Being a CFO and other topics

Not just finance, hobbies too ….

Category: General (Page 1 of 3)

The Uploaded, by Ferrett Steinmetz – a book review

I know Ferrett (in that we have met a few times and corresponded via the internet for quite a while) and I was very happy when I read his first trilogy. I enjoyed it and my daughter Rachel enjoyed it. Great world building and the main character even was close to my profession as an accountant.

When I started reading The Uploaded I was worried because sometimes a writer gets a world or set of characters just right but when they do something new they just don’t have it.

At least that is not a concern now after I finished The Uploaded. Good world building, good story and writing that moves the plot along on a breakneck pace through the whole book. Some of the plot movement is moved forward via hand-waving (a magic “Icebreaker”) but it is OK. Heroes very often are superhuman and it works in the context of the story.

The two parts of the story that I think just do not work well enough (and why it is a 4 star book for me) was the love stories. Rachel had exactly the same issue here and she is a teenage girl. There is absolutely no connection that I can find in the love story and any character development or plot advancement. I am not a huge fan of love triangles, but the one in this book did not seem to matter at all to Amichai.

The second was the treatment of religion. The two groups of characters in the book seen to be atheists or Neo-Christians. There are no middle ground characters, anyone with faith that still believes that uploading after death is fine. There are lots of random descriptions (like “jewfro”) that just does not make sense considering the context. The family background of Amichai is meaningless and seems tacked on. All of the religious in the book are extremists and they are all Christian. Even in the USA, there are enough other religions that could be characters and I cannot see in the world created why the religious groups in it all have to be extremists living on the fringes of the world.

I can live with the religion, but the romantic triangle was just too much for me. Too stereotypical in one Young Adult way (and it seems that the society is much less prudish than current world, so even a little off) and not satisfying in terms of plot or character development.

I liked the book. Rachel read the whole book in a day, including sneaking a reading under the covers late into the night, It has a really interesting idea behind it and world and characters are fun. So give it a try.

The Uploaded on Amazon.com

My Technology Life – An Update

I recently built myself a new computer after using the last one for almost 5 years.  My old computer was able to run all the programs I had without any real issues, but it was slowly getting more unstable over time, and the update to Windows 10 had been rough.

The Computer

This time I wanted to build a computer that could run the latest virtual reality headsets and I wanted to have something that again would last me quite a while.  I typically buy the second fastest consumer CPU that is available as the fastest is normally at a high premium in cost but with little extra speed, but the Intel 6700K had finally come down to suggested retail price.  I wanted the modern chipset that went with it so something on the Z170 chipset was what I looked for in a motherboard.  My timing was not that great for a video card in that both NVIDIA and AMD were about to release their latest generation, so I actually waited over a month after buying the rest of my components before fully setting the computer up.  The motherboard did have built in graphics and the CPU did as well, so I was able to test everything except for the new card.

I will make two observations.  The first is that I have always felt it important to be agnostic about brands when making choices on most of the components.  Years ago there was a great deal of variety in motherboards and how features were implemented on them.  Today, the two main CPU makers (Intel and AMD) release a new chipset with each new CPU generation and that chipset is very full featured.  I have almost always used Intel CPUs because for many years, they have been the best performing.  AMD often wins on the cost to performance basis, but it has been quite a while since they have had a chip that can compete for pure performance.  I did build an AMD-based computer a few computers ago because that generation they did have the best CPU.

CPUs are fairly quiet, but there often are techie “holy wars’ over video cards.  I admit to have fought a little in them back when 3DFX and their voodoo chips revolutionized 3D, but I got over it.  Now I just buy the card that I think does the best for me.  The two main graphics processor unit (GPU) providers are NVIDIA and AMD (they bought ATI years ago).  My last generation computer has an AMD video card (a 370) and that was based on AMD having better multi-monitor technology at the time as I like running 3 monitors.  There are edge cases where AMD has had better chips, but for the most part, NVIDIA has had the highest performing chips for a while.

Unlike CPUs, the price jump to the most powerful GPU to the second best is still enormous and unless you really are a power gamer or power user, there is little need to get the best GPU.  For the computer I just built, I ended up with an NVIDIA 1070 based video card (the board maker was MSI).  I had considered the AMD RX 480 as it was a lot less expensive, but the demand was so high that cards were hard to find and the custom cards had not come out yet.  So I went with the 1070.

I could write pages and pages on the latest and greatest differences between the board makers and the different CPU and GPU you could choose, but this blog entry will exist for a long time and tech sites are always much more current (I go to anandtech.com but ownership changes have made it less useful in the last year).  So I will give some more general observations.

The premium priced components in the consumer space are all aimed at gamers.  This tends to result in multi-color LED lights and a black (and usually red highlights) color scheme.  There actually is very little value add from what I can tell from my research for the extra price you pay.  There certainly is much less bang for the buck.  The video card I bought is branded as an MSI “gaming” card and it looks nice but does not really offer any performance improvements over non-gaming cards.

Motherboards are similar.  The Z170 chipset has plenty of solid boards that cost around $150 (can be found for less during sales).  You can spend $250 to $300 and just get a few extra bells and whistles that you may never use.

