Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Digital Conversion (Part III)

Canon 5D Test Shots - Edited

My brother and I went out and did the traditional Matt Davis/Steep Ravine loop and to shoot some pictures (well, ok, to fill up the 4GB CF card with 140 frames so as to learn the camera's characteristics). Right off the bat, it seems like I need to read the manual again --- while I thought I knew how to turn on movie mode and live view mode, it turned out that I didn't. This despite having already done it once at home! The UIs are definitely more complicated.

We didn't make it out early enough, so the pictures aren't really spectacular, but hey, it's a test series. The 24-105/4L does live up to its billing as a do-everything lens, and stayed on the camera whenever I needed it. I got used to turning IS off on the tripod, only forgetting it for a couple of frames. Getting out the ND grad. filter was great, and I think I have to remember to get it out more often. We got in a few lovely sunset shots at the Marin headlands, tried a macro shot, a bunch of portraits, and fill-flash.

The big shock for me is in the post-processing. Lightroom is slow. So slow that during the import I had time to go take a shower. Then during processing, it seems to suck CPU for no reason whatsoever. In fact, on my machine, it's so unresponsive I couldn't even try the graduated filter tool! I can definitely see how it's new PC time when I get back from Australia and have to process 100GB worth of pictures. Then the export to JPG (so that Picasa can upload it) is also seriously slow, inexplicably chewing up both cores for 3-4 seconds at a time, with a 1.5s interval in which it does nothing. They definitely need to hire a performance engineer to tweak the heck out of this tool (unfortunately, as long as PCs keep getting faster, they have no incentive to do so). And of course, the program crashed during a zoom/unzoom on a file. This is one poorly written program --- unfortunately, Picasa is aimed right at the point and shoot cameras, and it is doubtful that Picasa will grow to match Lightroom's feature set any time soon.

The good thing about the digital workflow is that RAW really does work a lot like a digital negative. (Note that my monitor still isn't color calibrated --- that'll wait until the new PC) I can rescue horribly over-exposed pictures that I would have given up on with slides and thrown out (obviously, it's still much better to shoot perfectly exposed pictures). Cropping also makes impractical compositions work well, and white balance adjustment saves having to carry and use 81B warming filters. (You'll still need a circular polarizer though!) Lightroom even has a graduated filter options, but I couldn't use it because it's so slow. I'll have to try it on my brother's computer tomorrow to see how it goes.

All in all, an excellent learning experience! It's good to get back into serious photography after 5 years away. I'm rusty as heck, but my skills are returning. (And seriously, most of the work is getting up early, staying for sunset, and remembering to use a tripod!)

2008 Books of the Year

I read 91 books in 2008, well over twice the previous year's rate. This makes evaluation difficult because I read so many good books! There were more than the usual number of clunkers as well, largely because I would occasionally run out of books I bought for the Kindle and hence resort to free fiction, which generally is not to my taste.

The book of the year for me was definitely The Trouble with Physics. Not only is it a great book specifically about string theory, it's an excellent critique of the way science is done, and how science in general has a very hard time dealing with mavericks, deep thinkers, or people who aren't necessarily technical adepts, but nevertheless can have amazing insights. Highly recommended, and worth reading for anyone at all interested about science. A runner up in this category is Brain Rules! (a great book about how your brain works), followed by specialty interest The Story of the Tour De France, Vol I (Vol. II was not nearly as good).

As usual, fiction books run a second to non-fiction, and also to older fiction. I could easily say that the best novel I read this year was A Wizard of Earthsea, but you'd consider me cheating, and rightly so --- the book was published in the 1960s, but if you haven't read it, please do. I think it's amazingly well-written and stands up to time --- the human condition certainly doesn't change much, so enduringly good fiction is still great.

The best new novel I read this year was Adiamante, for its exploration of important issues and a critique of the military approach to problem solving. But that's closely followed by runners up The Dragons of Babel and The Atrocity Archives, both excellent novels and very much worth your time. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention Richard Morgan as the best new-to-me author of the year. I'm working through Thirteen right now, and it's great reading, as much fun as Altered Carbon. It's so great to see an author continually produce great work, since it means there's more great reading to come. Tim Power's Declare also deserves an honorable mention.

Finally, let me plug the Kindle one more time --- it truly is the first interesting improvement to the reading experience, and I like it more and more, especially when comparing it to paper-books. If you are a serious reader (of books that are mostly words), you owe it to yourself to get one. Forget the rumors of the 2.0 version, just get it. It's just about doubled my reading rate, and has paid for itself several times over.

Inflation

Most of the time when I think about inflation, it's in terms of CPI, CPI-U, or other such statistic. You can argue about whether these capture the typical consumer's expense, or whether the government has an incentive to cheat on these things.

Nevertheless, I'm not your typical consumer --- while I'm a cheap-skate in most things, I do tend to have a policy of buying the best when it comes to outdoor gear. Most of that is because I'm enough of a wuss that even mild discomfort is disturbing to me, and some of it is because very few people try to ride bicycles across countries.

In 2005, while preparing for the Coast to Coast, I decided that my boots were what made hiking difficult --- I chafed, blistered, and was always in agony at the end of a hike. So I found Charles Van Gorkom and asked for a pair of custom hiking boots for what was (to me anyway) an incredible price of $700 (with a 5 month wait). Van Gorkom was a pleasure to deal with, and when there was an issue with my boots he immediately took them back, repaired them, and got them back to me with rapidity (he apologized profusely for what should be an uncommon failure).

