Podcast reviews

I’ve started listening to a lot of podcasts over the last few years. Mostly when walking to and from work. I took some time to write my thoughts about each one. Partially because I thought other people might be interested, but also to have notes for myself because my memory isn’t great.

To give you an idea of my interests, I like listening to podcasts that help me have informed opinions. I prefer non-fiction. I prefer hearing facts and information rather than feelings. I prefer hearing aggregate data rather than personal stories.

Here’s the list:

The Memory Palace

Recommended? Yes! But you’ve got to focus and listen actively.

“A storytelling podcast and public radio segment about the past.” Ten to fifteen minutes long, every other week. Little tales from history. Usually great. Well-researched and wonderfully written. Nate DiMeo is an amazing storyteller. One of the best of our time. For an example episode, try “If You Have to be a Floor.” He chose it as his episode of the year last year and it’s kind of a masterpiece. If you’re still undecided, here are a few other episodes that I thought were above average: “Snakes!,” “Numbers,” “No Summer,” “Every Night Ever,” “Overland,” “Lost Locusts,” “Victory,” and “Local Channels.”

Planet Money

Recommended? Yes!

NPR’s economics podcast. Eighteen to twenty minutes long, twice a week. Usually great. Three example episodes that I enjoyed are “Cow Noir,” about cattle rustling, “How to Hide a Million Dollars in Plain Sight,” about money laundering, and “The Man Who Sued Iran,” which describes what happens when a US citizen sues a country in a US court.

The Indicator from Planet Money

Recommended? Eh. I suggest Planet Money, first. If you like that and want more, then listen to this, too.

Shorter, less-refined, economics-related stories from NPR’s Planet Money team. Nine minutes long, five days a week. Usually pretty good.

99% Invisible

Recommended? Yeah, if you make things or are thoughtful about how things work.

“The thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.” Twenty to thirty minutes long, weekly. Usually great. For anyone who builds things (software in my case), it’s always good to have regular reminders of design considerations even if they’re totally unrelated to what you’re working on.

This American Life

Recommended? Yes!

Each week they choose a theme and present stories related to that theme. Sometimes journalism. Sometimes humorous. An hour long, weekly. Often great, though sometimes I’m not interested in the theme or specific story. A good amount of variety. On the journalism side, their story “Didn’t We Solve This One?” about granting visas for Iraqis and Afghans who have helped the US was something I hadn’t heard about before (semi-related: the ProPublica story “How Asylum Works” has great info about the asylum process). On the humor side, “Kid Logic 2016” is great. “No Coincidence, No Story!” is also an easy listen.

Serial

Recommended? Only if you have a lot of time to listen (e.g. road trip or long commute).

Investigative journalism/long-form telling of a nonfiction story. About “love and death and justice and truth.” Three seasons so far of nine to twelve episodes each. Thirty to sixty minutes per episode. It’s well made and the stories are interesting, but it’s a big time investment. Like reading a novel vs the CliffsNotes.

S-Town

Recommended? I guess. I think your average podcast listener would enjoy it.

About one man and a small town in Alabama. Seven parts, around an hour each. Not exactly my cup of tea, but the story is fairly interesting and the production quality and writing are top-notch.

Containers

Recommended? Eh, probably not. Unless you’re particularly interested in container ships, in which case maybe start with Episode 3.

About global trade, economics, and container ships. Eight parts, around thirty minutes each. It’s alright. The episodes rely on a lot of anecdotes and interviews, which I’m generally not interested in. It might be Episode 3 that talks in detail about how the ships and containers and ports work that I found most interesting.

Criminal

Recommended? Mildly.

Stories about interesting crimes. Thirty minutes, every other week. I was worried it would be dark and gruesome, but it’s mostly not. Not really educational, just entertaining. An example episode that I liked is “On the Run.”

The Breakthrough

Recommended? Only if you have a particular interest in how journalists work.

Interviews with investigative journalists about how they got the information for their stories. Released sporadically and currently on hiatus. I have a great appreciation for ProPublica (disclaimer: I’ve donated a few hundred dollars a year for the past few years), but this podcast is just ok. I think it’s helpful for journalists to disclose how they obtained their information when possible, and I like hearing the details of investigations, but I found myself wanting to hear the story itself, not just the investigation. I would prefer a podcast that walks through the story as well as the work that went into researching the story.