One final comment, if you build the computer yourself, be prepared to troubleshoot yourself and to have to refresh your knowledge.  I had a faulty power supply and it took me quite a while to track the problem down.  Google and technology forums are your friends here.

This is the system I ended up putting together:

Intel Skylake Core i7-6700K
– the fastest CPU currently available. Depending on luck, can be overclocked a fair amount
Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO – CPU Cooler with 120 mm PWM Fan
– One of the bestselling coolers. Quite tall, was interesting to install
ASUS Z710 – AR
– all of the modern features of the chipset and none of the “gamer” bells and whistles that jack up the price. PCI-e sharing (which is common for the chipset) so might be a concern for dual GPU use but I plan on only using one GPU.
GPU – MSI Gamer NVIDIA GTX 1070.  As I mentioned, both the main GPU companies just released new cards and it is hard to find cards priced at regular retail prices.

G.SKILL TridentZ Series 16GB (2 x 8GB) 288-Pin DDR4 SDRAM DDR4 3733 (PC4 29800)
– this is actually somewhat of a waste. Super-fast RAM that I probably would not need and I could of gone down a few notches in speed and double the amount for the same price as I will not heavily overclock
CM Storm Scout 2 Advanced – Gaming Mid Tower Computer Case with Carrying Handle and Windowed Side Panel – Black
– This is an updated version of the case I have been using the past 5 years. Roomy and has a handle on top which comes in handy more often than not. Plenty of room for fans, and a good front panel for USB
Antec 750 Gamer power supply.  I originally had a corsair power supply but it was faulty.
– Should be way more power than I need, especially if I do not have 2 x GPU
SAMSUNG 950 PRO M.2 256GB PCI-Express 3.0 x4 NVMe Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)
– Very fast SSD (motherboard supported) that will be my boot drive and will have some applications on it
Mushkin Enhanced Reactor 2.5″ 256GB SATA III MLC Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)
– Secondary SSD for often accessed files and other applications
Seagate 3TB Desktop HDD SATA 6Gb/s 64MB Cache 3.5-Inch Internal Bare Drive
– Should be plenty of room, especially since I have a 16TB NAS
LG Black 16X BD-R 2X BD-RE 16X DVD+R 5X DVD-RAM 12X BD-ROM 4MB Cache SATA Blu-ray Burner
– I debated if I really needed an optical drive and finally decided to get one as I can see myself watching movies on the computer and I have a lot of Blueray disks (PS4 is my main player)
Razer BlackWidow Ultimate Stealth 2016 – Backlit Quiet Mechanical Gaming Keyboard with 10 Key Rollover
– Decided to try a mechanical keyboard. These have Razer designed mechanisms, not sure if as good as Cherry-MX switches. Quieter version.
Logitech G600MMO Gaming Mouse – Black
– Will move over from my existing computer. I do not use all the buttons and may look at another mouse

VR Headset

The latest technology that is just starting to go mainstream is Virtual Reality.  There are two main contenders for the headset market right now – the Oculus Rift (which is backed by Facebook) and the HTC Vive which has teamed up with Steam (owned by a company called Valve and the main marketplace to buy PC games online).

If I had to sum up the main differences between the two headsets, I would say that the HTC Vive comes with two controllers and can be used standing and moving (called room-scale) and sitting down while the Oculus Rift is mainly meant to be used sitting down and does not as of now come with VR controllers.  The Vive has a lot more content available for it now, but many programs are made for both headsets and there are not many non-game programs available.

I got to try out the Vive at uploadvr.com ‘ s offices in San Francisco when I was there for a meeting with a McGill University representative who wanted me to help in their entrepreneur program.  I had read that the room-scale made a big difference and when I tried it out I agreed.

The experience in both headsets is pretty good and you do really get a sense of immersion far beyond what looking at a screen will give you.  The Oculus Rift is about $600 and the HTC Vive is about $800, but the Vive comes with two controllers and two sensor boxes that enable the room scale VR.

I picked the HTC Vive as it has more software available today and because the built in ability to move around instead of just sitting down sold me on the system.  The actual graphics capability is about the same between the two controllers and both are just emerging, so the “best” choice may change rapidly.

I have only used the headset for a few days., so I will hold off on a detailed review, but I can tell you that the base experience lives up to the hype.

I am waiting to see what non-game uses there are for the headsets.  There is a fair bit of work being done to develop approaches and applications for the virtual world the headsets put you into that make it useful for non-games, but there are not that many real life examples yet.  I will be attending a meeting on that topic in a few weeks and will update and right a new blog after I have more information.

Getting the headset to work was somewhat of a struggle and the programs are all new and very much “early access”, so I hesitate to recommend it for everyone, but it has been quite fun so far.  One of my friends brought his young son over (son is around 10 years old) and the son was fascinated with the headset and wore it for hours.

3D Printing

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, 3D Printers are technology that is still not quite ready for mainstream use.  They still take a lot of fiddling with to get to work well and consistently and you need to be comfortable with at least some light mechanical work.  I recently bought another 3D printer, the Wanhao Duplicator 6.  It is over twice the price of the Wanhao Duplicator i3 I started with (and that is an excellent starter machine), but it is much more capable as well.  I will do an update just on the new printer and what I have learned since I bought my first one.  This update will include using a raspberry pi mini-computer to remotely control and monitor the printer.

