Sunday, October 29, 2006

Anecdotal data is very misleading

Lots of people travel to Europe and then come back and rave about how good the drivers are in other countries and how politely they treat cyclists. I'm in fact one of them. However, I've had extremely poor experiences in Italy, where the only time I got buzzed in all of Europe was down the Italian side of Tenda pass, with the other lane completely clear and free. Even in
California this doesn't happen to me. In an effort to understand the statistics, I took a look at a few web-sites.

An examination of european cycling statistics shows that the Italians are by far the most dangerous to cyclists in all of Europe, followed by the British and the Austrians.

By contrast, the US is at 0.2 fatalities per million mile (source here). Translating that into the kilometer chart provided in the Europen statistics link, that would be 12 fatalities per 100 million kilometers, which isn't a whole lot worse than the Italians (who are at 11 fatalities per 100 million kilometers).

According to the California Highway Patrol Integrated Statistics, cycling in California is no worse than cycling in other parts of the USA, after correcting for the fact that more cycling happens in California than in many other states. In fact, the statistics point out that it's probably considerably better.

All in all, my suspicions are confirmed: the two worst countries to ride a bike in are the US and Italy.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Review of Prima Taste

So I went to Prima Taste on Friday with a friend. We're both from Singy/M'sia.

Food is not very good. Far below par of either Singaporean/Malaysain Restaurant in San Francisco or Layang Layang in Cupertino.

We ordered the following dishes:

Nasi Lemak with Rendang Chicken
Mee Goreng
Roti Canai
Kang Kong Belachan

Nasi Lemak
The Nasi Lemak came on a big plate with about one bowl of rice, the sambal on the side, and the rendang chicken in a bowl. The ikan bilis was spread all around and there was one hard boiled egg sliced also on the plate.

The rice was the best part of this nasi lemak plate as the sambal was very weak on spice and flavor and the rendang chicken not tasting anything like rendang chicken. More like slightly spiced up chicken in a red tasteless sauce.

Mee Goreng
This was passable. It falls far below the standard at Layang Layang though. The flavoring and the spice level was all off and they didn't fry it quite long enough. So rather than a super dry fried noodle dish, it came off as slightly damp, as if all the water used to boil the noodles wasn't quite gone yet. I forgot what the mee goreng came with, but i think it was egg and chicken and some sprouts. Very forgettable.

Roti Canai
This was bad. The roti canai was very rubbery. the curry had the flavor but no spice. We did let the roti go cold a little bit becuase we were eating other stuff, but still, disappointing. No fragrance in the roti or the curry.

Probably the best dish we had. The sauce was just about right, the ingredients was right too (though my friend who's from penang commented that in penang they don't put sprouts on the rojak), with ample amounts of pineapple, cucumbers and chinese donuts, tau pok.

Kang Kong Belachan
This was the worst dish. No belachan at all! they only cooked it with garlic and oil

So in summary, I have to say, avoid Prima Taste with your life! Go to layang layang, or even that place in Milpitas square! Better food! Primataste is cheap though, but its not worth it in my opinion!


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Review: Kingdom Coming, by Michelle Goldberg

I have to admit that Salon Magazine is one of my favorite on-line magazines. It's unabashedly liberal, thoughtful, and has impeccable taste. Michelle Goldberg is a senior editor there, and writes some of the more interesting political articles.

Her book is about the rise of the religious conservatism and Christian Nationalism, whose goal it is to turn the United States into a Christian Nation, with One Nation Under God. That this is a burgeoning grass-roots movement there is no doubt, from both the anti-evolutionary movements, the anti-abortion movements, the anti-gay marriage movements, as well as the christianization of today's politics, where every politician has to at least pay lip-service to Christianity.

There's a lot of fear-mongering in this book, drawing many parallels between the the totalitarian movements (fascism among others) and the goals of the Christian Nationalistic movements. What is stunning though is the pessimism she has, as well as the lack of any intelligent political strategy that she thinks is effective. Off the top of my head I can think of many effective ones relying on the factionalization of the Christian religion. Seriously, Anglicanism, Southern Baptism, Presbytarianism, and many other Christian factions can be considered separate religions with little in common. Many of them, for instance, would be horrified to think of a federal government that's controlled by the Mormons, for instance. This could easily be used to promote a stricter separation of Church and State.

