Saturday, September 29, 2007

Fall Riding

Today, I had a hankering for a decently long ride. I went up Page Mill Road in the morning from Moody Road, and the weather was very nice. Near the top, I ran into someone riding up the hill with no shirt, flat pedals on an old Trek 1000 bike. He was incredibly strong, proving once again that equipment is no match for great legs and lungs. At the intersection with Page Mill road, I eschewed mixing with Wes's group, however, and headed up to the true summit on West Alpine road, where I pulled off and enjoyed a cliff bar with a view of the Ocean.

Descending Alpine road, I soon overtook the tail end of the group and road along the cold Redwood forest. It was gorgeous. Sunlight came through little spots in the trees and gave the road surface a dappled look. Leaves came down from the redwoods above me, and the air smelled like fall. Turning left onto Pescadero road, the wind picked up a bit and threw down more leaves, swirling around me and enveloping me in nature's glory. Wes passed me once again, and upon reaching the summit of Haskin's hill, turned right around and went back to pick up his group's stragglers. I rode on rather than mix in, since I enjoy descending by myself with no pressure behind me and no one in front to chase.

The solitude was broken several miles later as the lead group passed me and I hopped onto their wheels, as we pace-lined together towards the coast. The group turned off at North road while I kept going towards Pescadero and headed for Norm's market. There I bought a loaf of freshly baked (still warm) artichoke garlic bread, and went over to the benches at the back of the store just as Wes's group as they arrived from their detour. Not being able to eat the entire loaf by myself, I broke the bread and shared it with them, enjoying the unusually clear and lovely day on the coast.

After eating, relieving myself, and refilling my bottles, I left Wes's group behind and went on ahead. Soon enough, a cyclist on a GT bike passed me and I again hopped on his wheel. He was exceedingly strong but as we slowed down to chat I found out why --- he raced mountain bikes for GT, Oakley, and a few other sponsors. As stage road sloped up I was left behind on the climb but with such a nice day and the road being out of the wind once the climbing began, I did not mind at all riding by myself.

After the intersection with 84, I rode up next to a young lady on a Scott Contessa. We struck up a conversation: Stephanie was a mechanical engineer who worked on power-trains. We discussed training, traveling, and various events, and bone density --- she lifted weight so frequently that her bone density was off the charts --- clearly, I need to lift more too, though I am never motivated enough in the gym. She was recovering from a skiing injury, hence the riding.

Time passes fast when you have conversation on a ride, and soon enough we were at the top of Tunitas Creek. The descent down Kings was disconcerting, as I hit no less than 3 gravel patches on the way down. Both of us made it to Woodside with no problems, however, and from there we made it over to Sand Hill Road where Stephanie had parked. I said farewell to my recent companion and headed home the direct route, for a 76 mile ride in 6 hours.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Review: The Looming Tower (Al-Qaeda and The Road to 9/11)

This book won the Pulitzer prize award last year, and covers the origins and creation of Al-Qaeda, the fumbling of the ball by America's intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and the people involved in it.

The first part of the book chronicles the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia and the life of Osama Bin Laden. This part of the book is extremely well researched, getting details like his initial forays into Afghanistan, his marriages, as well as certain other important characters in Al-Qaeda, such as Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian who joined forces with Bin Laden later.

It is amazing how good Bin Laden was at taking credit for things he didn't do, and creating a myth around himself. Lawrence Wright, when he visited Google, said that the Muslim countries have in general created a place that is difficult for young men to live without boredom: there is no music, no dating, no movies, hence the attraction of matyrdom and becoming a freedom fighter.

The second half of the book covers the CIA and the FBI's investigation of major cases, including the bombing of the USS Cole, the initial failed bombing of the World Trade Center, as well as the failed attempt at the Los Angeles airport. With the benefit of hindsight, you can't help but wince at every missed opportunity, that perhaps with a more competent administration, would have foiled the ultimate tragedy that followed.