The raspberry pi mini-computer part of my coming update will be extensive as well.  Quite remarkable what you get for around $50.

Why Bother?

This is a blog on being a CFO and I usually have Tuesdays are purer “CFO” topics and Thursdays are where my occasional other blogs show up.  So you may be wondering why I am writing on building a PC or VR headsets or 3D printers.

My reasons are quite simple – career growth and personal growth.  I live in the Silicon Valley area and there is a lot of interest in the technology around computers, VR and 3D Printers.  More and more, companies are looking for CFOs that are more than just the accounting and numbers person.  IF I don’t expand my mind and learn by doing in areas like this, then how can I be credible when I claim to be a good fit for a technology company CFO role?

I get personal satisfaction on learning new things, but with the competition out there today, I really think that you need to keep actively learning.  If you stop and rest on your laurels, you will be passed by.  I often have had staff ask me how I got to know our company’s products, and it is the same drive that makes me want to understand VR Headsets that made me dig into how electricity comes from a solar panel.

So try not to dismiss other people trying to learn and very importantly, encourage your staff to do so.

 

 

Book Review – The Greatest Knight

This is one of my infrequent book reviews where I make a recommendation on a book you could enjoy on a trip you are about to take. I try and recommend lighter and easier to enjoy books and I provide a link to the book on Amazon.com in kindle format in my reviews so you can download it right away if you are reading this in an airport and are interested. I actually use Audible.com a fair bit and listen too books when driving or traveling (link is also below), but I find reading more efficient and I still read 4-5 books a month.

For those that access my blog via a computer or other device that has a full browser that shows the full site, you will notice that I have a statue of a knight as my banner image across the top. That knight is William Marshal and I recently finished a book called “The Greatest Knight:The Remarkable Life of William Marshal” that tells his story. The book is written by Thomas Asbridge, a noted historian who has written several other books on the Crusades.

William Marshal was a younger son of a minor noble in England. Born in 1146, he lived in the era of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine and he served both of them and their sons, Henry, Richard the Lionhearted and John (the king who was so terrible that no other British King has been named John since), and finally as Regent for John’s son Henry who became Henry III of England. He died around the age of 72 in 1219. He was almost killed at the age of by King Steven when his father had given him up as a hostage to the King and then promptly broke his word. When King Steven threatened to kill him, William’s father told him to go ahead, saying ‘I still have the hammer and anvil with witch to forge still more and better sons.” King Steven decided to spare him and he went on to have a remarkable career.

Asbridge bases his book on a book dating from just after William’s death called “The History of William Marshal” which was commissioned by his family and disappeared from history only to be recovered in the very late 1800’s. The advantage of this source material compared to other histories of the time is that it was not written by the clergy and it represents the point of view of the nobles and knightly class who had very different goals than the Church.

Hostage, youngest son, poor knight, servant of kings and the realm, tournament champion, the story of William Marshal and his time is very interesting. The book moves along at a good pace and paints pictures with enough detail that the important facts are clear but not so detailed that it gets bogged down.

William Marshal was so deeply involved in British history from the 1160’s to 1219, and so much happened then that the writer easily could have fallen deeply into various rabbit holes and bogged the story down. Fortunately this does not happen. Instead, a vivid and engaging story of the greatest knight is told and by the end the reader is left with no doubt as to why the title applies to William Marshal. He not only was a great warrior, he was a key person behind the Magna Carta which is considered to be a significant constitutional document for England and thus for much of the Western world.

If I had to sum up the lesson that William Marshal can teach us today, it is that being true to your word and duties, even when difficult, is the right course of action. Several times during his life he had to choose between duty to his King or an easier path that would lead to more immediate, material reward. In every case, William chose duty and loyalty. That is not to say he liked his King in all cases (he did not appear to like John at all) but he still knew what his duty was and made the difficulty but right choice every day.

The author fills in the historical details of people and places when needed, but he does not get in the way of this rags to riches story. William started off almost penniless and ended as one of the most powerful and richest men in England. He was a sports star of his day, a noted and respected tournament champion and he also was a feared and renowned warrior. He inspired great personal loyalty in his friends and allies and they were steadfast in their support of him.

I recommend the book. The story is interesting and well written. The history of those times is fascinating. And the main focus, William, is deserving of his fame. What would William Marshal do?

The Greatest Knight (Kindle)

Email Addresses

Like most CFO’s, I work with outside consultants, some that run their own shops. Far too often I get emailed by them from their personal email and the email itself if not reflective of the professionalism they are supposed to project. Sccrmom86 is probably descriptive of something, and I assume the 86 is your year of birth, but when you are proposing to do $50K of IT services, I bet you can do better.

I acknowledge that this is often just a matter of taste. Every once and a while, I get a comment about my Hotmail email address. One of the main reasons why I use it instead of Gmail is that it is not blocked in China and Gmail is. Some people seem to think that Hotmail is some form of “inferior” email, which I find quaint. This is partially from the viral release method that Google used and partially because Hotmail was one of the first mass public email systems. When it first came out, the web-based HTML (HoTMaiL was how they spelled their name) that was not connected to an ISP was new and bold. But because it is from an older time before the more modern Internet and because it was used by spammers and neophytes to the web, it gained an aura around it. Not quite as bad as .aol.com, but something that triggers a reaction.