Nonetheless, I do intend to keep an up to date passport in case things do turn out for the worst and I have to flee the country. In any case, foreign investments look more and more appealing --- a country gripped by fundamentalism is likely to become one in which technology and science is neglected, leaving an opportunity for non-Americans to thrive and leave U.S. corporations behind in competitive markets.
Whenever I talk about the growing power of the evangelical right with friends and acquaintances, they always ask the same question: What can we do? Usually I reply with a joke: Keep a bag packed and your passport current. I don't really mean it, but my underlying anxiety is genuine... In the coming months and years, we will probably see the curtailment of the civil rights that gay people, women, and religious minorities have won in the last few decades... From what I've witnessed while researching this book, I'm convinced that Christian nationalist symbolism and ideology will increasingly pervade public life.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Dan Gilbert on Happiness

(Link requires flash)

An excellent talk on Happiness by Harvard psychology professor. Very much worth the 22 minutes it takes to watch it. (Thanks to Greg Mankiw for the pointer) There's also a recent wall street journal article that's worth reading that follows up with interesting titbits like:
  • The one piece of unhappiness that people never get used to is a bad commute. You can't get used to it because a bad commute is a different kind of hell every day. So the worst thing you can do is to buy a bigger house in the suburbs and get a bad commute out of it. The happiness from having a bigger house dissipates really quickly, but the bad commute's unhappiness stays around forever.
  • People under-estimate the pleasures of socializing, chatting with friends, and otherwise goofing off.
If you know me personally, send me e-mail and I'll dig up the article and forward it to you. Or if you already have a Wall Street Journal subscription, This Link is good for 60 days.

And for those of you who are wealthy (you know who you are), here's a pointer on how to spend that money to maximize happiness.

The Omnivore's Dilemna

The Omnivore's Dilemna should be familiar to most of us: since us humans can pretty much eat anything, how do we figure out what's good for us to eat? In the modern age, our instincts (which lean heavily towards the sweet and the savory) can easily lead us wrong.

Michael Pollan explores this in four meals: the industrial meal, as typified by the fast food industry, the industrial organic meal, as typified by the Whole Foods culture, the beyond organic meal, with grass-fed, management intensive farming produce, and finally the hunter/gatherer meal, where he hunted and foraged for his own food.

While he does not measure up to the platonic ideals of some of these meals, he does manage to cover a lot of the issues involved in food. After reading this book, you will probably never look at corn fed beef the same way again. But Whole Foods doesn't come across very well either --- its aisles come in for intense scrutiny, and the fact is that a large scale operation like Whole Foods cannot live up to the ideals as espoused by the original organic farming credo, which means that the organic label is now as much marketing as it is an indication of how the food is made.

I am of two minds about the attitudes behind a book like this. On one hand, how do you account for the fact that modern humans have the longest lifespans today, compared to humans living in the past? When farmers did not have fossil fuels and petroleum based fertilizers, crop failures were common, and people did starve! While industrialized agriculture indeed is fossil-fuel intensive and undesirable in many ways, cheap food has in many ways benefited the poorest among us, and I for one wouldn't go back to the days when a crop failure could doom thousands to starvation.

On the other hand, after reading a book like this, I become more sensitized to how the food is grown. There are techniques (such as those being used by Polyface Farms, as described in the book) where the farming isn't just good for profits, but also does good things for the land the animals graze on, and keeps the animals happy as well. The resulting food is also much better for you, nutritionally. It won't be cheap, but that's why we have good jobs, right? So selfishly, what I want is for this type of farming to take over, pay more for the food, and in the mean time reduce global warming emissions and pollution. That's worth the price to me.

Focus in for a moment on just the relationship between Budger and the tuft of fescue she's tearing from its crown. Those blades of grass have spent this long June day turning sunlight into sugars... To feed the photosynthetic process the grass's roots have drawn water and minerals up from deep in the soil (some grasses can sink their roots as much as six feet down), minerals that soon will become part of this cow. Chances are Budger has also chosen exactly which grasses to eat first, depending on whatever minerals her body craves that day; some species supply her more magnesium, others more potassiuml. (If she's feeling ill she might go for the plantain, a forb whose leaves contain antibiotic compounds; grazing cattle instinctively use the diversity of the salad bar to medicate themselves.)