Reveal

Recommended? Meh.

They attempt to “hold the powerful accountable and reveal government fraud and waste of taxpayer funds, human rights violations, environmental degradation and threats to public safety” and “shine a bright light on injustice and protect the most vulnerable in our society.” Fifty minutes, weekly. Mostly good. I always appreciate the benefits of investigative journalism to society and I appreciate the work done by Reveal, though I do feel like their stories tend to present a single viewpoint rather than the viewpoints of all affected parties. And sometimes they focus too closely on individual anecdotes without discussing aggregate data. I think it’s fair to say they have a bias in defense of social justice. Also, I think it’s satisfying when journalism hints at ways to improve the problems they’re discussing and I feel like Reveal generally doesn’t do that. It’s a great podcast for anyone looking for problems that need solving.

Embedded

Recommended? Nah.

They take a story from the news and do a deep dive. Forty minutes, once a month on average, though episodes aren’t evenly spaced. It’s decent, but not for me. They cover news that I’m interested in, but there’s generally nothing revelatory. Lots of recap and anecdotes. I’ve usually heard most of it just from keeping up with the news on a daily basis.

Trump, Inc.

Recommended? Meh.

An open investigation into Trump’s businesses and administration. I think Trump and many of his associates are sleazy and I appreciate that people are investigating, but I don’t like hearing the details of their sleaziness on a regular basis. I’m not in danger of forgetting about their sleaziness. Possibly useful for law enforcement looking for crimes, or lawmakers looking for loopholes to close.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law

Recommended? Yeah, if you’re interested in law.

Discusses the constitutionality of various actions by Trump. Twenty-five minutes, once a month. By Roman Mars of 99% Invisible. I like it, but it’s pretty dry.

30 for 30

Recommended? Yeah, mildly.

Each episode does a deep dive about a major sport-related topic (though season 3 was entirely about one topic). Around forty-five minutes, once a month (though they’re released in batches and the podcast includes other interviews between the batches). Pretty good overall, though the stories are heavy on interview content. Not really educational, just entertaining.

Outside Podcast

Recommended? If you like fitness, hiking, camping, climbing, or other outdoor recreational activities.

A wide range of stories and interviews about recreation, the outdoors, the human body, health and fitness, survival, and gear and apparel. Around thirty minutes, two to four times a month. It’s a good change from the rest of the podcasts I listen to. Some of their stories I like and others I skip.

The Sharp End

Recommended? If you’re big into climbing or you’re a gym climber thinking about climbing outdoors.

Each episode discusses a climbing accident in an interview format. Around thirty minutes, once a month. Mildly interesting, but I don’t think I’ve learned much from it other than obvious things like: be conservative, be cautious, limit risk, wear a helmet, tie a knot on the end of your rope. Associated with the American Alpine Club and Accidents in North American Climbing.

Your Parenting Mojo

Recommended? Nah.

Research-based parenting ideas. Twenty to forty-five minute episodes every other week. It’s ok, but not for me. I found the parenting suggestions to be useful but I’d rather hear a summarized version. This podcast goes into too much detail about the underlying research for my taste. I’ve only listened to about five episodes, so my opinion is limited. It seems like episodes are usually either interviews or recaps of science journals/research studies. It felt like the presenter was almost reading an article, which I found tiring to listen to. I would like it more if it was shorter: Just suggestions + very quick reasoning about why, rather than longer explanations.

Science Vs

Recommended? If you’re the kind of person who is prone to believing misinformation from people around you and you think you’d benefit from hearing impartial information.

Picks a topic (gun control, MDMA, vaccines, nuclear power, etc) and discusses it using facts and data. Forty to fifty minutes long, averages around two episodes a month, though they’re released in batches. It’s ok. Easy to listen to. Fun. I like puns. I stopped listening about a year ago so this may not be true anymore, but I don’t like that they try to narrow down topics to a single “good” or “bad” verdict. In reality most issues are much more complex. I especially noticed this with the gun control debate. It’s a very difficult question… It can’t only be decided by science. Also philosophy, psychology, and economics. How much value do people put on their freedom to own a weapon vs their freedom to be safe from other people’s weapons. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely think the US would be better off if guns were more restricted. I just think it’s hard to make that case using data.

Welcome to Macintosh

Recommended? Nah. Unless you like obsessing about Apple.

