New! – Your Chicagoboyz Black-Coffee Friday Holiday Espresso Update


 
After a couple of not entirely satisfactory years with a low-end conventional espresso maker (discussed here, here and here) and this morning’s epic hot milk explosion we decided to buy a standalone milk frothing device and ended up ordering this DeLonghi-made Nespresso machine, which comes with a milk frother for around $104 total (after coupon) on a Black Friday deal.

We have never owned a Nespresso but have given a couple of them as gifts and everyone loves them. Of course you have to buy coffee capsules, which are pricey if you buy the Nespresso branded ones but a very reasonable 33 cents each if you buy the ones from Bestpresso. These are excellent in our experience.
 

 
UPDATE: There’s a similar deal on a Breville-made Nespresso/frother combo:
 

 
 
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Disclosure: This blog post was written under the influence of caffeine. Chicago Boyz earns an affiliate payment from Amazon when you buy any product through any of the Amazon links on this blog. If you buy stuff through our links we can afford to buy more espresso.

Book Review: A Pocketful of Stars, by Margaret Ball

There aren’t a lot of novels in which the protagonist and the other leading characters are mathematicians.  Here, we have not just a single novel, but a whole series–a total of six books projected.

Thalia Kostis is a young topology student.  Her Greek-immigrant parents think very little of her mathematical interests,  insisting that she quickly get married off and start producing grandchildren.  She wants a career in pure mathematics, yet has begun questioning her own ability to do pure-math research at the highest level–she worries that her abilities do not compare with those of her roommate Inga, a (tall, blonde, and beautiful) grad student who is also focused on topology. Also, Thalia has been ditched by her former boyfriend, partly because he feels that her mathematical investigations have become just too…disturbing.

What could be disturbing about pure math?  By chance, Thalia has discovered that by thinking about topological theorems in exactly the right way, she can influence the physical world.  Not a large influence, it appears–but she can move light objects a small distance without touching them.  It turns out that Inga has the same ability, as does Thalia’s best friend Ben. So, it’s not just topology anymore, but…potentially at least…applied topology, and a small research institute has been established at the University of Texas to see where the possibilities lead. The offices of Thalia, Ben, and Inga are separated from the rest of the building by a wall, and it’s a wall with no door…the group having determined that by proper topological thinking, they can pass through solid walls.  The only way for guests without the talent to get into this office area is to be escorted by a talented individual in very close proximity to them.

One day a man named Bradislav Lensky comes to meet Thalia and the other Institute researchers.  (We are never told exactly which agency, but we can be sure it isn’t the FBI given his frequent remarks about what idiots the employees of that agency mostly are.)  Lensky desires the mathematicians to use their talents to hack into a computer which he suspects is being used to plan a major terrorist attack, probably by bringing Middle Eastern terrorists across the Mexican border. He also informs them that all of their Institute’s funding is actually being supplied by his agency–the foundation which they had thought was their sponsor being actually merely a conduit.  So how can they say no?

There are numerous other characters.  One of these is a box turtle, encountered by Thalia and Ben at the park, with a band fastened tightly around his neck causing him great distress.  He is Niiquarquusu, a 3000-year-old Mesopotamian talking turtle with a rather grumpy personality–the grumpiness continues after he is liberated from his neckband, but he has abilities of his own which are quite useful when he can be persuaded to use them.  The key, it seems, is proper calibration of the amount of coffee that the turtle (dubbed “Mr M” for convenience)  is given..too little and he will be uncooperative, too much and he will behave in an unproductive and often embarrassing manner.  (Characters discover that before having sex, they need to check carefully to ensure that Mr M is not in the room—he tends to make snide comments, probably comparing the participants unfavorably with the way things were done in ancient Mesopotamia.)

A fun series with interesting plot twists and characters.  It is not for the politically correct, having already garnered one very upset review at Goodreads.

I’ve read the three books that have been published so far and am looking forward to the continuation.

A Pocketful of Stars, at Amazon

Manfrotto MTPIXI-B PIXI Mini Tripod


The Manfrotto MTPIXI-B PIXI Mini Tripod is the official mini tripod of the Chicago Boyz blog.
 
These things are great: bigger than those cheesy little mini tripods with bendable arms, yet still easily portable, faster to use and stable with even DSLR-sized cameras. I keep one in my briefcase with a compact mirrorless camera. You can easily carry one in a jeans pocket if you’re going out with photography in mind.
 

 
UPDATE: Add a cellphone mount and you have an excellent setup for video calls.
 