There are several colorful characters here as well, including John O'Neill, the FBI operative who was obssessed with hunting Al-Qaeda, only to be foiled by diplomats, the CIA, and his own appetites (he had 3 girlfriends in different cities and a wife, and was juggling all of them, and lived life well beyond his means). Though it made for a great story, I wish Wright could have spent more time on other parts of this narrative.

All in all, a very deserving Pulitzer prize, and required reading for anyone who's life was touched by the tragedies 6 years ago. Ultimately, however, I suspect that the war against terrorism is a cultural war, not one that can be won by counter-terrorism, law enforcement, or military action. Whether we can win over entire cultures into enlightenment and liberalism (or in fact, even our own culture) will ultimately decide how history plays out in the Middle East.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Practical Bikes

10 years ago, when Rivendell Bicycles was new, they stood for practical bikes. Bikes that could take wide tires, fenders, racks, but wouldn't actually be any slower, and wouldn't cost an arm and a leg because they were factory production frames.

Fast forward 10 years, and now we have a whole new generation of bike frames. Velo-Orange, for instance, makes a French Randonneur bike for $1650. Jitensha Studio makes an Ebisu bicycle for $1400.

By contrast, Bill Davidson's custom frame costs $1200. Put on a $300 custom fork and it's at $1500, the same price as a production Rivendell Rambouillet frame and fork! Carl Strong's pricing isn't that much higher.

I don't understand the logic of people paying more for a production bike than a custom frame. It makes no sense. If you want lugs, Bill's prices are $100 more, but for most people the advantage of going custom would be too large to ignore.

Today, when someone wants an economical bike, I point them at the Soma Smoothie ES. At $500 for a frame and fork with long reach caliper brakes, this is the practical bike that Rivendell no longer produces today.

And yes, I have test ridden the Kogswell P/R. It's not a nice handling frame. 650B wheels feel sluggish to me, and make the bike feel like a lopsided turtle on level ground. I think Jan Heine's taste is contrary to mine, and I am sad that the bicycle fashionistas have moved away from the quick handling, practical light riding bikes that I learned to love so much over the last 10 years or so, and I definitely blame it all on the pernicious influence of Jan Heine. Fortunately, folks like Craig Calfee keep turning out beautiful riding bikes just like the ones I rode 10 years ago, and judging from how popular his bikes are, these bikes are winning in the market over the fashionistas, which is all the satisfaction I need. Now if only someone made a light steel frame with that geometry...

Monday, September 24, 2007

Retirement calculators

I had another e-mail conversation with William Bernstein again about one of my favorite topics, the safe withdrawal rates. I've already seen what a conventional financial adviser provides. I wanted to know what one of the modern Gurus of asset allocation thought. Here's his reply (typos and errors in punctuation are all mine):

As you hinted at, and as Paul Samuelson famously said, we only have 200 years of history to go on, and the experience of the rest of the world, as well as current expected returns suggest, going by those 200 years are overly optimistic.

Forget all the sophisticated methodologies: GIGO, and what goes into these black boxes is most assuredly G.

Here are 2 simple ways of looking at it:
  1. Start with 3.5% real for stocks, and 2.5% for bonds. that's about 3% for a mixed portfolio. if you're going to retire at 50, your time horizon is for all practical purposes "forever," so you can only withdraw your real return, or about 3%. but it's worse than that, since you have to adjust for uncertainty and a bad initial draw. so figure 2%.
  2. Even simpler: since in the long term, to stay hedonically adjusted you don't just have to keep up merely with inflation, but with the living standard of your nonretired peers, which increases at the productivity growth rate, or 2%. add in a soupcon of uncertainty and your hedonically adjusted rate of return is zero. so . . .you have to save one year's living expenses for every year you plan to live, or 50 years, "worst case," or . . .2%
2% is grim, but that's only if you want to be bullet proof. In the real world, if you need 3% or 4%, you're trading off safety for a reasonable standard of living, which is OK, as long as you understand the tradeoff.