Friday, October 13, 2006

Joseph Stiglitz @ Google

One of the best perks of working at Google is the series of authors and excellent speakers talking at Google. Today, we had Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz visiting to discuss his book, Making Globalization Work. As an economics junkie, I usually go to these talks not really expecting to learn much, since anything that's comprehensible to the general audience would usually have showed up in my prior reading.

In this case, though I was wrong. There were a lot of surprising facts I learnt during the talk that I didn't know before:

The Uruguay round of trade talks actually made poor countries poorer. What had happened was that the cold war ended. While the USA had a major interest in being nice to the poorer countries while the cold war was going on, once the cold war had ended, trade representatives sent to WTO talks essentially changed gears to try to get the best deals they could. Examples included the intellectual property agreements which essentially prohibited cheap generic drug copies of Pharmaceutical medicines. These essentially wrote the death sentences of many many people in poor countries.

Many pro globalization apologists stated that economic theory means that free trade is a win-win situation for the countries as a hold. "The rising tide lifts all boats." What really happened was that "The riptide wrecks the smallest boats." All Economic theory predicts is that free trade provides sufficient gains such that the winners can compensate the losers and still come out ahead (hence the "win-win" part). What it does not say is that the winners will compensate the losers, and in most cases what has happened is that the winners do not. In fact, in many poorer countries what has happened is that the winners try to create a perpetual monopoly of many key resources such that most of the benefits of trade go to them, leaving the rest of the country in poverty. In Venezuela, for instance, most of the oil profits until Chavez came along went to a tiny portion of society leaving the rest of the society poor. Remember that this was oil in the ground --- the wealthy people of Venezuela did not put the oil there. They just controlled access to the resource and used it to their benefits.

(I've heard over and over again the arguments for trade, but to hear a Nobel prize winner provide the clear arguments that trade without spreading the benefits of trade around society will eventually lead to a backlash against trade is a wonderful thing to my ears)

He went on to discuss intellectual property rights, stating that if you don't get the laws governing IP rights correct, you get all the disadvantages of restricting knowledge, without any of the incentives that you were trying to get by having IP property. For example, the Wright brothers got a patent on airplane after Kitty Hawk, but so did Curtiss, and no private company making planes could afford to pay both parties the patent fees, so it wasn't until World War I when the government set in and said that this was too important for you to hold up development that the aircraft industry got its real start.

Another example: In the race to decode the human genome, we already had a plan as to how to go about doing it and a schedule. However, private companies wanted to pick out the valuable genes to get a patent on the gene, so they raced ahead on the decoding. The social value: it was decoded slightly earlier, a small benefit if it is indeed one. The social cost: someone got a patent on the gene related to breast cancer. Another company wanted to provide a free test for breast cancer, but the patent holder wanted money. Result: large numbers of people will die unnecessarily. Canada decided not to honor this patent, but the US still honors it.

The big drug companies have not decided to use their money for more research on drugs that would save more people, but instead spent its money on marketing, advertising, and lifestyle drugs for people in rich countries. This is rational economic behavior, but it means that we've gotten our incentive system wrong. There's a proposal in his book where he discusses using a prize system rather than a monopoly system to disseminate knowledge as widely as possible. When the incentives are not working in the right direction, and we should redesign the incentives correctly to improve both economic efficiency and equity.

He finished off with a discussion of Global Warming, which to him exemplified the failure of globalization --- even if we solve the problem of economic globalization, if we don't solve our environmental problems, it might not matter. He said Kyoto had several failures, chiefest of which was the US not being a signatory, and protection of forests not being put into place. (i.e., Countries got more credit for cutting down their trees and then planting new trees, rather than for protecting the ones they had)

He ended the talk by saying that he was still optimistic that we could still make globalization work, and that things were still in a fluid stage. All I can say is that I hope he's right.

