Friday, March 31, 2006

Review: The Cosmic Landscape

Leonard Suskind is one of the co-inventors of string theory, but this book is not, strictly speaking, an explanation of string theory. Rather, Suskind uses the book as a platform to explain and evangelize the Anthropic Principle as an explanation of why the world we exist is the way it is.

What's wierd about modern physics is that it seems to be exceedingly complicated. Considering that up till the invention of quantum mechanics, all the physics that was known were really short and simple, this is a strange turn of events. Suskind deserves kudos for not attempting to oversimplify string theory, Feynman diagrams, or the strange world of quantum mechanics. In fact, he has one of the best explanations of Feynman diagrams I've read to date. His explanation of the many-worlds interpretation and the megaverse/multiverse is also thorough, fair-minded, and extremely well put. Science Fiction fans will find a lot to enjoy in this book.

Ultimately, though, my recent foray into modern physics is disappointing. There are no deep insights, no grand theories that explain anything. String theory itself makes no predictions:

Throughout this book I have dismissed beauty, uniqueness, and elegance as false mirages. The Laws of Physics (in the sense that I defined them in chapter 1) are neither unique nor elegant. It seems that the world, or our part of it, is a Rube Goldberg machine...

... I often joke that if the best theories are the ones with the minimum number of defining equations and principles, String Theory is by far the best --- no one has ever found even a single defining equation or principle! String Theory gives every indication of being a very elegant mathematical structure with a degree of consistency far beyond any other physical theory. But nobody knows what its defining rules are, nor does anyone know the basic "building blocks" are.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Review: Superman: Secret Identity

I seem to be on a Kurt Busiek binge lately. This little piece was a four part mini series focusing on the life of a Clark Kent who was teased as he was growing up and then discovers to his surprise that he does have the power of Superman. This is, of course, the ultimate adolescent fantasy, and Kurt Busiek is well aware of it and plays on it quite well. His aim, which he discloses in the foreward, was to use Superman as an icon to reflect on the various phases of a man's lifecycle, so he has this Superman age, so he deals with the problems of being an adult, becoming a father, having children, and then faced with losing his powers as he ages.

Overall, the topics are handled quite well, and the book is a good read, but rather lightweight. The topics are breezed through rather cursorily, though the art is gorgeous and lovely to look at. Recommended, but not nearly as insightful as Alan Moore's Miracleman. Read that first, if you can get a hold of it.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

2006 Book Reviews

If you're just looking for reading materials, I've recently posted the 2006 books of the year.

Fiction
Non-fiction
Graphic Novels (aka Comic Books)

Review: The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks

Banks is not exactly a hard science fiction writer, even though his novels have a veneer of it. Typically, he leaves the hard science exposition really empty (unlike Stephen Baxter) and concentrates on the characters. In this book, however, he plays a joke on long time readers of his, and writes a book that is more mystery than science fiction or character exposition.

The main plot revolves around Fassin, a delver, a member of a class of scholars who have been privileged to interact directly or through telemetry with the denizens of his local system's gas giant, creatures who call themselves Dwellers. The Dwellers are a really long-lived species, dating back several billion years, but seem to have dropped themselves out of interacting with other species that they call "The Quick".

Several hundred years ago,Fassin accidentally discovered a piece of Dweller text that implies that the Dwellers have a secret wormhole network that permeates most star systems in the galaxy, and when word of that leaked out a war was started. Now Fassin must once again delve into the local gas giant and find the secret key to the wormhole network before invaders take over his home. The mystery to be solved by the reader is the nature of the wormhole network and what the key is. Clues are scattered throughout the novel, which has the structure of a repeated quest.

Distractions are provided through descriptions of a number of Fassin's friends and their relationship to him. This piece of misdirection worked incredibly well --- for instance, Banks spends page after page building up a particularly dastardly villain, only to dispatch him in less than a paragraph near the end of the book, which meant that I didn't concentrate on the mystery at all. There's no physics knowledge or higher mathematics needed to solve the mystery --- all the bits are provided there right in the book for you.

My only complain about the book, then, is that Banks needed to say, "Mystery! Mystery!" all over the frontipiece of the book instead of "Science Fiction!" Recommended, but I would not buy the hardback.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Rebalancing a Portfolio is hard...

So I finally sat down and systematically rebalanced my portfolio. From when I started to when I finished was about one and a half hours. My primary tools were Vanguard's web-site and Excel (any spreadsheet will do, but when you copy and paste a table from a web browser into Excel, it does the right thing and numbers stay numbers, which is very important for fast imports).

Vanguard offers a unified account consolidation view (including all your bank accounts, savings accounts etc), so when I selected and pasted that into Excel, I got all my financial data in one easy place (I don't trust my quicken accounts, since it's not completely up to date). I then create a table with my ideal asset allocation (I use the table provided at The Retire Early Home Page to set up my allocations).