I have been using a Hotmail address since 1997. I am not 100% sure if that is before or after Microsoft bought them that year.. My very first internet email address was on Genie and I can find it in the very early 1990’s via Google search. I had an @home address and a Comcast address. I had moved and lost access to my internet provider email address and that is why I decided that I wanted an address that did not link to an ISP and that is why I picked hotmail.

Google ran a very clever campaign when they introduced gmail – it was invite only at the start and each user received a limited number of invites, so it was rare to get one. The actual email system was quite robust compared to most out there because it incorporated Google search. This created extra hype around having a .gmail.com address even though it was just an address. Like Beverly Hills or other famous places to live, gmail.com took on an extra cachet. Now, of course, anyone can get a gmail.com address and Google gains so many emails to mine and search in return for providing the “free” service. Google has built a big business hosting email for companies, many no longer own their own servers, it is done by Google.

I have a Gmail address and was in the process of switching over to it as my main email with my Hotmail being used to sign up for things on the web (to steer spam that way) when Google stood firm against the Chinese government and started to get blocked by them. Today, if you do not turn on a VPN, it is hard to get Gmail inside China.

I also had discovered something interesting. I had used my Hotmail address for years to sign up for every drawing or other registration that was out there. I had thought that the email would get flooded by spam and what I have discovered is that Hotmail has a very good background system to filter out the spam. I had to use my Hotmail email address as my personal one inside China if I wanted to consistently receive emails when they were sent instead of time shifted to when I turned a VPN on. Microsoft has also rebranded Hotmail to Outlook.com to match with their email client.

What this experience taught me is to disregard the immediate reaction I feel towards the domain. Silly or inappropriate addresses still trigger a reaction, but the domain not so much. AOL.com means that the person used dial-up Internet and maybe was the real person behind Sleepless in Seattle (you got mail). Dial-up means they were early to using the Internet and have a long history behind them.

It also has caused me to recognize the power of brands and their reputation. The fact that the domain name in an email address, which is a pretty pedantic item, can still cause an emotional reaction is a sign of the power of branding and the importance of your reputation.

Finally, I much prefer emails from businesses that tie into the name of the person. It makes it much easier to remember and use than initials or some description. You can tag your title and address in the signature block of your emails, no need to make it part of the actual address. If your address is just your initials, it might be shorter but it makes it harder to remember.

All of this advice is for business related emails. Personal email addresses are different and can and should reflect your personality. Be careful if you use several aliases that actually go into your personal email box, as you don’t want to accidentally send out a personal email address to a business contact. Also be aware that applying for a job is not personal and I suggest using a more professional email address.

Playoff Hockey

Anyone on my Facebook or wechat feed knows that I am a long time ice hockey fan.  I grew up in Montreal and have been a Montreal Canadiens (Habs) fan all my life.  I live near San Jose and also cheer for the San Jose Sharks as my local team.  I have quite a few acquaintances that are not Canadian or from areas where hockey is popular and I thought that I would write this blog entry to talk about why I love hockey and play-off hockey in particular.

Like many professional sports, the hockey season is divided into a preseason, regular season and playoffs format.  The intensity and quality of play varies.  The preseason games are the most random.  The players are coming off a several month layoff and the team management tries out new, younger players.  Other than the players trying out, there is no real incentive to play extremely hard and win.  For a true fan of the team and the game, getting to see the prospects play and the chance to evaluate them is fun.  For someone newer to the game I have a hard time recommending that you pay any attention to the preseason games at all.

The regular season is long – 82 games.  The entire purpose of the regular season is to narrow down the 30 teams to 16 for the playoffs.  These games actually count for something.  Any individual game may not make as much a difference, but the points scored by the players do count for their statistics and the hunt for playoffs spots makes some games at the end of the season even more intense.  Teams play the teams in their own division more often than teams in the other divisions.  The additional games help build intensity and rivalries as hockey is a physical game that allows for one player to body check (hit) other players.

Regular season games are much more entertaining than preseason games because they do matter.  You can see emotions from prior seasons carried over and new emotions grow from the current games.  For the teams that are further away, you at least get to see them for a game and may only see them again playing against your team in the Stanley Cup finals.  For someone like me that has moved across the continent, the Habs only play the Sharks twice a year so if I want to see them close to my current home I can only see them once.  So even if that game is not particularly important to either team, it is important to me and I try and attend the game if possible.

If you are new to hockey and want to see a game live, in the arena, regular season games are much less expensive to get tickets for and you can often find tickets available or find tickets via a brokerage service like Stubhub.com or Ticketmaster’s resale service.  The selection of available seats is better and you will have a better chance to pick where you sit.  My general recommendation is to sit around the blue line where the team you will be cheering will be attacking twice.  You want to sit further away from the ice rather than closer.  The closer you sit to the ice, the harder it is to follow the game if you are not used to it.  The seats also go down in price the further you are from the ice.  You probably do not want to sit as high up as you can as the players will seem a lot smaller, but seats in the top section near the bottom (closer to the ice) of that section can be quite good.  The other advantage to sitting further away is that it is easier to see play in all corners.  If you sit close to the ice you’ll have difficulty in seeing into every corner.