Well, right in the middle of my long walk, Van Gorkom was named in various magazines for being the custom boot-maker, and now he charges $1600 for a pair for a 23 month wait. And get this, to get the same 5 month wait, you'd have to pay a rush fee, bringing the cost of a pair of boots up to $3000! (Incidentally, what my walk taught me is that even the most comfortable pair of boots I ever bought are still just boots, and aren't as good as running shoes)

Similarly, I bought my custom frame from Carl Strong earlier this year, and now he's raising prices as well, though not by 200%. My first thought was, "Darn, if only I could pick stocks the way I pick custom builders for boots and bikes!"

Unfortunately, I can't, so I'm mostly a passive investor. But if you want to know what my current picks are for boots and custom frames, I'd pick Esatto (Review) for boots,and Bill Davidson for frames. That's the nice thing about a market economy --- there are always alternatives for those who aren't name-conscious.

But there you go, if you want exactly what I bought a few years ago, your inflation rate can be as high as 30% a year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tax Loss Harvesting

I can really tell that the end of the year is coming and the state of people's portfolios by the kind of questions I get. This year, the theme is tax-loss harvesting. In prior years, this wasn't much of an issue because people didn't have any losses to harvest!

Losses are first used to offset gains (i.e., gains are untaxed if accompanied by losses of equal amount). If there are any excess losses, those go against up to $3000 of earned income, and the remainder can be carried over to future years. [Update: I remember that it used to be that only long term losses could be used to offset income, but it looks like this rule changed out from under me]

Other things to watch out for:
  • When taking your losses, you might want to do so before the record date of the dividend payout. This reduces your income so you get taxed less, and actually doesn't cost you the actual dividend, since for most mutual funds, the net asset value (NAV) drops by the equivalent amount on the record date, so you might as well take the reduced capital loss rather than getting taxed on it.
  • When buying an equivalent equity holding, please note that VIPERs are considered equivalent to their mutual fund, so if you're selling VFWIX, you cannot buy VEU. That's because VIPERs are a specially carved out portion of the actual mutual fund. If you do this, you'll end up hitting the Wash Sale Rule, which will in effect zero out your capital loss.
  • It is OK to buy an equivalent fund that tracks a different index. For instance, you can buy VGTSX to substitute for the afore-mentioned VFWIX, and then switch back 31 days later. (It is generally better to hold VFWIX because of the favorable foreign tax-credit distributions treatment)
  • You can even split your fund and buy components (for instance, buying the Pacific, European, and Emerging Markets funds at the appropriate proportions), at the expense of making your portfolio more complicated.
  • When buying the equivalent fund, be careful to also avoid buying the dividend.
  • As mentioned before, turn off reinvestment of dividends and capital gains in your taxable accounts, so that you can do effective tax-lot account in the future.
  • If you're planning on being able to be selective about which tax losses you take, then ETFs are the right model for you, not mutual funds. Vanguard, for instance, makes it quite difficult to get lot-based accounting for sales, which makes such manipulations difficult --- I don't frequently run into these issues because I usually sell all or nothing in a fund I own


When looking at the wash of red-ink over your portfolio at the end of this year (unless you're actually making money, in which case, you should be blogging about money instead of reading my blog), there is one consolation, which is that all this money in your portfolio is effectively tax-free while you still have unrealized capital losses. While that's not something to be happy about, it does mean that your tax bills will be much lower in the years ahead. Given the likelihood of the Obama administration raising taxes (and yes, you can blame the unusually low tax rates in the last 8 years for at least some of that --- we could have used that money to run a budget surplus for problems such as the financial crisis), that's something you can be grateful about.

My Digital Conversion (Part II): "Film" is Cheap

I was working through how much storage I would need over a 2 month trip in Australia. My standard is about 30 rolls for a 3 week trip (10 rolls a week). So an 8 week trip would be 80 rolls of film, or 2880 exposures. The Canon 5D Mk II generates 25 MB images per shot, so that's 72GB.

17Photo.com is selling Sandisk Extreme III 16GB cards at $70 a pop after rebate. (I chose this card as opposed to the Extreme IV because I'm largely a landscape shooter, so I'll only need something fast enough for the typical movie) To get it all in Compact Flash I'd need 5 of those cards, or $350 worth of cards. But I don't even need to spend that much, since I can get a 250GB Wolverine Pic-Pac for $145 or so. That should cover even the worst circumstances (i.e., I go crazy and shoot twice as much as I do because digital is cheap) By contrast, to get 80 rolls of Velvia exposed and processed would cost $800. And of course, this is a one-time expenditure that will likely never have to be spent again. And of course, the weight/space savings over 80 rolls of Fuji Velvia is substantial.

What else am I getting for my camera? A circular polarizer, a UV filter (for when I'm on boats), Singh-Ray ND grad filters (2 stop and 3 stop) --- I've been using the Hi-tech filters, but I want something with a harder stop, 77mm adapter ring for the Cokin "P" system, the wide-angle Cokin "P" filter holder. That's turning out to cost me more than the storage for the camera.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Review: Happiness

Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth is one of the several spate of books to come out about happiness in the past year or two. If you want a video guide, here's professor Sonja Lyubomirsky walking through her book, The How of Happiness:


The idea is that instead of researching unhappy people, psychology can make progress examining positive examples of well-functioning humans as well. As someone who's always been a happy person since his teenage years were over, I was curious as to what the literature and research shows.