While getting my copy of his book signed, I made a statement that globalization's ill effects have only started hitting the media only when the white collar workers were affected --- when all it affected was workers in Detroit, nobody paid attention. He laughed and said "Yes. It's only a story when the reporter's next door neighbour's job gets outsourced to India. And it's a problem for free trade supporters. When Ross Perot said in the 1992 election words like 'Giant Sucking Sound', we could say, 'We didn't want those jobs anyway. We want good jobs, high wage jobs like programmers, etc.' When it's programmer jobs getting outsourced to India, we can't say that anymore."

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Movie Review: MirrorMask

Written by Neil Gaiman, and directed and created by artist Dave McKean, this is the story of Helena Campbell, a girl whose parents run a circus but who would love to run away to join the real world, inverting the fictional convention of children who want to run away to join the circus. The night Helena and her mom has an argument, her mom falls sick and has to be taken away to the hospital. Helena then enters a fantasy world where she has to find out why she's there, what's happening, and how to rescue herself and her mother.

Visually, the film looks very pretty, though there's quite a lot of computer generated graphics that obviously look out of place, the effects aren't at all crude and the actors are OK. The story is full of little things that I'm stealing for my next game of Grimm.

The DVD has a great making of feature that's worth watching (especially since I've never met Dave McKean). Be warned though, if you don't enjoy Dave McKean's art, the entire movie is going to look horrid to you. I'm not the world's greatest fan of Dave McKean, but I found the look tolerable.

While not the most earthshaking work I've seen, it's worth viewing on DVD if you get a chance. (I checked my copy out of the Mountain View library)
[Update: Googler Tom Galloway can be heard in the DVD asking the question, "How did the two of you meet?"]

San Jose Rock & Roll Half Marathon


That's my time for the 1/2 marathon. I actually started with the 2 hours 15 minute group thinking I'll have a hard time keeping up with them...but once the race started, I felt really good at mile 1 and decided to go off on my own (they were going a little slower than I usually do). Around mile 10, I caught up with the 2 hour group (the group I originally signed up for, but didn't feel good enough the morning of...), and later on passed them, hence my slightly better than 2 hour time.

I ran the whole race with a relatively full bladder, thinking I should go pee around mile never got very bad though and I think having the bladder somwhat urgent kept me running rather quickly instead of relaxing, which isn't bad. Definitely something to think about.

One thing I underestimtaed was how much harder my regular training runs regular training run involves basically running laps of 2.3 miles multiple times. The lap however is on a slight incline with one small hump and then some regular downhill sections which makes the training a little tougher than that of a treadmill or running on a flat path. The San Jose RnR was on a really flat course which I think contributed in no small part to my running the fastest time I've ever done for 10 miles, or less.

The last 1/2 mile was finished with some rather strong kicks, and all in all, I cannot say I'm at all unhappy with my results. Quite the contrary. =)

The painful part was catching a flight 1 hour after my run...sitting one hour on the plane and having to fight very hard to get up after the 1 hour (joints appeared to be locked up a little....)

Next target, a full marathon!

I'll post pics the moment I have some from the professional photographers.

Fall bike parts inventory

2 Front Phil Wood 36 wheels
2 Rear Phil Wood Freewheel 36 spoke wheels

1 Tandem 48 spoke front Phil
1 Tandem 48 spoke rear Phil (Freehub)

1 spare Avocet 700x25
1 Avocet 700x28 (unmounted, blown off rim twice)

Hm... I seem to be running low on tires.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Review: The Polysyllabic Spree

This book by Nick Hornby is basically a collection of his monthly column about books from The Believer. The column illustrates why Hornby gets paid for his writing while the rest of us have to have day jobs. Here's an excerpt from his critique of Desperate Characters:
I know I'm wrong about this book, because everyone else in the world, including writers I love, thinks it's fantastic, but it Wasn't For Me. It's brilliantly written, I can see that much, and it made me think too. But mostly I thought about why I don't know anyone like the people Fox writes about. Why are all my friends so dim and unreflective? Where did I go wrong?

