Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Review: Glasshouse

I'm a long time Singularity Skeptic, but I have no problems with the singularity as a science fiction concept. It's just that only Charles Stross and Greg Egan have had the guts and imagination to actually postulate and follow through on creating a world where nano-assemblers, unlimited storage and intelligence augmentation can happen, and create a compelling story out of it that is more than just a paean to the gods of Moore's Law.

In his latest novel, Charles Stross postulates a world where nano-assemblers have been perfected, along with the editing of human bodies and memories, as well as FTL-travel through gates. What is the biggest threat to such a civilization? It's energy sources are limitless, as are its ability to churn out material goods. Being a computer scientist itself, Stross postulates a virus/worm, one that insinuates itself using human beings as a vector, and exploits the very operating system behind the civilization.

The story revolves around Robin, a man who wakes up from his latest memory surgery (if you're going to live several thousand years, you're going to have to toss out memories once in a while) with surprisingly little recollection of who he is, except for a note to himself that he wrote (a suspiciously archaic medium for transmission of information). While in his recovery state, he meets an attractive woman named Kay, who sells him on the idea of joining an experiment, one purportedly designed to explore the history of the pre-Singularity civilization.

That civilization, of course, is North American suburbia during the 1990s, and Robin wakes up to find himself in a woman's body, subject to the suffocating rules thought up by those running the experiment in an attempt to simulate the social norms of the 1950s... Or so the reader thinks. As the plot unravels in a series of memory-recovery flashbacks and Robin/Reeve's investigation of her new-found milleu, we discover that the experiment is not what it seems, and Reeve herself is not just an unreliable narrator, but apparently has motives that are not quite revealed to even herself.

The book has several twists and turns, including an ending that's quite a bang, though perhaps the ending is just a bit too Hollywood for my taste.

This book has done something no other book has in recent years: it kept me up well past my bed-time reading. The book starts slow at first, but by the middle chapters Stross hits his stride: the pacing is perfect, the characters believable, and the narration hones to perfection. Charles Stross is definitely at the peak of his craft here, unlike many of his other recent novels. Perhaps the book I can think of most similar to this is Joe Haldeman's All My Sins Remembered, which if you've read that book, is extremely high praise indeed.

Highly recommended, and excellent airplane reading. Just don't expect to be able to put it down once you get going.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Sunrise from Mt. Hamilton



Bill Bushnell borrowed my camera to film the sunrise, and had the presence of mind to switch it to video mode. Unfortunately, as you can see, the camera does have some flaws.

I also have still pictures from the trip:
Moonlight Mt. Hamilton

Saturday, July 28, 2007

It's Captain Switzerland... er... SwitzerAmerica... er..

One consequence of the airline losing all our lugguage was that at the end of the trip (after riding the entire trip wearing donated jerseys), Mike had to buy new cycling jerseys. One of them (and I will admit it seems like a particularly nice one) is the Switzerland Jersey.

Here, Mike poses for a photo as Captain Switzerland! He might not be jumping buildings in a single bound, but he's definitely riding up Sonora Pass (2933m) without stopping!

I think it definitely looks good on him.
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Review: Avocet 700x28 Fasgrip Tires

Lisa & I frequently run Fasgrip 700x32 tires on our tandem when we tour. The tires are incredibly durable (lasting well over 3000 miles, even under loaded touring conditions in the mountains), are smooth, grip well, and are pretty much ideal for the kind of riding we like to do.

For local riding, I thought we might want something lighter and faster, so I mounted 700x28 models of the same tire. Now both the 32 and the 28s are labelled "Duro", which means that they should have an additional mm of tread, which is what you want on a tandem.

Well, a couple of years ago, I discovered that my 700x28s didn't last much past 1000 miles. Subsequently, we didn't ride as much, so our tires were wearing out every 6 months or so, which I thought was fast, but not excessively so.

Well, Mike Samuel found 3 of those on sale at the Bicycle Outfitter, so he mounted them on his bike and rode them on our tour of the Swiss, Italian, and Austrian Alps. After the recent Kiss of Death ride, I looked down and saw his worn out 700x28 rear. Now, Mike weighs around 200 pounds, but nowhere as much as a tandem. I estimate his tire had about 1200 miles on it, with an upper limit of 1500 miles. Granted, these are mountainous miles, but that makes me question whether the 28s really do have an extra mm of tread. In any case, if we had had 3 more days of dry weather in the Alps this year, he would have ridden his tire into the nylon.

In any case, if you area heavy (more than 180 pounds or so), don't think that going from the 25s to the 28s will give you more tire life (at least, in the case of Avocets). You need to go all the way to the 32s.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Review: Postively False

This is the story of Floyd Landis, his amazing win at the Tour de France last year, and what the court case he's fighting is about. I read this during the recentKiss of Death bike tour.