Assorted stories about Apple and Apple products. Twenty to thirty minutes per episode with shorter stories mixed in. Released in seasons of five or eight episodes about once a year. Some interesting content, but I never found the stories super compelling. A little too anecdote-y for me. I prefer meatier info and I prefer hearing about things I’m not familiar with.

Freakonomics Radio

Recommended? Mildly.

Wide range of interviews, discussion, and information. It’s hard to pin down. Thirty to sixty minutes, weekly. The content is good. I stopped listening because I don’t have quite enough time for it and there were other podcasts I preferred more. But I imagine I’ll listen again eventually.

Wolverine: The Long Night

Recommended? Nah.

Detective fiction featuring Wolverine (yes, the one from comic books). One season so far. Ten parts, thirty minutes each. It was ok. I like mysteries, Marvel, Wolverine, and interesting radio fiction, but I thought the story was just average. The Wolverine/mutant aspect is actually pretty minimal. It mostly just feels like crime fiction. I guess I liked listening to it, but my attention waned.

Bundyville

Recommended? Nah.

About the Bundy family—the idiots who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for a month in 2014. Seven parts, thirty minutes each. I think the story is mildly interesting to read about, but listening to it for three and a half hours is probably overkill. Basically the family thinks they’re entitled to use federal land because they think the federal government has no legal claim to it and the legal system repeatedly sides against them.

Other

If you’re still looking for things to listen to, here’s a random list of other podcasts that I’ve seen recommended but that I haven’t listened to.

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Our government is separating more immigrant children from their mothers than it used to

And it’s awful.

If you want to punish people for crossing the border illegally, fine, whatever. But that is not an acceptable reason to separate a child from their parent. Children don’t control whether their parents bring them across the border and it’s not ok to put them through additional trauma because of it.

My understanding is that on May 7 Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department would begin attempting to prosecute every person who crossed the Southwest border illegally, and such prosecution entails separation. And we’ll do this even if the adults are seeking asylum.

Jeff Sessions said, “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”

Someone should tell him it’s also not the fault of the child.

There’s a Washington Post article that goes into a lot of detail about the timeline (though don’t worry much about the 1500 missing children—see this long Twitter thread for the reason why).

At one point White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said, “The children will be taken care of—put into foster care or whatever.” Which is, of course, ridiculous. In this situation it isn’t difficult to avoid creating orphans.

Side note: At some point Trump tried to blame this situation on democrats, for some reason. This is basically bullshit. See CNN fact check and some info gathered by Huffington Post.

Addendum added a few hours after posting this: I said “If you want to punish people for crossing the border illegally, fine, whatever.” To clarify, my intent wasn’t to sound anti-immigrant here. My intent was to be dramatic and stay focused on separating children from their parents. But I also feel that we’re not meeting our obligation to assist those seeking asylum, and in general I feel like we spend too much effort trying to reduce non-asylum-related immigration.

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We made wills!

Now that we have kids, Emily and I thought it was important to make wills so we could designate guardians in case we die. Our situation is straightforward, so I was hopeful we could find a cheap and easy off-the-shelf solution. I’m also hoping these wills won’t get used. If I thought there was a higher chance of one of us dying I’d consider spending more effort to find a good local lawyer. I read a bunch of stuff online (how-to guides, explanation of right-of-survivorship, the Wikipedia page on probate, etc), but it was mostly unnecessary. It didn’t affect our will in any way.

We decided to use the Mac download version of Nolo Quicken WillMaker Plus. The list price is currently $70. It looks like there might regularly be coupon codes available, so you might be able to get it for less.

I think it works well and I’m happy with the decision. It asks you a bunch of questions about your property, your family, your pets, who you would like to be the guardian of your kids and pets, who you would like to be the will’s executor, etc, then it creates a pdf for you to print. There are instructions for how to sign (need witnesses) and instructions for the executor. It took us around two and a half hours. It could have taken a lot less time but I wanted to read every bit of help text to make sure we didn’t miss anything.