New! – Your Chicagoboyz Bicycle Safety Product Endorsements

As the season turns to Spring, Chicagoboyz turn to wholesome fresh-air pursuits such as bicycle riding. Unhappily we must share the road with motorists including various drunks, hotheads, incompetents, text messaging fiends and other menaces. A friend of ours who is a lawyer has taken to yelling at drivers who buzz him, advising them of the law requiring them to give cyclists at least three feet of space when passing. We have great respect for the law but prefer more active measures. To somewhat improve our survival odds we now limit our hours of operation, have increased the proportion of our riding done on off-road trails and, when we do go on the road, light ourselves up like a Christmas tree. (To those who are troubled by bright flashing lights in traffic I can only say: Yes, such lights are troubling, that is why they are used on police and other emergency vehicles that are at high risk of collision.)

In this regard the following products are ones that I have used extensively and recommend:

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Where’s The Lane?

I recently traded in my old Acura MDX for a new one. What a long, long way we have come in the 7 years since I purchased a new vehicle. I now have an air conditioned seat, something I am looking forward to using this Spring and Summer. I also have a heated steering wheel now, which is great during Winter. Quite the creature comfort.

It also has a feature called Auto-Idle Stop that you can enable and disable that shuts the car off at a stop to save gas. The Acura dealer says that is will save a mile a gallon. At first I didn’t like it, but now I am used to it. I remembered it from when I was in a Prius cab once. When you take your foot off the brake, the car fires up and off you go. While you are stopped, all of the climate control and audio/whatever else you have on is still functional. It automatically turns back on after around a minute sitting there if you haven’t moved. I have no clue how this actually saves you gas but if they say it does, I guess they can’t really lie about it.

Outside of all of the comfort things, the new vehicle is a technological powerhouse. I have had it for almost a month now and am still figuring out all of the features and tech stuff. It has 16 gig of memory to store music onboard. I don’t use that much since I love my XM, but there it is if you want it.

Of the greatest interest to me are the next steps auto manufacturers have made to get everyone used to the idea of the inevitable autonomous vehicle. Three things work in concert on my vehicle. They are Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), Lane Keeping Assist System (LKAS) and Lane Departure Warning (LDW). At first I turned all of this stuff off, but decided to one day read the manual (I know) to understand how it all works. It is interesting to say the least.

ACC is basically “smart” cruise control. You set your cruise and it will keep the speed, but will also compensate for cars in front of you. You can set the distance that you prefer between your car and the car in front of you (there are four distances to choose from). In the city, I choose the closest distance so as not to clog traffic. The car will actually go all the way down to zero, braking at a light, and will start moving again when the car in front moves forward. There is a bit of a delay when you re-start, so you may look like you have no idea what you are doing, but to heck with everyone else, you don’t have to accelerate or brake and they do. Oh yes, the Auto-Idle Stop feature works with this as well, but you have to hit the accelerator to resume again if you are Auto-Idle Stopped with the ACC in charge.

LDW is, from what I have figured out, just a warning system. It wiggles the steering wheel and shows a display when it feels you are out of the lane.

LKAS is where the rubber really hits the road. When you enable this along with the ACC, the car literally drives itself. LKAS keeps you centered in the lane at whatever speed you are going. I have taken my hands off the wheel, but there are apparently sensors in the wheel because after a few seconds, the car says “you have to drive” and shuts down the auto systems. So just a light pressure on the wheel is all you need and you can let the car do the work. Sometimes the delay takes a bit and it would seem to the car behind you that you are drunk driving since you are weaving back and forth a bit in the lane. This typically happens when you are on a curved road. It isn’t perfect, but when the road is straight, it works very well.

But.

The cameras for all of this are only as good as the ROAD MARKINGS. We had a snow storm recently and my car was caked with snow and ice and the car just said on the display “cameras blocked” and you are on your own. In addition, I live in rural Wisconsin, just outside of Madison. In the city, there are much better lane markings. In the country, the roads have NONE. No smart driving for you in the country, although the ACC always works wherever you are as long as the camera isn’t blocked by snow. Even in the city, the lane markings deviate and/or are in bad shape in areas, and the car will beep and tell you that “tough stuff, you have to drive”, we can’t see the lane. This means that you have to pay attention because at times, you can see the lane markings, but the cameras can’t. There is a part of the display that lets you know if the camera can see the lane markings. I haven’t been on the interstate with it yet, but will soon and look forward to seeing what the car can do in that venue. I assume it will work great.

All in all, when I figure out everything, this new vehicle will make my hour plus a day in the car a much more pleasant experience. Without proper lane markings, however, or unless and until we have lightning speeds with GPS, I don’t see fully autonomous vehicles coming for a bit. Which gets me to thinking I should probably look into investing in companies that manufacture lane marking equipment and paint, but that is certainly grist for another post.

Cross posted at LITGM.