Most regular season games are played hard by each team and you’ll see the regular players, the “top talent” in the games because they do count.  If you watch the game live, you’ll also get to see what the fans are like, how loud they are, what players get cheered for more and how they feel about the team them are playing against.  In my case, the Habs are a very popular team that has been around since the National Hockey League started, so no matter where I am when I go see them play, there will be other fans like me wearing their jersey and cheering them on.  I really like the fans in the “Shark Tank”.  They are excellent hockey fans and are good proof that even a team in California can attract a local and knowledgeable fan base.

Once the regular season is over and the playoffs begin, the intensity rises to an even higher level.  Everything is reset.  Other than home ice advantage, the regular season results no longer matter.  Each series is best of seven (need to win 4 games and the series ends once 4 games are won by one team).  The regular season overtime rules are no longer used.  In the regular season, overtime is a maximum of 5 minutes and 3 on 3 hockey with a shoot-out afterwards if a goal is not scored.  In playoff hockey, the overtime is 20 minutes, 5 on 5 hockey, and the game continues with as many overtime periods as needed until a goal is scored.  In hockey, a “golden goal” rule is used and the team that scores the first goal in overtime wins the game.

With the best of seven format, your team is playing the other team over and over and the first few sets of matches are with teams you have already played a lot during the season.  With a higher emotional level, and the higher intensity of play, each team will hit the other more and harder.  That means players will remember from game to game who hit them and if a hit was questionable or illegal under the rules, it will reflect in an emotional response.  There are plenty of cases where the lowest ranked team (ranked 8 as the 16 are divided in half by league) have beaten the top rated team in the playoffs.  There are also plenty of cases where a team that is behind 0-3 in a series has come back and won 4-3.  A game 7 is usually the most intense as the whole series rests on one game.

One tradition for hockey players is to stop shaving during the playoffs.  So as a team goes deeper and deeper into the playoffs, beards get longer.  Hockey is very physical and players often get hit in the face.  The deeper the team goes into the playoffs, the more damage you can see on the faces of your team’s players.  Hockey players are always tough and play injured, but the playoffs bring this out even more.  I have seen countless cases where a player is cut on their face and needs multiple stiches to close the cut but they do not miss a shift.

Another great tradition in hockey is at the conclusion of the series, as intense and as nasty as the games might have been, the players all line-up and shake each other’s hands.  The losers congratulate the winners and wish them luck the next round.  They do not forget and some of the emotion will carry over to the next season, but they are sportsmen and end the series with a handshake.

I am a hockey fan and I think it is a fun sport to watch, but even if you are not as interested, playoffs hockey is special.  If you have never seen a playoff game before, try and watch a game on TV and see if you like it.  You might even find yourself writing your team’s name as a status update when they win like I do.

Situational Awareness – Zion National Park

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Part of traveling on business is knowing what is around where you are going.   You spend hours on planes getting from place to place and it is a waste to not take advantage of the travels you do take.  Las Vegas is a perfect example.  It is a constant destination for business travel.   If you do think of a side trek out of Vegas, you usually would think of the Grand Canyon (which is well worth a trip).  However, only 3 hours drive north of Las Vegas is one of the highest rated national Parks in the USA – Zion National Park. If you don’t do a little research in advance, you probably will enjoy Vegas and the casinos and other entertainment, but you might miss a chance to visit a truly unique and beautiful National Park.

I’ll cover the logistics on getting there first.  Rent a car and drive 3 hours north on Interstate 15.  You’ll go from Nevada to Arizona and end up in Utah.  Drive past St. George Utah and take the exit for Rt 9 – Hurricane.  Continue through Hurricane to Springdale, Utah and you are at the part entrance.  It costs $30 per car for one week admission to the park.  Make sure you check the weather.  It can rain or snow there, so make sure you have the right outer clothes and at least shoes you can walk in.  There is a very nice hiking train called the River Walk that is paved the whole way, so you can enjoy the park without needed hiking gear.  If you are a good rock climber, the canyon walls are home to some very tough climbs.

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The park is set in Zion Canyon with the Virgin River still slowly cutting the canyon deeper.  There is a wide variety of hikes available, from easy to more difficult.  Some are along the canyon floor and others snake upwards using switchbacks and walks besides sheer cliff sides.

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I recently visited and did two different hikes over two days.  The first day I did the Emerald Pools trail.  This trail is moderate in difficulty with some fairly steep sections and some is scrambling along rocks.  There are three pools you can see and several waterfalls you can walk under.  The second day I did the Riverwalk trail which goes along the bank of the Virgin River and is paved.  I saw several people being pushed on wheel chairs on that trail.  It was not a tough walk, but walking along the canyon floor resulted in spectacular views.  There are even tougher and longer trails available that involve going cross country, but these require a special permit.

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I think the pictures I have been interspersing into the post tell the story far better than more words could.  I have provided two links below, one to the Wikipedia and one to the National Park site.  I hope that you can not only enjoy this park but that you remember to do a little more research next time you travel and see what else there is to do around where you are going.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zion_National_Park

https://www.nps.gov/zion/index.htm

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Book review – Dragonflight by Anne McCaffery

As always for my Sunday book reviews, I am reviewing a book meant to help base time while traveling. The idea is that you are at the airport and want something to entertain you on the flight. I provide a link at the bottom to purchase a kindle version of the book so you can download it and read if you want (or sign up for Audible.com and download a spoken version of the book to enjoy it that way).