Well, I was disappointed. The book is full of aphorisms and generalizations like:
  • Higher income makes people more happy, on average, but only for the kinds of problems that money can solve for you. DUH!
  • Being religious makes people more happy, unless you're not in the United States, an unusually religious country where being religious might help you become more socially accepted. What about the other countries? No details are provided.
  • You have a happiness set point that you tend to return to throughout your life. Except that it might be possible to change that. No word on how to go about it is provided.
  • Being extremely happy can actually cause you to die earlier, because you tend to brush off problems and issues that you really need to go to a doctor about. How happy are such people? Are they permanently on drugs?
In any case, I think I got more out of the typical Wall Street Journal column on happiness (e.g., trading a short commute for a bigger house is never a good move) than out of this book. It's not as though most of us are so insensible about our lives and ourselves that we need someone to tell us that money isn't everything (it sure isn't, but it does grease the skids quite a bit!).

In general, not worth your time. Watch Sonja's video instead, or read her book instead.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Castle Rock to Big Basin HQ

 

Castle Rock to Big Basin

Mike Samuel and Tammy Lin joined Lisa & I at Phil Sung's house on Saturday morning for a hike from Castle Rock to Big Basin. This is the first two days of the Skyline to the Sea walk --- this being Tammy's first backpacking trip and Lisa being unmotivated by winter weather to do more than a 2 day backpack, we opted for just the two days.

The morning was cold, but once we got out of the woods along the ridge on Skyline it was glorious and warm. The views were so nice we could see all the way to Monterey Bay, and the walk was mostly well-signed. In fact, we only got lost once, near Waterman Gap trail where overgrown bushes had covered over a trail sign. Waterman Gap trail camp is about 1/4 mile or so from the intersection between highway 9 and 236, but all night we did not hear any traffic or road noise at all. The morning was a bit cold, but some oat meal and hot tea got us going. Still, it took us until 10:30am to leave camp.

The hike along 236 was nice --- I had seen all the scenery before from a bicycle, but the trail gave us frequent deep views into the Redwoods that I'd never seen before, and right after the trail crossed over China Grade road we saw across Big Basin into parts of Skyline that I never did quite see from the road, along sandstone and with some lovely gorges. The drop down into Big Basin was immediately followed by some navigation error, but after noticing that the North Escape road essentially paralleled the Skyline to the Sea trail, I opted to stay on the road for easier walking.

Phil with his usual impeccable sense of timing showed up at the Park HQ just as I was getting out of my boots into my Vibram Five Fingers. All in all, it was an excellent walk with about 831m of climbing and nearly 20 miles of walking. We got to test out a lot of the new gear we bought for the Australia trip, and that was a good thing.

Recommended. I kept thinking along this hike --- how come I've lived in the Bay Area and haven't done this hike before?
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Thursday, December 25, 2008

My Digital Conversion

In 1998, I took up photography as a hobby. At that time, my friends and I commented that we didn't think we'd be shooting film in 5 years. Certainly, every roll of Fuji Velvia cost $10 (after processing), and I saw one film after another disappear into the obscurity. For instance, I won a $300 prize in Photo Technique UK in 1999 on Kodak Royal Gold 25, a film that disappeared right after my photo ran in the September 1999 issue. (The magazine itself seems to have disappeared or turned into a digital equivalent --- like cycling magazines, these magazines tend to repeat the same topics year after year, so you would subscribe to them for a year and then stop --- though the UK magazines do always showcase fantastic reader photographs!) Come 2003, I was still shooting slides on my EOS-3. I still thought that a digital conversion would happen in 5 years, but then again, I had been saying that for 5 years!

There were many reasons for my resistance --- most of which is the necessary work to deal with post-processing --- I sit in front of computers all day, and coming home to sit in front of the computer some more didn't quite appeal to me. Moreover, many of the consumer SLRs were small-sensor SLRs, turning my beloved 24mm lenses into 35mm lenses. Then in 2005, Google bought Picasa, and I bought my first digital camera and shot the 2005 Tour of the Alps with it. (That's right, the 2003 Tour of the Alps had us carrying 30 rolls of slide film in our panniers!)

Then this year, after looking at Phil's beautifully stitched photos from Rosenlaui, I realized that even a point and shoot was producing amazing results. So when the Canon 5D Mk II was announced and I had a trip to Australia impending in a month, I started looking for one. Despite a recession it seemed to be impossible to find one in stock, so I was beginning to resign myself to sticking with the G9.

But 2 days ago, the work mailing list told me that it was in stock at my favorite photo vendor, so I took a deep breath and bought it. It arrived yesterday, and I've put it through the paces as much as weather permitted. Oh yeah, digital has arrived. Here are the big changes:

  • With color balancing being available digitally, I don't have to carry special film, or 81B warming filters. I do, however, still have to carry a circular polarizer.
  • With Image-Stabilization (IS) lenses available (I got the kit with the 24-105/4L IS), I no longer have to fear hand-held shots as much. I'm still a fanatic about technique though, so will still carry a tripod whenever feasible. (And no, doing it on a walk across England would still be unfeasible --- I've learned that I'm just not fit enough for that, and I'd rather give up photos than stop enjoying the experience) The flip side of that is that I have to remember to keep IS turned off when the camera is on the tripod, since IS actually degrades picture quality if it's on the tripod!
  • I can potentially not use ND grad. filters (the one tool that distinguishes professionals from amateurs), and rely on a virtual ND grad. filter or a HDR merge, by shooting from a tripod. This has interesting implications but I suspect I'll still be carrying my ND grads and using them --- post-processing is not an adequate substitute for making a good photograph in the first place, and I'm still uncomfortable with this much digital darkroom work. Nevertheless, it might be that I'll convert.
  • Not shooting film saves about $10/roll. A typical 2 week trip used to cost me 30 rolls or $300. An 8 week trip would cost $1200! And of course, with film you can't shoot as much, so you tend to be a bit more conservative with your shots. Now, having to think before you shoot is still a good thing, so it'll be interesting to me to see how this works out for me.
  • Going all digital costs money! Sadly camera capabilities seem to be evenly matched to the power of desktop computers. My 2.5 year old Mac Mini with 2GB of RAM and Core Duo processors is woefully inadequate for running Adobe Lightroom. Unfortunately, Picasa doesn't support the Canon's RAW image format yet. And forget about my 5 year old copy of Photoshop 6.0! I guess my experiment with "quiet, always on" machines is over --- I'm going to have to get a big beefy desktop to go digital. When you're actually processing images and movies on the machine, you can't make do with small and quiet architectures. Good thing machines are cheaper than when I last saw them. A quad core machine with 8GB of RAM goes for $1300 nowadays. What amazes me though is how bad Lightroom is about resources --- what the heck is it doing that's so hungry for CPU power? Just panning around pegs both my cores at 100%. And it's not just my machine --- my brother's Core 2 Duo/4GB state-of-the-art-last-year also had both CPUs pegged! I guess while even Microsoft Office hasn't been able to chew up the latest multi-core chips, Adobe's been hard at work making sure Intel's customers upgrade every year to keep up!
  • Despite my color blindness, I better start color calibrating my monitors! Fortunately, there are (relatively) cheap tools for doing this. Again, I never considered this at all when I was shooting slides. Fuji Velvia comes with its own palette (and I know people who hate it and call it Disneychrome), but once you get used to how it renders the world you just don't tweak it any more (other than pushing the film once in a while). That is so not true when it comes to digital.

I guess it's time for this old dog to learn some new tricks! I remember when I attended the late Galen Rowell's workshop way back in 1999, and came back after 3 days with 100X better pictures then when I went into the workshop. Is there an equivalent for Photoshop and the digital darkroom? If so, let me know, because I'm going to be getting rid of all my film cameras in a hurry.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Review: The Dragons of Babel

The Dragons of Babel is the "sequel" to Michael Swanwick's 1993 fantasy, The Iron Dragon's Daughter. The Iron Dragon's Daughter was a heart-breaker --- the opening was gorgeous, beautiful, and when I read that story in Asimov's Science Fiction I knew I would buy the novel when it came out. It depicted what I will called Industrial Fantasy --- a world in which magic works, but all the trappings of the Industrial Revolution are in place --- trains, air-power, and Dickensian sweat-shops. While that novel had fresh ideas on every page, it completely sagged past the first third and I thought it lost its way, despite the brilliance of Swanwick's ideas.

This re-tread of the same world some 15 years later obviously takes place in the same universe, but uses completely different characters. This time, however, I feel that Swanwick has done justice to his ideas. The story takes off so many fantasy tropes and stories that it would be tough to enumerate them all. There's the farmboy who goes to the city and gets taken in by a con-man story. There's the victim of an oppressive dragon who is made into the oppressor of his village story. There's even an "oh, and it was all a dream" story. There's a tragic love story. But they all happen to one character, a boy named Will, who at the start of the story sees a war hit home as the remains of an Iron Dragon (a magic-powered sentient fighter-bomber analogue) lands near his village.

Unlike his previous attempt at telling a story in this milieu, however, the action starts and it then never stops, not for the 300 pages it takes to tell this story. And what a marvelous 300 pages it is! By the end of it all, you've explored a city and several fantasy stories (all twisted in the usual Swanwick fashion), and learned a lot about this world the characters live in. It's a wild, almost psychedelic romp through fantasy-land and whenever I stop I had to pause to take a breath, so it took quite some time to finish this book (that and I had to read it on paper, with no Kindle edition).

All in all, a worth-while read --- easily one of the best novels I've read this year.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Cheapskate Guide to Getting a G1 Running

Let's say you get an unlocked developer's G1. If you're like me, you don't talk very much on the phone, and you spend most of your time in a WiFi zone. But the Android makes for a great convergence device (it's an ipod replacement, and a phone replacement).

It turns out that the AT&T Gophone plan is a pre-paid plan that includes data, but at an exorbitant rate (no big deal if you're mostly in WiFi zone). But the on-line plan wouldn't let me buy a SIM card without a phone, so I dropped by the AT&T store today and waited in line with the iPhone buyers to get a $10 SIM card (even a $5 SIM card will do). I then stuck the SIM card into my G1, dialed 611, and paid $4.99 for 1MB of data. (You can also pay $9.99 for 5MB --- overage is $0.01 cents/KB) Basically, if you use google maps once, you'll chew it all up, so it's strictly for low-data traffic, or for people who spend almost all their time in WiFi zones.

But that's not all. You still have to turn on the EDGE access. From the Settings application, select Wireless Controls->Mobile networks->Access Point Names. Push the menu button to pick "New APN". Then enter the following data:

Name: at&t gophone
APN: wap.cingular
Username: wap@cingulargprs.com
Password: cingular1
MMSC: http://mmsc.cingular.com
MMS Proxy: wireless.cingular.com
MMS port: 80
MCC: 310
MNC: 410

Then select this APN, and you'll be good to go. Instead of paying $55 for voice and data that you'll never use much of, this should get you down to about $5 or $10 a month, provided you're a light user of data. The one downside is that you can't get access to the AT&T 3G network.

