, take two” by Rob Bricken in an early review.

I watched the first four episodes in preparation for this review – so how does it hold up?

The Setting

The setting is fairly standard for most science fiction properties – a space ship.  In Other Space, the ship is the UMP Cruiser, which is sent on what boils down to a public relations mission to increase support for the UMP organization.  Not even minutes into the mission, the Cruiser is transported into another realm of space, known as “other space”.

Not much is really put into the background – what’s really important is the jokes between the characters and their setting.  I think I agree with Bricken’s “Red Dwarf” comparison, because that show was essentially the same concept.

The set itself looks great – Feig described it as a very low budget show, and you can sort of tell, but they did a good job of making it look good.  The Cruiser looks like a good parody of the rebooted Star Trek Enterprise sets.

The Characters

Karan Soni shines as the captain and is the best character by far.  He’s basically not at all qualified to be the captain of a ship, but he’s promoted because of his charisma (my interpretation).  His sister is made first officer, and is inherently more qualified, but lacks any people-skills of any kind.

The characters all have some sort of back story that gets fleshed out in the first few episodes, which is pretty cool for a 26-minute show.

Joel Hodgson is my next favourite, who portrays a spaced out engineer.  He’s kind of like Tony Shalhoub’s Fred in Galaxy Quest, but a lot more laid back.

The chemistry between the crew is really great, and the casting director did a great job pulling them together.

Bottom Line

I’ve only watched the first four episodes, but I really liked it.  Episode 3 wasn’t as good as the other 3, but was still mostly great.  I’m looking forward to the other 4 episodes (there are only 8 in total).

Other Space gets a 4/5 rating from me.  Check it out at www.shareotherspace.com!

The Mechanical – A Review

I recently (more like finally) finished The Mechanical, an alternate history novel written by Ian Tregillis.

The Mechanical Review
The Mechanical – cover from Goodreads

Setting

The Mechanical is the first of three books in a series known as The Alchemy Wars.  In this novel’s universe, the Dutch are the world’s super-power, having mastered alchemy and keeping order with various models of mechanical men, known as “clakkers”.  France is the only nation to really oppose the Dutch, and do so with chemicals.

Most of the story takes place in New Amsterdam (North America), with smaller parts taking place in Europe.

Characters

We are introduced early on to three characters: Jax, a clakker (mechanical servitor); Berenice, a French spymaster; and Visser, a Catholic priest working for Berenice undercover in Dutch territory.  As the book winds along, it’s clear that the main characters in the story are Berenice and Jax, with Visser serving a secondary yet important purpose.

As characters go, both Berenice and Jax have a well-defined character arc, each of them complete within the novel with a beginning, middle, and end.  Visser’s story doesn’t really reach a conclusion in this novel, which leads me to believe that he’ll have a more significant role in the next novel in the series (The Rising, also published in 2015).

I found that I didn’t really like Visser, though.  He was somewhat cowardly and really thought highly of himself and his role.  I imagine I felt about him the way I was supposed to – he was definitely very self-aggrandizing, to the point where he wasn’t very good at his job as a spy.

Beyond those three characters though, there wasn’t a lot of depth.   I give The Mechanical a grade of B- for characters.

Story & Writing

I mentioned at the top that I “finally” finished reading The Mechanical last week…this is because I started reading it over a year ago.  The story builds up very slowly at the beginning.  This is a 400+ page book, but I think it could benefit from some culling.

Part of the problem is that Tregillis has to do a lot of world building to start the novel, because you need to be able to see how everything works AND understand how the Dutch took and remain in power.  But the downside to this is that it progresses very slowly in the first half.

Once we get into the second half, and especially in the last third, the pace really picks up.  I think this part of the book is a better demonstration of Tregillis’ skill as a writer, because his pages aren’t being spent giving us long scenes of exposition.