This week I will review the book Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffery. It is book one of the Dragonriders of Pern series. In the many years since this book first came out, she has written many sequels and some prequels as well, but Dragonflight is the book that started the series. It is now called number 16, but it really is the first book.

Despite having dragons in the stories, the book is a SF story, not a fantasy story. It is set on a planet called Pern. The inhabitants are colonists that settled into a pretty hospitable place to live, but one that has a planet or moon that passes close enough every several hundred years for a type of spore called Thread to pass from that moon to Pern. Thread multiplies quickly into something that devours the land where it grows and which is inimitable to life. The only space that is safe is bare rock with nothing organic for the spores to feed on. Every time the other planet gets close enough for the spores to travel from planet to planet is called a “Pass” and the story begins after the last regular pass did not happen and Pern has almost forgotten why the dragon riders are needed.

The dragons telepathically bond with their riders. The only viable dragons that can lay eggs are the female, golden dragons and the last one is dying with only one queen egg left. Lessa is a scullery maid and drudge at a holding and is noticed by a group of dragon riders out searching for women that have the telepathic potential to bond with a dragon.

The story is both a straight forward romance between a strong dragon rider named F’lar who is bonded to a bronze dragon and Lessa. The spores missed a Pass and the Holds and the people have forgotten the dangers of the thread and why they need to support and help the small group of dragon riders that help them. The dragons can, after digesting the right rocks, breath fire and kill most of the thread before it reaches the ground. There always are some thread that make it to the ground and teams on the ground use flamethrowers to burn out the infestation.

The story is also one of political struggle between the Holders who no longer want to support the dragon riders via tithes and men and women to bond with the dragons and the leader of the dragon riders F’lar . Lessa bonds with the last golden dragon and whatever bronze rider’s dragon can catch her dragon on a mating flight forms the ruling pair with her.

Finally, the story is one of discovery as the people of Pern have lost hold of their history and do not know that they are colonists and not originally from Pern, even though they have legends and oral history that says they are. You discover more about the planet and the dragons and their powers and origin as you read through the books in the series.
I recommend the series as a fun, escapist way to pass time. The writing is good, the characters interesting the the villains and the heroes are not one dimensional. The love story between Lessa and F’lar is a classic boy meets girl, girl does not like him, but boy wins her over story. Simple, but still works well when written well with a good story behind it with good characters. Anne McCaffrey certainly delivers that.

I recommend the series and have read all of the books in it. Some are better than others, I find the first three to be some of the best and the prequels not as good as the original timeline books, but still ok. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did when I first read them.

Dragonflight (Pern Book 16)

Book review – H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos

As always, my Sunday books reviews are meant to be suggestions of something to buy right before you are on a flight. I give links to Kindle editions so you can buy and download them right away. I try and error on the side of entertaining or easier to read and for books that will help pass time.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” – opening lines of Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft

The Cthulhu Mythos is a collaborative universe featuring the idea that there are Great Old Ones that greatly predate mankind that have been waiting to return and take power over the universe. Of course, for purposes of stories within that universe, that time is either now, or deranged cultists are doing something to hasten that time. The typical story is one set where the main characters face cosmic indifference, humankind really does not matter and is insignificant compared to the vast and mind twisting reality of our true place there. To even glance at a small portion of this truth twists your mind and drive you insane.

The author that originated this universe was Howard Philip Lovecraft, and e wrote and published horror stories in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He was a contemporary of and corespondent with Robert E. Howard who wrote the Conan the Barbarian stories. He also wrote many letters to Robert Bloch (Psycho) and Clark Ashton Smith and they influenced each other and wrote stories that while self contained were loosely connected to the overall Cthulhu stories.

Lovecraft wrote for publication in the pulp magazines of his time, so his work is short stories and novellas. You can get through a story or two on even a short plane flight, but they are horror stories so maybe they are not the best to read if you plan on sleeping right away. They certainly are period pieces and not modern at all, but he does enjoy “things that go bump in the night” as a plot convenience and maybe they are not the best in strange hotel room with sounds that you are no familiar with.

“That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die.” – Abdul Alhazred “Necronomicon”

It is pretty hard to avoid references to Cthulhu if you like and follow SF or Fantasy. The origins were in horror but it leapt into fantasy a long time ago. As an example, if you like the Evil Dead film series, the book that caused all the problems and the rise of the undead zombies is called the Necronomicon. That is directly from the Lovecraft story “The Hound” and appears in several more of his stories. There have been movies made directly from his stories and his works have influenced other movies, books, music and TV programs. I think part of the enduring popularity of his stories was that he was an early fan who wrote lots of letters to magazines and friends and others that wrote him. He freely encouraged other people to use his inventions and framework and during his life and afterwards people took him up on it.