Myself, I plan to live what passes for a "frugal" standard of living in today's society (I'm fortunate to have been raised in the 50s, and to have sense of appreciation of what I have now) and spend only 2%, maybe a tad more as i age, with the knowledge that I'll most likely be leaving my kids, grandkids, and charities a nice chunk of change. which provides its own rewards.

Note that a 100% safe rate is pretty much redundant, since as history shows, you are likely to get caught up in historical events that makes worrying about your financial assets the last thing on your mind. We don't live in a super safe world, if history is any guide, so all the retirement studies have an precision that don't live up to its accuracy. John Greaney is well aware of this, and lives on 1% of his assets. It would be wise to do as he does.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Conversation with William Bernstein

Thanks to Karl, a bunch of us got to meet William Bernstein today, and the conversation was far more interesting than I expected. Here's a quick summary:
  • Do you consider Berkshire Hathaway a separate asset class? I consider Berkshire Hathaway a closed end fund. Yes, the P/E of BRK is 10, but if you ask private businesses around the country, they'll tell you that they'll have a hard time selling their business for 5 times book value, let alone the 10 that Berkeshire Hathaway is getting. This means that there's a premium for Warren Buffett to be running the fund, and I do not expect him to be running the fund 40 years from now. But if you were to put together a fund that invested in private companies that can't be bought on the market, I would consider it a separate asset class.
  • Why do you suggest using fixed asset weightings for regions, but market cap weighting for stocks, sectors within a region/country? For countries, there have been countries where the market cap has gone to zero. For instance, the rate of return in Peru for the last century has been -99.5%. So for you to rebalance in those cases would be a bad idea. But within regions, the risk is low, and certain countries like the US, Japan, or Britain can be considered regions because their markets are so mature. We then debated between fundamental weights and market cap weights *with* value/small tilts. At the practical level, on the market cap side you have Vanguard, DFA. On the fundamental side you have folks like Rydex and PIMCO. If you were to ask me there's no contest. (Somewhere in there he also mentioned that he was willing to consider REITs and precious metal equity as separate asset classes you rebalanced against)
  • Isn't re-balancing just market timing? There was a paper written quite a while back about this precise issue. The authors were very coy about it. They postulate a world in which nearly everyone was a convex investor (i.e., when something went up they bought more of it, and when something went down they sold it or bought less of it). In that world, you'd make more money if you were a concave investor (i.e., buy more when it's down and sell when it's up). It turns out the model works both ways --- if most of the world is concave, you'd actually make money by being a momentum investor. But of course, the majority of the world is made up of convex investors, which is why rebalancing works. In fact, if you were to buy more of stocks when dividend yields were high, and less of them when dividend yields were low, you'd do very well. Just because you believe in the efficient market does not absolve you of the responsibility to do the math and look at what makes sense.
  • How do you get the data to do this computation? You can subscribe to Morningstar. Or use the Wall Street Journal. Or if you're a DFA advisor you get the data as part of the package.
  • Interest rates dropped 50 basis points. How does that affect you? It shouldn't affect you at all. It's a no-op.
A fascinating discussion, and I was glad to be in the room with such a smart guy and ask him questions.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Review: Mint.com

I was one of Mint.com's private beta users, so I'll give it a quick review now that the press embargo is over.

The traditional approach to personal finance is epitomized by Quicken or Microsoft Money: basically, a double-entry book-keeping spreadsheet made to look like a checkbook register to help you reconcile, categorize, and balance your accounts.

The main reason why most people don't use financial software (despite all the bundling deals that Intuit and Microsoft do) is because it's difficult, tedious, and real work. If you enter the data manually, it takes a while, and if you don't enter it manually, it won't categorize your expenses properly, and you don't actually get accurate reporting. There are all these problems where buying and selling stock don't actually track properly, and the whole thing is a morass. I say this as a long time user of Quicken (I've been using Quicken for 15 years --- I bounced a check once and I never did so again because of Quicken).