Other notes:

  • Remember to talk with your guardians before including then in your will.
  • Willmaker Plus does not support joint or mutual wills and that was fine with us. The program has a feature for automatically mirroring a will for the spouse. That’s what we used and it worked great.
  • An advantage of download software compared to a web-based solution or a real life lawyer is that we can use it multiple times while only paying once. There’s no additional cost for creating two wills or for revising the wills when your situation changes. On the flip side, the software might become out of date.
  • To give myself confidence in the wills from Willmaker Plus, I made a will using one of the websites mentioned below and compared it to a Willmaker Plus will. They were similar and the differences were inconsequential as far as I could discern, so I felt pretty good about it.
  • Separately we made three lists to make things easier for our executor: a list of all our assets, bank accounts, etc that are covered by the wills, a list of retirement accounts that are not covered by the wills, and a list of recurring payments to cancel. These are informational only—not technically a part of the will.

Other options

I looked through many pages of Google search results before deciding on WillMaker Plus. If you don’t want to use WillMaker Plus and don’t want to find a local lawyer, these three seem like the next best options:

  • Rocket Lawyer – Seems great. A website that walks through mostly the same questions as WillMaker Plus. Looks like it might be more current when it comes to digital assets. Maybe $20 per will.
  • US Legal Forms – Just a form that you fill out yourself. Seems pretty respectable. $30 for two individual wills or $65 for a mutual will.
  • Legal Zoom – Seems good. A human reviews the entered data. $69 per person as far as I can tell, not a combined price for a couple. They advertise on NPR (or KQED, anyway).
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Buying a Subaru Outback

I recently wrote about how we decided which model to buy. This post talks about trim level and options for that model, as well as the actual buying process.

We started by using the car configurator on Subaru’s website.

Engine size

After driving weak cars for 20 years I was hoping to get something more powerful. I thought the four cylinder 2.5i would be underpowered when hauling a lot of weight (four people and luggage) up hills. I was drawn to the six cylinder 3.6R, but the gas mileage isn’t great. I estimated that we would spend between $5k and $8k more on gas over a 10 year period when compared to the 2.5i. And dealerships around here had fewer in stock, which meant the selection wasn’t great. And hauling a lot of weight up hills isn’t something we do very often (kids are light). We test drove the 2.5i with three adults and acceleration felt fine to me. Speculation: While the engine is listed as only having 175hp, maybe this is more adequate than you might think because CVTs allow for quicker acceleration than a traditional transmission by allowing constant high RPMs. So we went with the 2.5i—the rational choice, really.

Color

To pick the color, both of us rated the options on a scale of 1 to 10. Our top three were the same and we decided on Dark Blue Pearl as our favorite.

Trim level

We knew we wanted the Limited trim level, which includes push button start, PIN code vehicle access, power adjustable front passenger seat, and HomeLink rear view mirror. Subaru’s adaptive cruise control/automatic emergency braking comes from a system called EyeSight. We didn’t feel strongly about it, but most Limited Outbacks in stock around here have EyeSight and it seemed like it could potentially prevent or reduce the severity of an accident, so we got it.

Options

Most Limited Outbacks around here also had “Popular Package 2.” It includes a few things we cared about: rear bumper cover, new all weather floor liners, rear seat back protector. And some things we didn’t care about: exterior auto dimming mirror with approach lighting. To find a car in local inventory without the package would have meant limiting our options and possibly making it harder to bargain while not actually reducing the cost much, so we got it.

Getting price quotes

I looked up dealer invoice price for the base car and each add-on (possibly from NADA Guides). Cars 101 is also a great Subaru-specific resource (though they don’t list dealer invoice prices). I also looked at the price estimate on TrueCar. I was very familiar with the options at this point so I started calling dealerships. I asked what their best price was for the options we wanted.

Three dealerships gave me similar prices that were below dealer cost and on the lower end of the TrueCar range. The price was lower than I was expecting. We bought at the end of December, so maybe there were manufacturer incentives at play?

The dealership I found easiest to work with was also the closest, and they price-matched the lowest price, so we took their offer.

I thought having dealerships bid against each other was a great strategy. I also liked having an agreed-upon price before going to the dealership.

Considerations when negotiating a price:

  • Dealers like add-ons because they’re cheap for them but they have a high MSRP, so it sounds like you’re getting a lot. For example, LED map and dome lights have an MSRP of $99 but LEDs are like a penny each. I don’t know why this is even an option except to give dealerships an opportunity to charge more. Remember to negotiate these prices, too.
  • Some options are installed by the manufacturer, some are installed by the dealership, and some seem to be “port-installed,” meaning they’re installed at the port after arriving in the US. Manufacturer options make sense—it’s hard for a dealership to swap out a 2.5 liter engine for a 3.6 liter engine. And dealership options make sense—not everybody wants a trailer hitch so it’s easiest to just have the dealership install it on demand. I don’t know why port-installed options are a thing.