And before you ask, yes I asked T-mobile if they had data access with their pre-paid plan, and the answer is no.

Update: Someone pointed out that I should warn users that you should only do this with a prepaid SIM card. Otherwise, you will end up with significant data bills should your pocket end up watching a youtube video!

Saratoga Gap Hike

 


The forecast was for iffy weather this morning, but it was supposed to be a rain later, so we set off to Saratoga Gap for a moderate hike. At the top, we met with Phil Sung, Irene, Tracy Wang, and Johnson, and all piled into Phil's car to the trailhead. While I usually descend Charcoal road and climbed Grizzly flat, this time I was worried that inclement weather might do bad things for visibility later, so we opted to hike along Long Ridge open space preserve to see what views there were while there was time. Sure enough, we spotted the Big Sur mountains above a fog bank that was hanging above Monterey Bay.

Following along Long Ridge, we hiked onto Peters Creek Trail towards the Grizzly Flat parking lot, and enjoyed a cool weather hike with no rain and only a few encounters with some mountain bikers. The descent from Grizzly Flat, however, saw quite a number of mountain bikers, one of whom told us that there was a lot of water. It started drizzling soon after, so we stopped to put on rain gear, and since I had boots with me, hiking boots for me and Lisa.

At the creek, we found that there wasn't actually a lot of water at all, and both stream crossings were over and we found the trail to Table Mountain easily. The climb was as pretty as I remember, and soon we were at Table Mountain. Once there, the road widened up into Charcoal road, and the mud was a bit stickier. On a bike it takes about 20 minutes to ride this section, but it took quite a bit longer on foot, but we arrived at the car around 1:00pm, without serious rain until we started down the mountain.

Approximately 9 miles with 1500' or so of elevation gain.
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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Why Investing is Hard

There are many times when I tell people that do-it-myself financial planning is really easy. In fact, as far as the math goes, it's not even as close as learning to solve differential equations, doing linear algebra, or learning to program in C++. So if the intellectual challenge behind investing just isn't that hard, why do smart, hardworking people consistently fail at it? Why did Nobel prize winner Myron Scholes sit on the board of directors of not one, but two massive hedge fund failures? (LTCM and Platinum Grove)

The answer, I think, is that the challenges that investing pose are not intellectual, but emotional. I'll provide a personal example. Last year in November when Google sat at $700 or so a share, I polled people I knew to see if they were selling. When every one said No, I knew it was time to sell. So I sold. And the stock went up to $712. So I sold some more. And then it went to $723, and I sold some more. And then it went up some more, and I sold. At this point, my hands were shaking as I pressed the sell button with my mouse. I kid you not. Despite everything I knew telling me that this was the right thing to do, it was emotionally very difficult to do it when everybody else (including the stock market) was telling me differently. My mind started constructing scenarios under which Google could be worth $1500 per share in 5 years. I started noticing articles (like this one by Henry Blodget) that were quite optimistic.

Truly, when it comes to investing, your worst enemy is yourself (well, ok, a crooked financial advisor would be even worse). Smart, hardworking people like to do stuff. Society rewards that. Your typical day job rewards that. Yet investing is precisely the opposite. Even as illustrious an investor as Warren Buffet wrote in his 1998 newsletter The portfolio actions I took in 1998 actually decreased our gain for the year. In particular, my decision to sell McDonald's was a very big mistake. Overall, you would have been better off last year if I had regularly snuck off to the movies during market hours. I remember hearing once that 95% of all positions sold to buy another stock (or mutual fund) actually decreases the performance of a portfolio, so typically, sitting on your ass is the right thing to do, but that goes against the grain of everything else society values.

Experience also teaches people that if something works, do more of it. Smart people, in particular learn that really quickly. But that's also the wrong thing to do in investing. When stocks do particularly well for a period, they tend to regress to the mean later. Which means that when your stock portfolio starts doing really well, it's really time to sell it and buy bonds. The asset allocation approach is to periodically re-balance this portfolio and that's what enforces this discipline. But usually when the time comes to re-balance, most people find it really difficult to sell their winners and buy their losers. So that works against you too.

Finally, Financial Planning success is measured in decades, which is completely counter to the way human planning scales want to work. For instance, global warming, which is a multi-decade problem falls into this category, and we have made essentially no progress in that area for the last 10 years or so, nor do I expect the human race to do so until it's too late. Fortunately, unlike international politics and policy, we as individuals can affect our destiny, but again, our evolutionary history works against us.

Financial blogs, books, etc., can help you with the intellectual underpinnings beneath financial planning and investing, but what I've found is that nobody can help you with the emotional part of investing. Heck, over the next few years there are going to be some major buying opportunities that will show up. In fact, some of them are probably already there today. But I expect that when the time comes, it's going to be just as hard for me to push the buy button as it was for me to push the sell button last year.

Review: Archform: Beauty

Archform Beauty (Kindle Edition) is best described as a thriller. While there's suspense, there's not really any mystery --- we learn who the villain is early on, and even get scenes devote to his machinations.