Mint.com takes the fresh graduate's intuitive approach to money: I can't be bothered to track every cent --- as long as my bank account goes up, I'm doing something right, and if it can categorize 90% of my expenditures correctly, that's more than good enough.

The premise of the site is that you'll register for on-line access to all your credit cards and banks. You will then provide your user name and password to them. That should sound really dangerous to you, but Mint's security advisory is reassuring. They then get all your up to date statements and poll your financial institutions and download your transactions continuously. New transactions are categorized by an AI-like algorithm (which can be easily improved once they get enough widespread adoption that they can apply statistical analysis), and you set thresholds for alerts to be sent to you (for instance, e-mail can be sent if expenditure exceeds a certain amount, or if large transactions occur, etc).

There are a number of weaknesses. First, they don't do brokerages. So your transfers to your brokerage will show up as "Business Purchase." Oops. In my case that thoroughly skews my reports. Secondly, without double-entry book-keeping, you will not detect bank errors! There's no forced monthly reconciliation, and no way for you to notice, "Hey wait a minute, I didn't shop there", unless you scrutinize each item yourself. For me, this is why I use Quicken. I've caught bank errors, identity theft, bad merchants, and many other problems because the forced reconciliation feature forces me to really look at each statement. By relying on the "as long as my bank account goes up" method, you won't catch any of these.

There are a number of strengths I don't find in Quicken, though! First of all, your Mint.com account is always up to date, including your latest expenditure. Their approach to budgeting is awesome: they basically average your spending in all the categories, and alert you when your spending is out of whack. Very automated, very slick, and very intelligent. If only Quicken was this smart. Finally, when they see suboptimal use of financial institutions, they'll tell you what a better move is (say, by recommending a better credit card, or a bank that pays higher interest rates), and they will quantify how much money you'll expect to save or get by making the move. Are their recommendations good? Well, for credit cards, they recommended the same one that PFBlog recommends as the credit card of the year. He does these analysis a lot more than I do, and I trust his recommendations, and if Mint.com comes up with the same thing, that says a lot.

Am I likely to keep using Mint? Probably not. I definitely am addicted to the reconciliation feature --- the fresh grad. approach to personal finance isn't anything close to what I want. The reporting fails for me as well, since if most of my money goes into investing, giving me 70% expenditure on "Business Purchasing" is of no use. But the budgeting and alerts system and the recommendation system is so good that I fervently wish that Intuit will adopt this for Quicken (the auto-categorization is already there in the latest version of Quicken, though it doesn't save me as much time as I would expect).

All in all, if you're a fresh graduate or you are currently not using Quicken or Microsoft Money, Mint.com is way better than nothing. For tightwads like me or the financially sophisticated who have a lot of investments, I'm afraid that Mint.com will not save you too much work.

Recommended if you fall into one of the above-mentioned categories.

[Recently, mint.com introduced the new investment tracking feature. I've reviewed that feature here.

Review: The Blind Side

I will confess to not being a big fan of American Football; I am fond of quoting George Will: Football combines the two worst things about America: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings. I am, however, a fan of Michael Lewis. His first book, Liar's Poker was funny, well-written, and had great insight to the Wall Street scene. His next book, Moneyball, made baseball, a game I often compare with watching paint dry, actually made the statistics interesting, and gave me an understanding of why my friends who were baseball geeks were obsessed with the game, even though I still found myself unable to watch it. His more book, The New New Thing, I didn't find nearly as interesting, mostly because I work in technology, and his worship of Jim Clark seemed premature. (I did manage to sneak onto Jim Clark's sailboat, The Hyperion when I was in New Zealand in 2000. That's a story for another time)

The Blind Side is two stories at once. First, there's the hero's journey, complete with danger, wise mentors, a rescue, and obstacles to overcome. The hero's journey is about Michael Oher, an inner-city kid who somehow makes it into Briarcrest High School, a religious private school and there he flounders, being viewed by all his teachers as a hopeless cause, until a white family literally finds him on the street, adopts him, and pushes the school to recognize his talent as a left tackle in football, a sport he is born to play.