After that, it's a matter of systematically assigning allocations to my existing investments, and adding up all my assets. (Don't forget to subtract your liabilities!) Then you figure out how far each asset class deviates from your ideal, and rebalance. In my case, there were a few items I didn't want to touch, so I over-rode my ideal allocation and went with something less than ideal (isn't that life?). For each asset class, you might want to sub-divide the allocation. (For instance, for domestic stocks, you might want to divide into small cap/mid cap/large cap, or for maximum convenience just use a "Total Stock Market Index")

Then another visit to the Vanguard web-site to perform the asset re-allocation.

A few things to watch out for:
  1. When allocating assets, if possible move stuff around in retirement accounts for the rebalancing. That allows your rebalancing to be tax-free to the largest extent possible.
  2. Consider the size of the re-allocation. If it's large enough, ETFs might make more sense than index funds. If it's too small, then mutual funds are more efficient.
  3. If you're going to take a loss from a re-allocation, depending on your circumstance, it might make sense to try to make it a long term loss rather than a short term loss, or vice-versa. (one tax management trick I've done in the past is to harvest a loss by exchanging one fund for another fund of the same asset class, thus staying invested while getting a capital loss for tax purposes --- but obviously, that's not as good as having lots of capital gains everywhere in your portfolio!) Note that such tax tricks are better off done closer to the end of the year when your overall tax picture is closer.
  4. Your tax situation should only dictate which particular vehicles you want to use for your asset classes, not which asset classes you want to be in.
How often should you rebalance? Well, if you're David Swensen managing the Yale endowment portfolio, every day! If you're the typical individual investor, then once a year is what's typically recommended. Of course, your circumstances can vary!

Interestingly enough, if Vanguard is your employer's 401(k) manager, the on-line tool gives you a one-button rebalancing option (it rebalances to your 401(k) new money allocation, which is what you want if the 401(k) is your primary investment asset). That's very nice, but can't take into account your overall financial situation. Nevertheless, for those whose primary investment assets are in their 401(k) and are lucky enough to have Vanguard as the 401(k) trustee, it's a very nice button. Just push it and you're done! No spread-sheets, no tax consequences, and no hard thinking.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Trouble comes in threes

On Sunday, my network hard drive (a Ximeta NetDisk) died a horrible death, taking all the data on it with it. And of course, I did not have an adequate backup plan. So off to Fry's again, where I bought a replacement IDE drive for the Ximeta enclosure (which was fine and serves quite well) and an external USB drive to back up the Ximeta disk.

Then today, my laptop hard drive died. Fortunately, it's a corporate machine so it's backed up by IT (I think!).

Finally, on my way home, I got a flat. Let's hope that's the end of my troubles this time.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Review: Hiding in the Mirror

Laurence Krauss wrote The Physics of Star Trek, which despite its lightweight nature, was good reading and accurate. This book, a non-technical treatise on string theory and superstring theory, is a good enough book for someone with very little understanding of Physics or Mathematics, but unfortunately, string theory and all of its variations are such a complex subject that I barely gained an understanding of what it was by the end of the book.

The first half of the book is about dimensionality, which includes one of the best explanations of Einstein's theory of relativity in layman's form that I have read. This part is easy going and a good refresher even for those of us who've covered the material before. The second half bogs down in attempts to explain Mathematical concepts in English, which of course is very hard, especially since string theory appears to be an entirely mathematical concept --- there has not been any successful attempts to prove it correct or wrong, which means that the theory has made no useful predictions. Of course, that doesn't mean it's not elegant mathematics, but it does mean that it's an incomplete story. I hope Krauss is around to explain the story when the Physicists finally figure it out one way or another.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Snow on Serra Azul

It was supposed to be snow at 500' on the night of the 12th, so Lisa & I hiked up to see it! It was pretty warm as we hiked, with rain coming down, so we expected to be disappointed, but indeed there was plenty of snow! Posted by Picasa

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Saturday's Ride

It had snowed the day before, so Roberto Peon, Mike Samuel and I decided to go see if we could see some up close on Diablo. Roberto, in particular, had acquired a nice carbon Fuji and wanted to see how it would do on some substantial climbs. There was some confusion with the meeting point and I had an inexplicable flat front tire in the parking lot at Diablo Vista Park, but with everything ready we got rolling by 10:30.

The ride to the South entrance if Diablo State Park was enough to get us warmed up, and the climb up Mt. Diablo Scenic Drive soon led us to glorious vistas of the area below: San Ramon and its environs. The day was clear and there was very little mist in the air. To my chagrin I realized that in all the excitement to get going I had left my camera at home! We saw a bit of snow near the peaks, but it didn’t look like it was completely covered in snow. We rode along at a good clip, and as we passed the entrance station we saw a sign that said the road was closed at the Juniper campground.

At the junction, we stopped and rested and ate a little bit before turning right and up towards the summit. Traffic was quite heavy, probably because there were others with the same ideas we had, but wanted to drive up as far as they could. In 2 miles we arrived at the Juniper campground and sure enough, it was closed. The road closed sign was evidently traversable by bicycle but with 2 rangers watching me I did not feel like blatantly ignoring the sign, so we refilled out water-bottles, put on and started rolling down the hill. As I got near the junction road, I saw a steep path leading off from the main road and two men climbing it, one wearing suspenders. I knew it had to be none other than Grant Petersen, so I shouted out his name and rolled up the path.