The story is set in the prehistory of Adiamante, around the same era as Flash, but with a narrative set around four people rather than one. They are Professor Cornett, a music professor and singer at the University of Denver, a Trend Analyst from the local police department Eugene Chiang, the Senator from Colorado Mr. Cannon, and a local news researcher Mr. Parsfal. The four narratives revolve around their individual lives and intersect only peripherally until near the end of the story where everything comes together.

Unfortunately, while the jigsaw puzzles do line up and are themselves interesting, this technique robs the overall story of its narrative power. Only midway through the novel do you realize that this seemingly irrelevant piece of news was actually relevant, and even then you never really get a good feel for the political involvements because you never quite feel included in the world, with all this skipping around character by character. The net result is that when the characters are in danger, you're also not really too excited either.

The characters are well-written and well-formed, though Senator Cannon seems a little unrealistic --- he's clearly a womanizer, but doesn't act on his obvious attraction to members of the opposite sex, because he knows he'll get caught. Wait. That doesn't describe any politician I can think of.

I borrowed this book from the library, and while it's not a waste of time, I can't quite recommend it either. Incidentally, this being one of the first paper novels I read since I acquired the Kindle, I did find it annoying to read a dead tree compared to the electronic device --- the book is heavy, won't stay opened or lay flat, and I can't change the font-size. Who would have thought that 7 months of exclusively reading on the Kindle would have made me think that paper books are obsolete?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Review: A Splendid Exchange

A Splendid Exchange (Kindle Edition) is a history book about trade. If I had any doubt that my knowledge of world history comes largely from playing Civilization, this book dispelled it all. From the early exchanges of stone tools in the Mesapotamian region to the spice trade of the middle ages, this book covers it all. Even the legendary Chinese trader/admiral Zheng He (which Bernstein translates as Cheng Ho) is covered.

The modern era, including the rise of the multi-national trading corporations (which in the tradition of modern corporations started wars and were not at all adverse to using force to achieve their means) and the collapse and rise of the modern international trading regimes such as GATT. At this point, the narrative becomes more interesting for those who are concerned with modern politics and trade policies, with a surface coverage of Stolper-Samuelson, for instance. Bernstein himself is a free-trader, but I was very pleasantly surprised by his balanced coverage of the issues, including his castigation of the free-traders' vilification of labor concerns:
Such sentiments not only unnecessarily antagonize workers but also are unfair; American industry has in fact been much more adept than labor at getting protection, particularly in the form of non-tariff barriers: quotas, subsidies, antidumping legislation and the like. Trade economists are slowly beginning to realize that they must stop being their own worst enemies.
Bernstein goes on to quote Dani Rodrik. I wish that this section of the book was longer, but I'm guessing that Bernstein didn't really want any controversy as part of what is essentially a history book.

All in all, the book is recommended, but it's definitely long going, and you must have an interest in the history of trade, or the middle sections will send you to sleep.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Chrome 1.0 is Superfast

I've been using Chrome for a while now, and while it was OK, I didn't find it particularly compelling --- it crashes on some web pages, and while the Javascript engine was supposedly faster, it didn't seem to make a difference to me --- until last night, when I upgraded to Chrome 1.0.

My first impression was: Holy crap this is fast! To make sure that it wasn't just my impression, I told my friend Peng-Toh about it. Peng-Toh ran the Sunspider JavaScript Benchmark on his Mac, and came up with:




OS/BrowserTime
osx firefox 3.0.43023ms
vmware xp firefox 3.0.4 3202ms
vmware xp chrome 1.0 1271ms
osx safari 3.2.13118ms
That's right, even running in a VM, Chrome on the same machine beats native Safari --- by a factor of 2.5X. That's despite both rendering engines being WebKit. Ok, just to make sure that it wasn't just the geeks thinking it's fast, I asked my girlfriend to upgrade on her machine. She too noticed the speed difference.

Bottom-line: Chrome just went from being my secondary browser to being my primary browser. If you haven't been using it for a while, now's the time to try it. Kudos to the Chrome development team!

A Book Reviewers Linkup Meme

The Accidental Bard
A Dribble Of Ink
Adventures in Reading
The Agony Column
The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.
Barbara Martin
Bibliophile Stalker
Bibliosnark
BillWardWriter.com
Blood of the Muse
Bookgeeks
Bookslut
Bookspotcentral
The Book Swede
Breeni Books
Cheryl's Musings
Critical Mass
Dark Wolf Fantasy Reviews
Darque Reviews
Dave Brendon's Fantasy and Sci-Fi Weblog
The Deckled Edge
Dragons, Heroes and Wizards
Dusk Before the Dawn
Enter the Octopus
Eve's Alexandria
Fantasy Book Critic
Fantasy Cafe
Fantasy Debut
Fantasy Book Reviews and News
Fantasy and Sci-fi Lovin' Blog
The Fix
The Foghorn Review
From a Sci-Fi Standpoint
The Galaxy Express
Galleycat
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Grasping for the Wind
The Green Man Review
Highlander's Book Reviews
io9
Jumpdrives and Cantrips
Literary Escapism
Michele Lee's Book Love
Monster Librarian
Mostly Harmless Books
My Favourite Books
Neth Space
NextRead
OF Blog of the Fallen
The Old Bat's Belfry
Outside of a Dog
Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
Piaw's Blog
Post-Weird Thoughts
Publisher's Weekly
Reading the Leaves
Realms of Speculative Fiction
Rob's Blog o' Stuff
ScifiChick
SF Diplomat
SciFiGuy
Sci-Fi Songs [Musical Reviews]
Severian's Fantastic Worlds
SF Gospel
SF Reviews.net
SF Revu
SF Signal
SF Site
SFF World's Book Reviews
Silver Reviews
Speculative Fiction Junkie
Speculative Horizons
Sporadic Book Reviews
The Sword Review
Tangent Online
Temple Library Reviews
Tor.com [also a publisher]
The Road Not Taken
Un:Bound
Urban Fantasy Land
Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic
Variety SF
Walker of Worlds
Wands and Worlds
The Wertzone
WJ Fantasy Reviews
The World in a Satin Bag
WriteBlack