The other story is the story about football strategy. Everybody knows who the quarterback is on the team, but the other players were not highly paid until relatively recently, where a shift in football rules and strategy encouraged a playing style that reduced the time a quarterback had to think, and made the position defending his blind side a highly lucrative one. The statistics and data Lewis marshals to defend this point of view is highly convincing, and one believes him when he says that the lack of a Sabermetrics equivalent in Football really made it evolve a lot more slowly than it would otherwise have.

The book reads fast and easily, and the story is fascinating. I do question the premise (held by many, it seems), that the way out of the ghetto for black people is sports and for their talent to be recognized. In the book, for instance, Michael Oher's GPA was the gating factor for his financial future --- the NFL is barred for players who do not attend college. If the premise of this book is to be believed, the best thing one could do for inner-city kids is to remove this impediment and allow anyone to play. Michael Oher's adopted father, Sean, spent quite a bit of time manipulating the system to get Michael's GPA acceptable in school --- he gets Michael declared to have a learning disability, and then uses BYU's distance learning program to toss out a bunch of Fs in Michael's report card.

The truth is, however, that even were all the barriers to inner-city talent in sports removed, the number of folks the market can handle with such high salaries is limited --- there are only so many sports stars that can be created. The true path out of the ghetto is more education, where economic productivity can be increased indefinitely, but I guess that is beyond the scope of this book.

Even though I still have no idea what the line up of an American Football team looks like after reading this book, I found it incredibly fascinating and could not help but keep turning page after page. Highly recommended. Michael Lewis is back on form.

[Addendum: Michael Lewis gave a talk at Google about this book. You can now view it on Youtube: Michael Lewis at Google]

Joel figures out how to beat Google

I try not to comment much about technology trends, especially since I am so often wrong. But when I read Joel's article, I couldn't help thinking to myself, "Did he not know about Google Web Toolkit?"

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Review: The Dynamic Path

Disclosure: The copy of The Dynamic Path I read was a review copy provided by the author's publicist.

The Dynamic Path is properly categorized as a self-help book, much in the vein of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Jim Citrin is an executive search consultant (in other words, a CEO-only head-hunter). I don't know what his background is, but he definitely seems to worship sports and sports heroes to the degree typified in American culture.

The book attempts to provide a guiding road-map to life, from individual achiever to leadership to building an enduring legacy. The examples he provides are almost all drawn from athletes who've built a major legacy, from Joan Benoit, Billie Jean King (the person who instigated Title IX), Lance Armstrong, Tony Hawk, and Tiger Woods.

I'm not sure this book brings anything to the table that other self-help books haven't already: commitment, belief in yourself, focus, practice, and hard work. It is doubtful that if you don't already have those, reading this book will help you gain any. In fact, in one of his sections, he describes mental toughness as having the discipline to keep hitting shots and controlling the ball while allowing your opponent to screw up. His example here was Bjorn Borg. But later, you find out that Bjorn Borg retired right after being defeated by John McEnroe. This isn't uncommon in sports (Miguel Indurain retired right after his defeat by a doped up Bjarne Riis), but it does bring home that perhaps sports heroes aren't the best examples to use for inspirational leadership, even if there are a few exemplars that prove the exception.

As for leadership, I'm not sure leadership can be learned. I've attended lots of leadership seminars, but none of them really tell you how the best leaders do what they do effectively, and neither does this book (seriously: platitudes like "work hard", "focus on the success of others", and "deliver on your commitments" aren't all that useful --- in the complex universe we live in, making the right decision trumps all the others). So what we are left with are the interviews.