I suggest starting with “Call of Cthulhu” and then reading the rest of the stories in the order they were published in. I included links below to two sources of his stories. One is free (Lovecraft’s works are old enough to be past copyright) and one is an inexpensive compilation of all of his writings. I will warn you that the stories themselves just have passing references to race that show some prejudice, but Lovecraft was more racist (and sexist) than even the norm for his time and that does come out in his letters much more than his stories. I can enjoy his works and the influence he has on modern writing without being caught up on his personal beliefs, but they are a matter of record. Funny enough, he had a fair number of personal relationships, at least in writing and fan circles, that were contrary to his written views.

Chronology of Cthulhu Mythos stories written while Lovecraft was alive

I do not think that Lovecraft would ever have won awards for his complete mastery of the English language and his ability to write, but his plotting and ideas are good and the stories are short enough that any issues with the prose itself do not intrude too much by the time you reach they end of the story.  I enjoy the details he has in his stories and he wrote during a time when people were transitioning from horses to cars.  Some of the problems in his stories would just be solved with a cell phone call today, but modern writers still can use his ideas and make them work in modern stories.

When using the free link you need to be familiar with how to “open with” a program for a phone or tablet or how to transfer files yourself onto a Kindle. Kindle uses MOBI as the format while Nook and Apple’s iReader uses ePUB format. The free source is actually slightly better edited and has a few less spelling mistakes in it.  I don’t think the link works outside the USA and it certainly will have issues inside China.  If you want to read the stories on your web browser, you can try www.dagonbytes.com.

I have enjoyed these stories for years and years and like catching the pop culture references to them that appear with what seems to be increasing frequency. I hope you like them too.

Free Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft for Nook and Kindle

Complete Collection Of H. P. Lovecraft – 150 eBooks With 100+ Audiobooks (Complete Collection Of Lovecraft’s Fiction, Juvenilia, Poems, Essays And Collaborations)

My technology life

I think I have been the IT support person in all the households I have been in. From growing up with my parents to my current partial bachelor days (partial as having a 19 year old daughter live with you is not being alone), I have always maintained the infrastructure at my house and made the recommendations on what technology to get.

Since this is a Thursday and I usually talk about my interests, this week I will discuss my long term love affair with computers and similar technology. For someone that has liked accounting and finance since grade 9, I have managed to keep tinkering away with technology pretty much all my life. My first real technology project was building a blue box on a bread board using a schematic I found on BBS.

As I said in the Hello World entry that started my blog, my first experience with computers was on an Apple ][ + computer in high school. The first computer owned in my house was an Apple //c (I convinced my parents to buy it) and the first computer I bought with my own money was an Apple II GS. Even my first work computer at KPMG was a Mac. With all of that you might be surprised to know that all my computers since then have been Windows machines. I guess I can ascribe that to two reasons. The first is residual bitterness that the Mac won over the II GS (you have to be a real long term user of Apple computers to understand the Woz vs. Jobs days). The second is that I always liked to tinker with my computers and personalize them and the Mac just was not designed or built for that.

I have never owned a Windows desktop that I did not build myself. The first one was a little scary to build and overclocking my Celeron 300 to 450 (via instructions from Anandtech.com) as a big move for me. Even since then I have tended to buy the second fastest processor in the line that was the best at the time as the bang for the buck is higher. I had the AMD Athlon chip one generation of self built PC, but most of my time building PCs Intel has been the obvious and best choice. The last five years or so, the main processors have become powerful enough that there is little reason to replace them. My current processor and motherboard combo is over 4 years old at this point and it works more than well enough.

I am a very big fan of multiple screens and I use 3 now when I am home and using my main machine. I have an AMD graphics card, but I have rotated through the leaders for years. I was a big believer is 3DFx and their voodoo cards. I was even heavily invested in the early nVidia vs. 3DFX discussions on Silicon Investor and abandoned 3DFX after they invited me to their office and gave me a review unit of the Voodoo 5000. At that point I thought that nVidia just had the better graphics card and much better execution. Today AMD and nVidia go back and forth for who is best and I also buy the second best of their line and there is not that much difference right now. Having more than one screen is very important and I really enjoy having three to use. It seems like one big screen should be good enough, but once you try two or more it is really hard to go back.

The only other real change I have made in my builds in recent years is moving the operating system and the main programs I run to and SSD to I boot a little faster and the typical programs I run load faster. The technology there is pretty stable now and any of the main SSD are fine. I never pay for faster mechanical hard drives as I really don’t notice a difference. I have experimented with different mice and keyboards but for the most part think that Logitech and Microsoft make good enough models.

I do spend a little extra on my home router. The last few I have owned are ASUS routers. They have their own version of DD-WRT which is an open source router software you can use to overwrite the basic software that comes on many routers. I like the parental control features of the router and I am sad that my two teenage girls cannot out think their dad and hack into the routers and override it. I prefer to attach my media players and main computer with a physical cable instead of relying on wireless. I already wrote a blog entry on the networked attached storage(NAS) I use, so I will not go into detail here on the same topic.

My kids are Mac users through and through, so I have had to learn that as well, but I am not as good with MacOS as I am with Windows. No disasters so far and my NAS is a Time Machine target for backup for them.