Foreign Language (other than English)

Cititor SF [Romanian, but with English Translation]

Elbakin.net [French]

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Limits of Financial Planning

If you're like anyone who's invested in the stock market over the last few years, the past 12 months must have been sobering --- we're seeing drops of close to 40% over market peaks. What's worse, nothing seems to be safe --- gold is down, international markets are down (so much for decoupling), and even Berkshire Hathaway, king of all value stocks is down.

In these times of uncertainty, we should take a moment to reflect on how we know so little about what the future will hold. As Bernstein says, history has not been kind for those seeking stability --- over a 40 year period, the chances of us being caught in some kind of catastrophe is approximately 20% --- and we're talking about war, potential global warming nightmare scenarios, and other such that would cause you to think that your portfolio dropping 40% is the least of your problems. So even though all the retirement calculators might show that your portfolio will survive no matter what, there's always that 20% chance of failure no matter what.

I asked Bernstein about FireCalc and other such tools last year, and this was his response:
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 non retired 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.


In the mean time, I plan to enjoy myself, stick to my asset allocation strategy, and not worry too much about it --- if you or I have to work a few years longer, that's hardly the world's biggest disaster. Even now, I am much more worried about global warming causing us to have an uninhabitable Earth (for humans that is --- cockroaches will survive everything) than about a second great depression.

Monday, December 08, 2008

StreetView Trike

Streetview Trike

I was barely off the plane from Munich when Mike started talking to me about a trike and Monterey. Then Lea started asking me about pedals. Well, I was jet-lagged, and figured that I wasn't going to be productive in the office anyway, so I might as well get some sun to reset my body clock.

When Lea and Mike showed up near my apartment with a truck and a giant-sized trailer, I was impressed. I tossed my still laden with German mud single bike into the back of the truck, and we headed down to Pacific Grove, where I knew a section of road that had enough room to park the bike and the trailer.

The Street View prototype tricycle was huge, and required no less than 2 people to set up. I was quite superfluous, so could take pictures and as the person most familiar with the area, lead everyone else to the bike path, which was too narrow to take the normal Street View car through (and it really wouldn't be socially acceptable to do so either).

Riding a tricycle is nothing like riding a bicycle, not even a tandem bicycle. As Keith Code's book on performance motorcycle racing says, the most cruel trick your parents played on you was to give you a tricycle to ride when you were small, and then switch you to a bicycle and watch you crash. You can't steer a tricycle by balance, only by turning the handlebars. And if the vehicle lists because of a bump in the road or a pothole, or even just going over a rough surface, doing what your cycling instincts tell you to do is exactly the wrong thing --- counter-steering doesn't work at all! At well over 200 pounds, a 4% grade feels like a 12% grade, and I watched Lea stand up with her full body weight on the tricycle pedals and barely move it!

We rode through downtown Monterey and the Wharf as well as cannery row, drawing the occasional friendly comments and curious looks. After we exited the city limits on the far end of town, Mike decided to visit the beach, and we posed with some pictures on the trike.

I can't tell if our experiment was successful or if we collected much data, but we provided quite a bit of feedback to the mechanical engineers behind the prototype, and we'll see how things go from there!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Why I love YouTube, part whatever!



I found this clip just randomly trolling YouTube...and wow. I watched it twice before realizing I absolutely loved the song. I love the beginning, "no matter who you are, no matter where you are at the point in your life, you're going to need someone to stand by you"....absolutely true..but I love how they took all the covers from the artists they enlisted and mixed them together so absolutely beautiful.

Listening to this song is a religious experience! The Grandpa Elliot portions are just so gorgeous...great voice, great passion in his singing....music folks probably don't need me to tell them this, but the layering of this song is just so beautifully delicious I can't help but get into the song....when they get to the African female chorus, I was almost to the point of tears at the sheer beauty of the song...the video just cements how great the song is....when you look at how the voices mix together, the various instruments, and how they mix each voice to be backing, lead, chorus...its just sheer perfection as far as I'm concerned..

But don't get me wrong, the video part of this song is so important...you can see the passion of each artist...the Grandpa's eyes rolling in to his head, Clarence's sheer power as he's singing...the various instrumentalists (the russian in particular is superb...so stoic, so serious, his chords so stirring!)...

The producers of this mix seem to be part of a bigger movement..Playing for Change...well, they've got a customer lined up for them once they release the DVD and soundtrack for their movie.

First movie I'm going to buy review unseen =).

Ah..the powers of YouTube..and they wonder how they're going to monetize YouTube, sometimes the answer's right in their eyes, I think.

Highly recommended video!!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Review: Canon G9 Digital Camera


The Canon G9 is an obsolete camera, having been replaced by the G10, which has more mega-pixels but a smaller zoom factor, though a nicer 28mm lens. We got our G9 refurbished through the little known Canon Customer Loyalty Program for $250, which is a fantastic deal and another reason why Canon has me as a customer for life (we traded in an 8 year old 3 mega-pixel camera!).