While the interviews are the parts of the book most worth reading, it is not clear to me that the interviews are terribly enlightening. The questions are too soft-balled, the replies too generic --- I feel like I've read these interviews all too often in sports magazines (not that I've read many).

All in all, this book could have been a lot shorter and still made its point. A casual airplane read, but seriously, if you want to read material like this, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is still the standard and you should read that first.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Too little, too late (Republicans are Evil, Part VII)

(The above link is only good for the next 7 days)

Alan Greenspan's memoir apparently criticizes Bush and his administration:

Mr. Greenspan, who calls himself a "lifelong libertarian Republican," writes that he advised the White House to veto some bills to curb "out-of-control" spending while the Republicans controlled Congress. He says President Bush's failure to do so "was a major mistake." Republicans in Congress, he writes, "swapped principle for power. They ended up with neither. They deserved to lose."

But Mr. Greenspan, where were you when you had the power to nip the policy in the bud? I remember when you testified in front of congress saying that Tax Cuts were the preferred way to deal with the coming budget surplus. At that time you had so much respect from Congress that if you had pointed out that the surplus was a result of saving for the baby boomer's retirement the fiscal wreck that was the result of the Bush tax cuts might not have happened. Of course, it would be too much to expect the Wall Street journal to point this out. And I am willing to bet the New York Times won't hold Greenspan's history of abetting the raid of the treasury by the wealthy class up to light, either.

As it is, your comments are too little, too late. I definitely don't trust libertarian Republicans: they have never stood up for the rights of the individual against government intrusion, nor do they stand for fiscal responsibility. By consistently voting for people who shift the burden of taxes away from today's wealthy Americans into future generations, they have given up all their principles in favor of class warfare. And as Warren Buffett says, “There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Building a Custom Bike Part II


Changes from last time:
  • 3rd water bottle cage (mounted on the wheel side of the down tube). I asked Carl to draw in a 28mm tire just to make sure it would clear with room for renders. (Looks like it does!)
  • 43mm offset on the fork. The Bridgestone RB-1 had a 45mm offset. I've test ridden a fork with a 40mm offset on the same geometry, and to be honest I cannot tell the difference. I simply might not be sensitive enough to feel 3mm difference. The 43mm works fine on the Fuji (though the Fuji has never seen a load), but it handles just fine. I sent my Bruce Gordon low rider rack to Black Sheep for mounting and sizing, so that the low rider mounts will work exactly on the fork as specified. The built fork will be sent to Carl directly for final verification and building.
  • Not seen in the diagram: spoke holders for spare spokes! A nice feature on touring bikes but never seen on stock frames. This is another reason we buy custom.
Carl and I also explored having a horizontal top tube and a head tube extension, but it appears that this wouldn't work as I don't have enough room on the head tube. I can put up with a 9 degree top tube to ensure that my soft tissue doesn't get hurt when I put on 32mm tires, and to have good frame integrity.

Things to explore in the future: finish of the bike (Satin? Polished? Shot-peened?), possible head tube extension so I use fewer spacers? Pardo suggests that I go for a 72 degree seat tube so I can use a no-layback seat post, but the road feel is important to me, and I'm not sure I want a seat tube that slack, having ridden one like that on the Heron Touring bike, which feels unnecessarily sluggish to me when I put power to the pedals.

So far, Carl's been a pleasure to work with. There's a 5 week wait to delivery, but everything looks good. One note is that Carl is raising his prices for custom frames, so if you want one built by him, take note!
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Follow up: More Dinotte Nastiness

In April, I wrote a review of the Dinotte Tail-light, pointing out the weaknesses of the product, mostly the mounting options, which works if you're a night racer or luggage-less rider, but not if you're a user of Carradice-type saddlebags, the best solution for randoneuring or light touring today.

That article must have touched a nerve, since I received e-mail today from Dinotte asking me if I would retract my negative article if they sent me one of their new seat post mounts. Ethical issues aside, a look at the new mount would show you that it negates none of the weaknesses I had pointed to in the earlier article.