Before I read the book, I had done quite a bit of independent research into the case and the lab reports around it. To my mind, whether or not Landis doped is besides the question. Any lab that ran analysis the way the Paris doping lab did would have trouble successfully diagnosing diabetes, let alone testosterone doping, so the lab has no credibility to me. It might still be that Landis doped, but I don't think the evidence so far points in that direction. This is just my opinion as someone who's done physics experiments incompetently enough to get ludicrous results, and can recognize incompetence in other lab technicians.

On to the book itself. It's well-written, being ghost-written by a New York Times journalist. It's told in an extremely conversational style, and I could follow along his career. It seems that Landis is an extremely hard worker, and works harder than most other cyclists (25,000 miles a year is an extremely high volume of training). He then found scientists and trainers who took an extremely scientific approach to his training and got himself up to a high level from being Lance's domestique.

The descriptions of bike races, however, was a little disappointing, and I wished he'd spent more time discussing techniques, rather than focusing on all the off-the bike action, as well as a few salacious details about him and Lance's disagreements, etc.

All in all, a short book, well written, and well worth your time, even if you think Landis doped.

Review: Pimsleur Italian

I checked this out from the library, and used it to try to learn Italian. It's terrible, compared to the competition, for instance the Berlitz series or even the Fodor's French For Travelers that I used 2 years ago to learn French. It goes at a slow pace, which isn't bad for retention, but as far as I'm concerned, it's focussed on entirely the wrong kind of things a traveler would be interested in.

For instance, the initial 3 CDs spend all their time talking about "How are you?" "I'm well." The next 3 are spent asking, "Would you like to eat?" "Would you like to have dinner with me?" "When would you like to eat?" Mike Samueltried to learn German using the German equivalent, and we made jokes about how Pimsleur should really be renamed "Pimpsleur". It's all very useful if your primary focus is picking up members of the opposite sex or trying to be very polite, but for a bicycle tour of Europe, it is absolutely worthless. For survival in the country-side or in the city, it's is also worthless.

When Lisa and I went to Europe 4 years ago, we used Berlitz German, which was much more practical, taught you how to count, etc. The tapes were dense, so we had to listen multiple times, but that's the point of having it on tape, so you can replay the lessons over and over until you get it.

All in all, the Pimsleur language lessons are not good value for money, and not useful for serious travelers. Disrecommended.

Book Review: Lark and Wren

Roberto downloaded this book to his cell phone, and we had a few rainy days during the tour, so I had time to finish this book. As novels go, it's not terribly well-written: a lot of the novel tells us how the characters feel and think, rather than demonstrating via their actions. The plot does move fast, so you're never left hanging on wondering what happens next.

The story revolves around a young woman, Rune, and tells the story of how she becomes a Bard and hence is your typical fantasy growing up story. She leaves the small town to the big city, meets a few friends, learns music, loses her mentor, and finds her husband... At the last bit of the book, there's a short section where they find the missing prince of a kingdom, pursued by the former king's brother, who led a revolution of the kingdom. The ending to this little story isn't the typical throne restoration story, so at least it's not a complete cliche.

All in all, not recommended, but it wasn't a bad way to pass a rainy day. Since the book is free, you can't beat the value for money, but I won't be spending money on further novels in the series.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Thoughts about the Tour de France

I haven't been following the Tour de France, but folks at my recent Kiss of Death ride, as well as folks at work seemed to have paid it quite a bit of attention, and now the yellow jersey's been kicked out of the tour, for lying about his whereabouts and quite possibly doping (though in a way that's undetectable by the probably incompetent French labs that found Landis to be guilty of testosterone boosting with invalid equipment and undocumented procedures).

It seems to me that bicycle racing has long been divorced from what people like me do when we ride bicycles for long distances.

For instance (ignoring the doping thing):

  • I have to fix my own flat tires and equipment, these guys get follow vehicles with mechanics, doctors, etc.
  • I ride just one bike the entire tour, and if I break it, I'm stuck. These guys get special bikes for each stages.
  • I carry my own luggage the entire way, these guys don't carry anything, not even tools to fix their own gear.


I'm not saying that the old days of the Tour De France were free of cheaters (earliest tours featured "racers" who were caught taking trains to skip stages, etc). But at least the Tour they rode had some resemblance to the kind of riding I do. Now, it's so unrelated I won't really notice if the Tour went away next year because of all the doping scandals. Perhaps bicycle racing has become too mainstream for its own good.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Back from the Kiss of Death

I just got back from Terry Morse's "Kiss of Death" ride with Undiscovered Country Tours. It's a nice ride:

Day 1: Ebbett's Pass, Pacific Grade to Bear Valley and return. 72 miles, 7200'
Day 2: Monitor Pass, SAG to Sonora pass, return. 50 miles, 5000'
Day 3: Blue lakes, 52 miles, 4100'

It's a healthy amount of climbing, and the last day is pretty. But after riding in the European Alps (especially Switzerland and Austria), the California high mountains don't look very pretty at all. We were really disappointed, and it was hard to motivate ourselves to climb hard.