I have had friends and family members ask where I learned how to put everything together. For example, I even can make my own Ethernet cables. The real answer is what Musashi always says – practice. I spent years being patient and learned it. Google is also an excellent tool. No need to seek out the latest issue of 2600 magazine for the latest cool hack, a quick search gets you answers. I am not so cutting edge as I do not have any VR googles, at least not yet. My main machine is getting a little long in the tooth. I do have the latest Apple TV and Roku. And a Fire TV stick all connected to my 3D TV. I chose 3D over 4K as there is more media on Blueray available. I was an avowed Plasma TV buyer but have reluctantly switch to LCD.

I was an early user of PDA, I had a US Robotics Palmpilot and even was buying and reading books via Peanut Press. I liked Blackberry, but was quickly an iPhone user and have been buying a new one every two years. I am typing this up using the MS Word app on an IPad Air 2 and I type almost all my blog entries on my IPad. This blog was typed in the car too and from my office and in the Camel bar in Suzhou while I was having dinner. I use a stand I bought from Amazon and a Bluetooth keyboard as I can type much faster that way. Again, not so cutting edge. I have owned some Android tablets but I am pretty locked into the Apple ecosystem at this point with much of my media purchases using Apple DRM.

I do think keeping up with the latest technology and experimenting and doing it yourself helps in your job as well. CFOs often run IT and I feel much more confident when discussing the latest network infrastructure build out since I know how it works. It does take some time to get it right and you do have only yourself to rely on for tech support if you try and build your own PCs, but there almost never are any serious issues once it is up and running properly. Who knows, you might even impress your kids.

AmazonBasics Adjustable Tablet Stand

AmazonBasics Bluetooth Keyboard for Apple Devices (iPad, iPad Mini, iPhone)

Book review – The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher

As always for my Sunday reviews, I am picking a book or books that I think are very enjoyable and entertaining. The idea is that you are in the airport about to fly off somewhere and you want something to read on the plane and at the hotel for your trip.

This week I am going to review and recommend The Dresden Files series written by Jim Butcher. These books are modern urban fantasy set in present day Chicago and featuring Harry Dresden a private investigator that also happens to be a wizard. The series started about 2000, so when I say present day, I mean reasonably present day.

The books are a good mix of detective noir books with a tough PI with a heart of gold and a magical world where all the creatures and monsters from fairy tales exist. Wizards like Harry are policed and regulated quite carefully by a wizards castle and using certain spells considered to be black magic carries a death sentence. Harry escaped from an abusive mentor before the setting in the first novel (Storm Front) and he carries around a suspended sentence of death with no chances of error left to him.

The existence of the wizards in the stories are important because many of the monsters, especially the vampires, are on,y held in check because of fear and respect for the power of the wizards. The series starts with a long term but uneasy truce in place and the situation quickLu spirals out from there and some of the books are outright wars between different factions while others use the detective story framework where a new client for Harry draws him into some sort of mystery centered around a magical threat.

The stories have good and bad cops, good guy knights fighting ancient evil centered around silver coins, vampires in red and white courts, the Faerie realm, werewolves and evil wizards, and that is not even all that happens. Harry is not completely alone, he has friends and at least allies and many are recurring characters that come back in many of the books. He does have some romantic interests in the books, but he is not all that skilled in that area so most do not work out so well for him.

Harry also has issues with authority figures. He is an official consultant to the Chicago police for strange and potentially supernatural crimes, but his natural instinct is to buck the system and push back against authority figures. This includes the police, the FBI and the Wizards council. It results in him having to overcome self made obstacles all the time, but his friends tend to be few but very close. He also has issues with using nay technology as magic disrupts computers and cell phones and even causes problems with cars, especially more modern ones.

I found that the series gets better as you get more and more books into it. The first book (Storm Front) is good, certainly good enough to make you want to buy the next book, but there is a bigger payback the more you read as the writing gets better. There is no mystery as to why. Storm Front was either the first or one of the first novels that Butcher sold (he wrote others but did not sell them until later). So the writer is learning his craft as he goes. As a reader, you get the benefit of interesting characters and a good story upfront and then later you get the same and ever better writing.

As a note, the Audible.com version of the book is read by James Marsters (Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer series). He does a very good job his voice and ability to voice many different characters with their own quirks and sounds suits the stories well. Even when I am reading books, I still here his voice in my head for Harry. The main link below is for the Kindle version (so you can easily find the book and download and read it before jumping on the plane) but in the center of the page at the bottom there is a link for Audible.com. Listening to instead of reading a book can be more relaxing and easier to do if you need to drive around. Audible has a free book as part of their initial subscription and they’re owned by Amazon as well.

Storm Front is an archetypical Harry Dresden story in many ways. He s broke. He needs work and the Chicago police brings him in to investigate a death that looks linked to the supernatural. Eventually we ends up pitted against an evil wizard with pretty major stakes at risk. The book introduces us to many of the characters that we will see in the series and we also get an overview of Harry’s basic power set. He is self proclaimed to be a strong wizard, but in the earlier books he leans on preparation and set spells rather than pure magic use. In later books you’ll get to see that he actually is quite powerful, but he tends to depend on brain power rather than magical brawn to win the day and even in his more full power, he often is against being far more powerful than him.

You can comment below, so feel free to comment here on the blog or on the social media site you found my link if you want. I am always curious what other people think of the books I recommend.

Storm Front (The Dresden Files, Book 1)

Fool Moon (The Dresden Files, Book 2)

Grave Peril (The Dresden Files, Book 3)

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