As a follow-up, I ditched my Dinotte light recently and went back to my ancient Vista-lite, a 10 year-old design that while not providing as much light, provide enough for others to see me, can be mounted on my seat stays, and is extremely pleasant to use. I will very likely sell my Dinotte light to someone who doesn't use saddelbags, or to a night racer.

I hope Cat-eye will start using higher powered LEDs in their lights. Their line of lights already feature superior mechanical linkage to the Dinottes, and it would not displease me to see a line of products clearly designed with thought for the utility cyclist beat out a line of products designed for night racers.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Review: Making Comics

Making Comics is perhaps the logical sequel to Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, a really great book deconstructing comic books, how they work, and what the medium is about.

Having done so, McCloud sets out to write a book for practitioners, showing how to construct comics. Obviously, the most important construction tool is the story, but nobody can really teach you how to be a great story teller like Alan Moore, so he focuses on the tools you have available to you.

McCloud gave an hour talk about this book at Google, and it was a great talk (unfortunately, it will not be out on video any time soon). He explores sequence construction, drawing humans, faces, and body language, how to integrate words with pictures, and world building. The penultimate chapter is probably the only chapter that non-comic book writers would read and find interesting, which is a taxonomy of comic book creators, and what they are about.

The construction process is interesting, and well laid out for a course about comics. I doubt, however, that someone like Alan Moore would need it, so I scratch my head thinking about what the audience for this book is. Probably the fanboy, or the aspiring comic book artist in school. As with writing, having an understanding of novel construction doesn't mean that you'll construct a great novel, while great novelists do not necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about novel construction, but the book itself is entertaining and perhaps when I read a comic book next time, I'll analyze it differently because of what I learnt in this book.

I enjoyed this book, but think that most people are better off with McCloud's prior book, Understanding Comics. Not because this book is bad, but it's for a specific audience, and if you're not a fanboy, you probably won't be interested.

Worth picking up at the library.

Engrish

Lisa & I spent at least 20 minutes laughing at the pictures on the above site. This is really great stuff.

One of my favorites:

Review: The Fall of Kings

Kushner & Sherman wrote this book before the recent Privilege of the Sword, but the book takes place a good forty years after that book and sixty years after Swordspoint.

The novel involves a University professor, Basil St. Cloud, and of course, a scion of the Tremontaine, Alec Campion, the heir to the duchy. The two are involved in a romantic gay affair (nearly everyone in Kushner's novel is gay or at least bisexual), while St. Cloud's position as a professor revolves around some seemingly innocuous politics.

The politics takes a sinister turn when Basil St. Cloud challenges another professor to an academic debate revolving the ancient kings of the land and their wizards. The political authorities are not amused, as there has been recent uprisings in the North and trouble-makers from the North have come to the city asking for a return to the Monarchy.

St. Cloud comes across an ancient spellbook, and wheels begin to move, as St. Cloud and Campion re-enact the ancient relationships between Wizard and King, and St. Cloud learns the truth behind the land he lives in.

The prose is well-written, and the characters if a little wooden, quite compelling. Though I suspect that Kushner has only a few templates for the male characters --- all her men seem either treacherous, feckless, or mad, the story seems competently handled.

So why did I feel this book to be a disappointment? The book reminds me of the ancient days of American television, where the goal was that each episode returned the universe to status quo, so that script writers could all write episodes independently knowing that everything will be untouched. Characters could get married in TV shows as long as their spouses got killed off at the end of each episode, resulting in a staleness to the long running shows, as nobody ever seemed to remember events between each episode.

Similarly, The Fall of Kings seemed determined to leave Kushner's lovely toy set and stage reset by the end of the novel, rather than taking the story to its natural conclusion. This veering away from substantial change in the setting and landscape left the novel with a bad taste in my mouth, and diminished my opinion of Ellen Kushner's serial works by a notch.