Toward the end of the book, Otto and Sophie, the central couple, go to stay in their holiday home. Sophie opens the door to the house, and is immediately reminded of a friend, an artist who used to visit them there; she thinks about him for a page or so. The reason she's thinking about him is that she's staring at something he loved, a vinegar bottle shaped like a bunch of grapes. The reason she's staring at the bottle is because it's in pieces. And the reason it's in pieces is because someone has broken in and trashed the palce, a fact we only discover when Sophie has snapped out of her reverie. At this point, I realized with some regret that not only could I never write a literary novel, but I couldn't even be a character in a literary novel. I can only imagine myself, or any character I created, saying, "Shit! Some bastard has trashed the ouse!" No ruminations about artist friends---just a lot of cursing, and maybe some empty threats of violence.

Even great books of literature, such as David Copperfield receives such treatment. Hornby is irreverent, clearly enjoys reading as well as pricking holes in pretentious authors, and extremely entertaining. Not even his hosts escape his sarcastic wit:

The Spree's idea of a good time was to book tickets for a literary event---a reading given by all the nominees for the National Book Critic's Circle Awards---and sit there for two and a half hours. Actually, that's not quite true: they didn't sit there. Such is their unquenchable passion for the written word that they were too excited to sit. They stood, and they wept, and they hugged each other, and occasionally they even danced---to the poetry recitals, and some of the more up-tempo biography nominees. In England we don't often dance at dances, let along readings, so I didn't know where to look. Needless to say, drink, drugs, food, and sex played no part in the festivities. But who needs any of that when you've got literature.

One of the things I try to do when I read a book is to provide an excerpt from it in the blog entry, as an attempt to capture the atmosphere of the book in a little snippet. I regret to say that Hornby does me one better. He reproduces a good page of the book as his snippet, and the selection is quite good, usually something he referenced in his review of the book.

If there's anything with The Polysyllabic Spree, it is that at no point did I want to get off my couch and order one of the books he's read, or even place a hold on it in the library. All I want to do is to find more Hornby and read him.

Highly recommended!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Neil Gaiman Talk @Google

My second time attending an Authors@Google talk.

He was at Google to give a short signing/reading tour (more reading than signing, as he puts it) of his short story collection, Fragile Things. As with every Authors@Google, copies of his new book was given out and I got one of them.

The Talk was fabulous and I enjoyed it very much. He was every bit as funny, irreverant and entertaining as one would expect from an author/writer as diverse as he is. I still think his graphic novels represent the epitome of his career, and his books suffered the same symptoms that his longer story arcs in his comics did, but he's still quite the talespinner.

The reading was nice, though not quite as interesting as the rest of the talk. He gave a reading on a variation of how the Arabian Nights came to be, describing it as how authors/writers work: often on threat of death, or the semblance of it.

Some choice quotes from his talk today (all from forgive if I got some of it wrong)

In Reference to working with Hollywood:
"You remember how in those stories with elves, and you work very hard for them, and they give you a bag of gold, but in the morning that bag of gold has turned into leaves and the leaves blow away with the wind? Well, Hollywood is like that too, except with a little twist. You work very hard for them, and they give you that bag of gold, but in the morning, your work turn into leaves and blows away and you're left with your bag of gold"
In Reference to why Roger Avary is not directing the Beowulf Movie:

"Bob Zemeckis asked Roger if he could make a film based on our script, and Roger said "No, I'm going to direct this movie."

"How about if we gave you this wheelbarrow full of cash?"

"No, I'm going to direct this movie."

"How about if we gave you two wheelbarrows full of cash?"

" no...I want to direct this movie."

"How about if we gave you one wheelbarrow full of cash, another wheelbarrow full of cash for Neil, and a third wheelbarrow of cash for you to do whatever you want with it?"

"Sure! You can do the movie!"
All in all, a most excellent talk, and I even got my copy of Fragile Things signed.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Pigeon Point 2006

Pigeon Point 2006
Sep 30, 2006 - 71 Photos

This year's pigeon point run was a lot of fun. Thanks to Lisa's contacts, we managed to get 12 people from work to ride over there for an overnight trip. Most had never done any overnight cycling trips before, but Tanya even volunteered to run a SAG wagon for us, so those who didn't want to didn't have to carry any overnight gear.

Thanks to one of Lisa's friends, Teresa, we even managed to get the sunset spot for the hot tub prebooked before we arrived, and everyone got a chance to enjoy the beautiful hot tub. Despite 3 flat tires, and a few spills, I think it's safe to say that everyone had a good time.