Grant stopped and I introduced my companions. He was test riding the new 650B tires (I forgot the name: Lumpy Frumpy?), and they definitely looked hefty enough for serious trail riding, with a dimpled tread pattern. We chatted a bit and he asked me why I wasn’t at the handmade bike show in San Jose. I had forgotten all about that show, but in any case would rather be riding bikes than looking at them. I mentioned that we were going to ride Morgan Territory road, and Grant’s companion said, “Good for you!” in a tone of voice that made Roberto and Mike say, “Great. Now we know we’re in for it!” I told Grant about the road closure, and he said that the rangers wouldn’t have fined us even if we had made an illegal run up the mountain. Oh well. I asked Roberto and Mike if they felt like going back up there, and the consensus seemed to be that we had plenty more climbing ahead of us, so we said goodbye to the Rivendellers and headed down the hill.

Roberto had great fun with his new bike on the descent, and proclaimed it excellent as he rolled and rolled up and down some of the rollers. Soon enough we were in Walnut Creek and made the right turn onto the Contra-Costa County bike trail, which we took over to Treat Blvd and Turtle Creek road. As we approached the town of Clayton, Roberto got a front flat, and discovered a torn in his tire. He took a look at the inner tube of his front wheel and decided that the rubber was so thin that it was just looking for an excuse to puncture, so he put in a new one and threw away the other.

Soon enough, we were in Clayton where we had lunch outside at the Grill. Around us I could see clouds start to gather as the temperature dropped. After a too-heavy-for-me lunch, we started down Marsh Creek road again, which made its way up a hill to get over to the ridge where Morgan Territory road started. I definitely felt the lunch work its way into my stomach, so perhaps Marsh Creek road wasn’t surprisingly steep. Having climbed it on a tandem only, I didn’t think it would be as painful on a single, but apparently it’s not the road, it must always have been the excess food in my stomach.

Traffic on Marsh Creek road was heavy, and it was a relief when the descent started and led us at the bottom to Morgan Territory road where we could relax and breath for a bit. Morgan Territory road starts out as being a few farms and houses and then plunges down to alongside a creek and turned into a road that was narrow (single-lane only), rough, and debris-laden. Nevertheless, the sound of the creek was lovely (I had never seen it so full), and the road as pleasant to ride as ever.

We rolled along a little bit at a gentle pace but soon enough, Roberto felt a bit of vim in started turning up the speed. It took everything I had to stay with him, but as he turned a steep corner I dug down and found nothing, so decided to let him go ahead. After a few corners I saw him again, but he had just passed a truck parked alongside the road and the driver was shooting pictures, so I posed a bit. As I passed I asked him if the camera was digital and he said “yes.” So I turned around and went back to him to provide an e-mail address so he could e-mail me photos. We chatted a bit and he mentioned that Mike was a distance behind me, but I had no doubt he would catch up. I took my leave of Brian Daniels and went after Roberto with little motivation.

It didn’t take long, however, before I spotted him waiting at the entrance to the Morgan Territory Regional Preserve parking lot. He told me he waited for 4 or 5 minutes and looked very happy. It didn’t take long before Mike showed up. “We’re not far from the top now, and we’ll stop there to put on clothes.” “Is it a bad descent?” “No, it’s straight and long, but the feeling of falling out of the sky always makes me nervous.”

What I was unprepared for, however, was the views. The wind had swept away all clouds while we were climbing, and we could see as far as the windmills of Livermore and the Bay. It looked stunning by the light of the mid-afternoon sun, and I wished I had brought my camera. The descent along the twisty road with lots of blind corners and a single lane wasn’t excessively fast, but had a dreamy, flight-like quality along the smooth road with very little wind. Roberto took off like a rocket as soon as the road started developing rollers, and Mike said to me, “You’ve created a monster.” “Indeed, on his new bike, he climbs fast, descends fast, and rolls fast on the flat!”

We regrouped at the bottom of Morgan Territory road, turned onto Manning and Highland roads, and rolled the remaining miles through beautiful pastoral country side with light coming through partly cloudy skies. All in all, it was a great ride with 63 miles and about 5000’ of climbing.

Piaw on Morgan Territory road

Here I am, a few seconds later. I'd noticed the photographer, so I tried to look more comfortable.
Photo Credit: Brian DanielsPosted by Picasa

Roberto Climbing Morgan Territory Road


Here's Roberto climbing Morgan Territory Road on March 4th. He looks a little tired here, but he was kicking my ass!
Photo Credit: Brian DanielsPosted by Picasa

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ok, now I need a gtags intern

I previously mentioned that I already had a summer intern for 2006. Well, my intern accepted a full-time offer at Google, so now she's not going to be my intern but will be a colleague instead (yay!). Which leaves me still wanting an intern for gtags for summer 2006. If you're interested in working on gtags, please send me e-mail (or post in the comments with contact information). If you've already submitted your resume through the google intern application process, please just note your name and I'll work the internal system and try to schedule you for an interview. (No promises: if your resume doesn't look good to me, then you won't get an interview or call back)