Overall I like the aesthetics presented in the book.  It’s always neat to get a peak at alternative histories, and this one is very well thought out.  I do appreciate that things weren’t spelled out, but I could still understand the background.  The writing was a bit to “gratuitous” at times but generally, it’s good.  I give The Mechanical a B- for Story and Writing.

Wrap-Up 

While I really enjoyed the last third of the book, the first two thirds really didn’t do it for me.  Normally, a “long” book for me takes a few months to slog through.  This one took a year, and I stopped to read other things in between.  I can’t in good conscience give The Mechanical a strong rating.

On GoodReads, I gave it 3/5 stars.  Keeping with the letter grades I’ve been giving in this blog post, The Mechanical deserves a C+; a good read for parts of it, with strong main characters, but it really drags and feels like a chore to read in many other parts.

Coming up this week on the blog: a look at Paul Feig’s online TV show, Other Space.

Waze – A New Appreciation

For the longest time, I avoided using Waze.  I tried it – a large amount of people online suggest this app for their daily commute.  But I didn’t like the user interface – it seemed childish and unrefined.  I much preferred the look and feel of Google Maps.  After all, Waze gets its map data from Google Maps, so why would I use an inferior product?

I decided I’d give it another chance a few weeks ago, when there was a serious accident on the major highway that I use to get home every night.  I had heard that the biggest plus to Waze was that it was smart about suggesting alternate, faster routes; basically, I needed it to give me a detour.  Unfortunately it wasn’t too helpful in that regard (it wasn’t aware of the accident that closed the highway).  BUT this is not where the story ends.

More User Data Improves the Experience

I opted to try it out a little more when I was working in a different city on business last week.  I could see a world of difference.  Obviously, Waze works much better when there are more users on the road.  It didn’t really give me any crazy alternate routes, but one feature I found neat was that it gave me a pretty good approximation of how long I’d be stuck in a current traffic jam.

You can see more details at this link: “Waze knows how long you’ll be stuck in traffic”, complete with a relevant screenshot.  Basically, it gives you a little bar, reminiscent of a health bar in a video game, that tells you how long you can expect to be stuck in the current traffic jam.  It really helps to put your time spent on the road in perspective.  What maybe feels like forever, because you’re barely moving, might only be two minutes.  Relax.

The ETA Is Very Accurate

What was most helpful for me – because the routes I take are generally straightforward and don’t benefit from alternate routes – was the ETA.  Generally speaking, the ETA that Waze gave me was incredibly accurate.  The accuracy comes from a combination of user data and your GPS positioning.

For example, when you plug in your route it will calculate your estimated time of arrival based on current road conditions and road speed limits.  But it keeps updating this based on your GPS position & speed – giving you a surprisingly accurate ETA.   I assume that it also takes into consideration your previous driving habits, but I’m not too sure about that.

I find the ETA that Waze provides to be a lot more useful than the estimated duration that Google Maps gives you.

Drawbacks

The major issue I have with Waze is that it largely requires user input to report accidents, speed traps, and so forth.  In my home province, it is illegal to interact with devices (other than one or two buttons to answer a call), so being encouraged by the app to use the app while driving doesn’t sit right with me.

And like I said before, the main use of the app comes from having other “Wazers” on the road.  If you’re in an area that doesn’t have a dense population, or doesn’t have a lot of people using Waze, it might not be much more useful than just using Google Maps.

I much prefer the look and “feel” of Google Maps, and it already gives you traffic data.  So living where I do, which falls under the category of “not densely populated without a lot of Wazers”, Waze isn’t going to get a lot of use from me.

Overall – A Good App

I hesitate to call this a great app, but it is definitely a good app and useful.  I can get past the cartoon-y UI (which I feel has actually improved a bit since the last time I used it), accepting the fact that it’s partly because it’s optimized for a driving experience.  If you’re interested in shaving a few minutes off of your drive, or staying updated on what’s going on along your regular route, Waze is definitely going to help you.

Next week on the blog: not so much tech!  Some book and TV reviews next week.