Not recommended.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Queuechup is unethical

Spamming my address book? Not cool. Even though I took precautionary steps (e.g., using my spam trap address), it still spammed my address book. If you received an invite from me, delete it. It wasn't really from me. Others have reported similar experiences. Please don't make the same mistake. No wonder social networks have a bad name.

http://blogcritics.org/archives/2007/09/03/185547.php
http://mashable.com/2007/09/02/quechup/
http://blogs.chron.com/techblog/archives/2007/09/spam_alert_just_say_no_to_quechup_1.html
http://www.boingboing.net/2007/09/04/quechup-is-rotten-do.html

Monday, September 03, 2007

Review: The Bottom Billion

Karl Pfleger raved about this book, and he's a pretty smart guy, so I ordered it from my library and read it. This book is essentially a response to both William Easterly's White Man's Burden and The End of Poverty, a ridiculously over-optimistic tract by Jeff Sachs.

Paul Collier examines the problems of most of the third world countries (mostly African) and looks at the causes of their continual poverty. He pins it down to a few problems: conflicts (including wars), being land-locked and unable to trade, having a lot of natural resources (like oil), and bad governance.

He also explains, as many others have recently, that China's success has actually made it harder for other emerging countries to compete by exporting manufactured objects at lower cost, since China and India both have sufficiently large numbers of people to keep wages depressed at a global level for many years.

He then examines instruments for assisting countries out of poverty. These are targeted aid (expert advise right after a revolution, and money later if a new regime is judged not to be corrupt). military intervention (using the British in Sierra Leone as a model), setting up international laws and charters (like the ones that prevent bribery in the US) so that foreign companies that exploit resources are obligated to try to use the cash in good ways, and better trade policies, much like those espoused by Joe Stiglitz's book last year, Making Globalization Work (Last year's Book of the Year) That last bit shouldn't be a surprise because Collier was one of Stiglitz's proteges at the World Bank.

What does that leave the individual? The problem with most of these solutions is that there's not a ton you can do. Targeted aid isn't something an individual (unless you're Bill Gates) can fund. Neither is military intervention or fixing international law. So while Collier spends page after page imploring the public in rich countries to understand how their governments aren't working to help out developing countries, there's ultimately not much you can do. I can't get myself worked up enough about development to lobby my congressman when I've got so many other priorities, and I'm one of the few who will care enough to read this book. I doubt if others will even bother to read this book, which while not technical is a slog at times.

Hopefully, enough technocrats in positions of power will read this book and make the world a better place for the bottom billion. But I'm not holding my breath.

I recommend this book as good reading for those who genuinely want to help the bottom billion. It should be considered a good start before heading into the specifics (like Easterly's book, and even Jeff Sach's). But I will say I am not optimistic about the outcome. There just isn't enough incentive for folks in rich countries to care about the poor in other countries when for instance, we can't even get health insurance for everyone in the US. Let's fix that first, and then the citizens might have enough largesses to fix the problems the rest of the world has.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

First sail of the year

Sailing on the Bay


So it begins. My next trip will be a sailing cruise in the Virgin Islands! We're flying there to first get our SCUBA certification, and then we'll sail around the islands on a sloop. My previous long sailing trip was in 1998, with a week sail in the Pacific Northwest. I enjoyed it, but I really really really wanted warm water. The Virgin Islands has that in spades, and in December, I'll be ready for an escape from cold weather!

One of my previous crew members, Lea will be returning as first mate (should I fall off the boat). I still have room for a couple more. We'll see how it goes. Maybe Scarlet and I have learned our lessons from our last trip --- we probably shouldn't be on the same boat for more than a couple of days. Though who knows. It's been 9 years, and maybe a sufficient quantity of board games will distract us from ourselves.

I was really afraid that I'd become rusty, since I'd not been sailing more than once a year. But yesterday reminded me that I'm good enough, and a couple more trips to polish me up will be what the doctor ordered.