Lease, finance, or pay in full?

After looking at lease prices it seemed likely that a lease would have been the most expensive option for us over the long term. It was less clear whether it was better to finance or pay in full. Auto loan rates are very low, so it’s conceivable that you would earn more from stock market index funds than you would lose in interest payments. It’s impossible to know, of course, since stock market performance isn’t predictable. And should inflation be factored in? I don’t know. There are a few inconveniences associated with a loan: hassle of making payments, setting up autopay on the lender’s inevitably-crappy website, making sure you keep a high enough balance in your bank account, notifying the lender if you move, dealing with tax implications if you move to another state. There’s also a risk that the lender will neglect to remove their lien from your title once the loan is paid off. I assume this is very rare, but it did happen my brother (I’d love to see stats on this). So we chose to pay in full.

Dealership experience

We bought from Putnam Subaru in Burlingame. It went smoothly. We had an appointment first thing on a Saturday morning. We did one last test drive then filled out forms, read and signed documents, wrote a check, etc. All told it took between one and two hours.

I checked with our insurance company beforehand (Allied Insurance, a subsidiary of Nationwide) and they do not require that the car be added before purchasing. There’s a grace period.

It was helpful to know typical California new car fees ahead of time. For us, use/sales tax was $2,700ish, registration and related fees were around $350, and the dealership charged an $80 documentation fee, which is the max allowed in California for dealerships that partner with the state to provide on-site registration (it’s capped at $65 for dealerships that don’t provide on-site registration). The California DMV has a calculator that you can use to get an estimate.

We declined the extended warranty because it’s basically additional insurance. I use the same rationale for all extended warranties: Presumably the vendor makes money from the extended warranty. If they’re making money then, on average, the consumer is losing money. I’m ok with weathering the financial risk of my specific car (or whatever) having problems. So if I decline all extended warranties then I’m likely to come out ahead.

We declined the extended service agreement. Mostly because it wasn’t clear whether it would save us money. Speculation on the economics and psychology of car maintenance: In my experience dealerships tend to charge more for service than comparable non-dealership auto shops. Dealerships make money from extended service agreements by locking people in. If we planned to have all maintenance done at the dealership then perhaps the extended service agreement would save us money. But if we think we can find a cheaper or better mechanic elsewhere, even for a few of the scheduled services, then the extended service agreement is a bad deal for us. You would hope dealerships do better quality work since the mechanics can specialize and be intimately familiar with the dealership’s lineup. But it’s not fair to assume independent mechanics will be worse. There might be more variance among independent mechanics, but the best independent mechanics will be just as capable and might take more pride in their work. Or might work harder if they’re invested in the success of their shop. And of course some independent mechanics also specialize in specific brands.

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Choosing a new car

Emily and I bought a new car! Our old cars are from 1998 and 2003, so this was a big change. In this blog post I’ll describe our decision process in more detail than anyone could possibly care about.

I was fairly confident I wanted to buy new rather than used. I know “new cars lose a ton of value the minute you drive them off the lot” (because why would someone buy from you when they can get the same thing from the dealer), but there’s also risk in buying a secondhand car. For example what if the first owner didn’t respect the break-in period, or didn’t change oil, transmission, or other fluids, or what if the seats got wet and there is early mildew growth? These problems are hard to check for and could reduce the longevity of the car or lead to higher maintenance costs. It’s plausible, at least, that the money lost by paying more upfront will be saved in maintenance costs in the long run. I guess I don’t have a lot of faith in the average person to treat a car decently. Plus who doesn’t appreciate a new car?

High level filtering

We had four requirements that narrowed the options significantly:

  • Can fit two rear-facing child car seats without inconveniencing driver or front passenger. Specifically our Graco Size4Me 65, which is huge (my review on Amazon, if you’re curious). This requirement eliminates a lot more cars than you would think if you don’t have much experience with rear-facing child car seats. Two great resources for this are Cars.com’s Car Seat Check and Alex on Autos’s Child Seat Reviews.
  • Enough cargo space for road trips and camping/climbing trips. For a family of four. This is subjective.
  • All wheel drive and decent ground clearance. Experience tells me that this is good enough for approach roads at many climbing areas while not hurting paved road handling or fuel economy too much.
  • Either a tow hitch or roof rails. For transporting bikes. I prefer a tow hitch.