I think if you were to do this the same year you did an European trip, do the Kiss of Death as a training ride, and then go to Europe. That way, you won't be disappointed. Oh, and I should say that Terry and Mary and their guides provide fabulous support. You won't be disappointed by their service. (Disclaimer: Terry's a long time member of Western Wheelers, my bike club, and gave us club members a discount for this ride) And I say this even as someone who almost never does organized bike tours as a rule.

And now that I've done most of the roads involved in the Death Ride, I think it's a really silly ride. As Mike said, "What's the big deal?"

Mike wore out his Avocet 700x28s at the end of this ride (I noticed it when I dismounted his bike from my car). I guess those tires really don't last more than about 1000 miles for a 200+ pound rider.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Mike's Trip Report

Mike has put up his trip report, and he uses fancy javascript to convert all units between imperial and metric, which is really cool. It's always interesting to see different people's perspectives on the same trip, so you should definitely read Mike's if you enjoyed mine. If mine was so long you got put off, read his --- it's much shorter.

What always surprises me is that when I offer to let folks stare at the map for a change, nobody else wants to do it. For me, navigating is enjoyable and a mental challenge in addition to the physical challenge of cycling. The whole package is the fun, which is why I enjoy going to new places every year. For me, revisiting a place twice is fun --- it's amazing to see how easily roads I've been to just once come back in my memory, which tells me what to do, and where to go. But more than that, and I'm too familiar to derive any challenge from the navigation --- you'll notice that the first few days, when I was in completely familiar territory, I felt compelled to throw in new challenges like Melchsee-Frutt, or Lauterbrunnen.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tour of the Alps 2007 Trip Report

I actually wrote it on the plane, but it took awhile to write the python script, edit pictures, select the ones to embed into the narrative, and then proof-read it. It was a great trip, despite all the rain we encountered, and I learned a lot on the trip, as usual. I hope the report helps anyone in the future who is visiting the same area.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tour of the Alps 2007 Photos (Edited)

Tour of the Alps 2007 (Edited)
My edited photos of the 2007 Tour of the Alps. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Roberto's pictures are now up...

Roberto's edited his pictures and have them up on PicasaWeb:


He took many more pictures than I did, so enjoy!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Mike pouts at the Bludenz Train Station.

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Wacky Hotel Room in Bludenz

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Timmelsjoch

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Lake on top of Fedadia

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Approaching Passo Gardena

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Allpenglow from Canazei


This was the view from the hotel room. That snow wasn't there the day we arrived, so yes, it was cold!
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Pouring Rain on Passo Costalunga

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Yes, we know our gender.

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Roberto on top of the world on Gavia

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Last 22 Hairpins up Stelvio

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View from Albula Pass descent

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View of Grimsel Pass from Furka Pass below Hotel Belvedere

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Mike & my brother on top of Grosse Scheidegg

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Rosenlaui Valley

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Riding towards Tannalp

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Initial Climb up to Melchsee-Frutt

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Back in Zurich

Shades of the last tour... We had a couple of glorious days in Italy, and rode across to Austria in a day with 3019 meters of climbing in only 80km (Jaufenpass and Timmelsjoch). Then on the next day it started raining as we reached the top of Silvretta, and we made the descent in a massive downpour. It was amazing to see steam come out of the road as the water hit it (it had been so hot!). We managed a 172km day that day into Bludenz. The next day, the rain got too bad, so we took a 2 hour train into Zurich (for 40 Euros per person), and worked from the office. We'll rest up again today and take off again for some more riding on Wednesday.

This tour is so far shorter than my last tour. Only 1277km and 27778m of climbing, so there's no hope of repeating my last tour's numbers. But it's been quite enjoyable, and I think my companions have loved it too. I'll try to get some pictures up today.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

You only hear from me when its bad news...

That's very natural on tour. Bad weather means I get stuck at an internet cafe. Good weather means I'm riding. I didn't talk about how pretty mendelpass was, or what a fantastic meal we had at Hotel Gran Baita. I didn't talk about the day we descended Garvia, which felt like dropping out of the sky from on top of the world on twisty mountain roads. I didn't talk about Stelvio's fabulous hotel.

All that will wait for the final trip report, so stay tuned...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Stuck in Canazei

Our luck has finally run out. After days of being able to ride every day (even when a thunderstorm caught us on Costalunga pass), we finally hit a day where we were stuck in due to rain. We attempted to ride up to Passo Sella, but freezing rain and hail (of the stinging kind) literally drowned our hopes.

The forecast tomorrow is for partly cloudy weather, so we'll make another attempt!