That led me to SUVs and crossovers. So in May of last year I started making a spreadsheet of all 103 SUVs and crossovers currently sold in the US.

Mid level filtering

I spent a few hours here and there over the next few months recording various stats about each model. Length, fuel economy, seating capacity, etc. From early on I was reasonably confident that the Subaru Outback and Toyota Highlander would meet our requirements, so I used them as benchmarks for comparison. I crossed cars off the list if it was obvious we wouldn’t be happy with them. Some examples:

  • Too short (Kia Soul, Mazda CX-3). Generally anything shorter than our Corolla wouldn’t have as much trunk space as we wanted.
  • Absurdly long (Chevrolet Suburban, Infiniti QX80). Longer cars are more difficult to drive and park.
  • Poor gas mileage (Cadillac Escalade, Toyota Sequoia, Nissan Armada).
  • More expensive than other good options without clear benefits. (Bentley Bentayga, Toyota Land Cruiser). Subaru Outback MSRP is around $36k when configured with the features we wanted. We couldn’t bring ourselves to spend $20k more for the Lexus RX Hybrid or Volvo XC60, or $30k more for the Volvo XC90. That’s a huge difference. Sure, these are “luxury” cars and they’re nicer, but not $20k or $30k nicer. Not to us. So that eliminated a lot of cars. It basically wiped out the luxury brands: BMW, Lexus, Mercedes, Porsche, and Volvo.
  • Poor reliability, owner satisfaction, and road test scores from Consumer Reports. (Various Jeeps, Mitsubishi Outlander).
  • All electric (only the Tesla Model X). I love all-electric cars but we live in a building with a shared parking garage with no charging options. This also reduces the benefit of plug-in hybrids. We could have worked with the homeowner’s association to hire an electrician to install a charging station or at least an outlet, but we didn’t want to put forth the effort.

Low level filtering

And then it got difficult. We had a list of seventeen cars from eleven brands, any of which would be fine. Eleven dealerships is too many to visit. We needed to narrow it down further.

Diesel vs. gasoline wasn’t a factor—all the cars on our short list were gasoline.

Some cars have three rows of seats. We thought about whether that was important to us and decided it wasn’t. Children have to be in child seats or booster seats until they’re like 8 years old so we wouldn’t be driving anyone else’s kids around anytime soon so the extra seats would only be useful when we have extra adults with us which basically only happens when our parents are visiting, which is infrequent. So the third row is nice-to-have but certainly not a requirement.

I love hybrids in theory. We’re planning on owning this car for a long time so there probably is a small cost savings with a hybrid, but it isn’t huge. If the car we chose had a hybrid option we probably would have taken it, but it wasn’t something that factored into our decision.

Two person seat memory was an absolute requirement because I’d be driving the car on weekends and Emily would be driving it on weekdays. This didn’t rule out any cars, but it did mean we had to choose more expensive trims.

Blind spot monitoring was an absolute requirement—it’s a fantastic safety feature—but this didn’t rule out any cars, either.

We started visiting dealerships. We visited the Putnam group of dealerships in Burlingame, because they sell five of the brands on our list (Chevrolet, Buick, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota). We also visited dealerships for Hyundai, Kia, Toyota, and Subaru. We test drove a few cars and sat in a few more. I’m wary of American cars so we didn’t see the Ford Edge. The Acuras were a little pricier so we didn’t see them. Maybe we didn’t give them a fair chance.

We got a better idea how much trunk space we wanted and which features we did and did not care about, and we narrowed it down to four: Kia Sorento, Nissan Murano, Subaru Outback, and Toyota Highlander. The Highlander is the most expensive of the bunch, and we both thought the handling was cushier than we would like. Not the end of the world, but we thought the other options handled better (though we didn’t actually drive the Murano). The Highlander was also the most expensive of the bunch. The remaining three were similarly priced, though perhaps the Outback is slightly cheaper when built out with the options we wanted. The Outback also has better gas mileage than the Murano and Sorento. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Sorento’s frontend. Reviews generally praise the Outback’s AWD. Consciously this didn’t play a big part in our decision making, but subconsciously… who knows.

Then we decided on the Outback!

The spreadsheet

Switch to “The Short List” tab at the bottom to see only highly ranked cars. View full size in Google Sheets for ease of use and to see full column titles. Disclaimers:

  • Ratings and notes are my personal opinion for my specific needs. A car that’s a bad choice for me might be a good choice for someone else. In other words, sorry if I railed your car!
  • I make no promises about any of this data. If you notice a mistake let me know and I’ll fix it.
  • MPG numbers are from fueleconomy.gov (EPA and Department of Energy) for the all wheel drive trim with the best MPG (not necessarily what we would have bought, but useful for eliminating poor performers). Most numbers are for the 2018 model year, but a few are for 2017.
  • Most other info is for the 2017 model year, but some is for 2018.
  • An empty field means I didn’t collect data. I didn’t bother for many minor features, especially for cars that we had already ruled out.
  • The “as configured” price is a rough approximation of how much it would cost for us, configured with the features we want. This usually includes things like all wheel drive, blind spot indicators, lane departure warning, surround view cameras, etc.
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Two movie recommendations

Emily and I watched two movies recently that I thought were worth recommending.

The Accountant

Ben Affleck is an accountant and also a trained assassin. Rated R. It’s pretty violent and a lot of people get shot in the head, but I thought it wasn’t over the top gory. Emily wasn’t too turned off by it. Great pace. Interesting story. Some twists. Well-placed humor. Not a kids movie.

Netflix | IMDB

Spider-Man: Homecoming

I know, another Spider-Man reboot. It’s PG-13 and I assume middle and high school kids would love it. The action and story are fine. Interesting. Kinda quaint when compared to the planet-threatening aspects of some of the other recent Marvel movies. But that’s fine—kinda refreshing honestly. The best part is the lighthearted humor. The writing/acting/directing/editing really clicks. It’s playful and fun to watch.

Netflix | IMDB

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Assisted braking belay devices

Hey climbers, did you know there are assisted braking belay devices other than the Petzl Grigri? Did you know there are passive assisted braking devices where “passive” means “no moving parts”?

It occurred to me that many people might not be familiar with the other options. Weightmyrack.com has an extensive list. The Mammut Smart has been around for a while. I recently bought an Edelrid Mega Jul. I’ve only used it a few times but I’m fairly happy with it. The Black Diamond ATC Pilot is also interesting to me.

I don’t have enough experience with the various devices to recommend one over the other. If you’re thinking about buying a new belay device I encourage you to read a few reviews online, watch the manufacturer’s how-to video, and try to test out a friend’s device.

Lastly, I’d like to point out an important safety tip from an OutdoorGearLab review, “passive models do not generate the same braking force as active devices. … Contrary to what we’ve seen on the internet, the Smart and Mega Jul cannot be expected to catch even small falls without a brake hand on the rope. To say it another way, if your belayer gets knocked unconscious by rockfall, these passive assisted braking devices are unlikely to catch your fall.” And of course it’s wise to keep your brake hand on the rope for active braking devices, too.

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On the Shadow Brokers NSA leaks

The leaks published by The Shadow Brokers (Wikipedia, New York Times) are the perfect example of why we should minimize the sensitive information kept by the government. I posted about this in the context of encryption backdoors two years ago. But whether we’re talking about encryption backdoors, security vulnerabilities or hacking tools, the most reliable way to avoid data leaks is to not store the data in the first place. It can’t be stolen if it doesn’t exist.

A simplistic way to do risk analysis for data leaks is to ask “what are the chances this will happen?” But that’s wrong. Data leaks will happen. It’s not a question of “if” it’s a question of “how often and how severe.”

We can look at the WannaCry ransomware attack for a real-world example. The Wikipedia article cites damage estimates of hundreds of millions of dollars. We don’t know how long the NSA has been building hacking tools, but I’d be surprised if they started before the year 2000. Are we ok with $100 million dollars in damages/lost productivity worldwide every 17 years?
What if it was every 10 years? Every 5 years? What if the damages were worse?

I strongly believe the potential harm from withholding security vulnerabilities far exceeds the potential gain from attempting to keep them private. The NSA shouldn’t be stockpiling security vulnerabilities or building hacking tools, and they shouldn’t have backdoors into encryption. The advantages do not justify the disadvantages.

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