The Canon takes amazing pictures. The results from our Turkey Sailing Trip where we had both cameras showed that whenever we shot the same picture with both the G9 and our 3 year old SD500, the G9 won. The camera is bulky, but not so much so that I couldn't carry it in a cycling jersey pocket, though I wouldn't do that for more than a few hours. It does fit in a handlebar bag, however.

The picture quality is one thing, but the camera has a great stitch assist mode that's a pleasure to use because of the dial. The other modes are pretty good as well, giving you aperture priority, shutter priority, and even full manual mode, which is admittedly a lot less usable than a real digital SLR, but hey, it's $250! The lens is very nice though I found that 35mm is not wide enough. Then again, with stich-assist, you can make your own wide angle after the fact.

We're so impressed by this camera that we bought an underwater housing for it, despite already having one for the SD500. The downsides: the shutter lag is noticeable, and the inter-frame wait (time between shutter press intervals) is longer than I want it to be. Nevertheless, the last few trips (including the Radstadt/Salzburg Tour in Munich were all shot using the G9 --- the pictures wouldn't have looked at nice on the SD500.

All in all, however, this is the camera that substitutes for a range finder as far as I'm concerned. The zoom lens is good enough, and for $250, it's an excellent value. Recommended. If I can't get a Canon 5D Mk II in time for our trip to Australia, I will still be very happy with this camera. Recommended.

Munich Trips Index

Now that I'm back in the US and mostly over my jet-lag, I can put together a list of trips out of Munich that I did this year (also, folks at work keep asking about it, so this is a good summary page). I have a bunch of Munich-related posts all labeled, but some of them capture more than just weekend trips or visits.

Then there were the big trips, like the Tour Across France and sailing the Mediterranean and the Aegan Sea. So I did quite a bit of travel. The three highlights for me (outside of the two big trips of course) were the Commute (because a little bit off heaven every day adds up a lot), the Salzkammergut Bike Route, and the trip to Rosenlaui. But each one of these trips was really pretty and worth the effort of planning and the cost of executing it. I definitely enjoyed all of them, and am very glad I got the chance to live in Germany for the time I was there, but if you had limited time, Salzkammergut only takes 3-4 days, and so does Rosenlaui, and both are very much tops!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Another Kindle Mystery Solved

My brother complained that while he was in Greece, his Kindle suddenly stopped being able to sort by "Most recent". Then the same thing happened to me in Turkey. There are very few software bugs that are location aware, so I just chalked it up to a freak coincidence. Then it happened to me again yesterday!

But this time, I figured out what happened. All these incidences happened during an internal battery change while overseas! When you take out the battery and put in a new one, what happens is that the Kindle's internal clock resets to time 0 Unix time, which is Jan 1st, 1970. Well, that means that the last modified date on the files that you touch (i.e., books that you read) get set to somewhere around 1970, which leads to odd sorting behavior.

This isn't an issue when you're in the USA, because all you have to do is to turn on wireless and the clock will get reset by the cellular phone network that the Kindle uses (no, there's no way for you to set the clock manually on the Kindle). The lesson here is that if you want to get extra reading between recharges while overseas while not losing the sort functionality, use the Gomadic Battery Extender. Or lobby Amazon.com to let us set the date and time on the Kindle in the future.

Review: The Buried Pyramid

The Buried Pyramid (Free Kindle download) was Jane Lindskold's first publshed novel. It's not very good.

The story, which could have used an editor, revolves around a Victorian era exploration/discovery of a hitherto unknown King and undiscovered tomb. Captain Neville Hawthorne accompanied a German man on a previous unsuccessful excursion to find such the Tomb, but was driven away, only to return many years later to make a second and third attempt.

The book is full of stereotypes --- you've got the white man gone native, you've got the American niece toting revolvers and sticking up for women's rights everywhere, you've got the eccentric scholar dragging his books of lore all over the deserts, and the native kid who keeps a monkey pet but and turns out to be surprisingly smart. Not to mention the rival archaeologists who will stop at nothing to get access to the new finds before anyone else does. Hawthorne et al get warnings of a mysterious nature from someone who appears to know all about them, but keeps himself hidden.

With such a hackneyed set of characters, it's not too surprising that the plot is hackneyed as well. In fact, I guessed (correctly) about the identity of the mysterious note-writer, and Lindskold uses the ancient (and silly) cryptographic rot-13 cipher to show off her understanding of cryptography.

The last third of the book ventures into the fantastic, with encounters with long-dead mythologies, and would have been welcomed if the first two-thirds of the book wasn't so inane. As it was, I kept praying for the characters to show some originality, and choose an unconventional ending, but alas, this was not to be. It was a chore to keep my eyes open on the flight with this book. I ventured into reading other books on my Kindle and returned to this only out of a feeling of obligation (and in case something interesting happened in the novel). Well, nothing did, so save yourself some time.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Review: Adiamante

I'm wondering why it took me this long to discover L. E. Modesitt. I find myself enjoying his under-stated writing style, the situations and the setup --- this is science fiction at its best, character driven, with the science fiction used to emphasize the essentials of the human condition.

Adiamante (kindle edition) explores one of the late Arthur C. Clarke's quips --- that someone who wants to run for presidency should by definition be disqualified from the job.

How then, would you organize a society around this? Well, you would draft your president of course, since by definition he wouldn't want to do the job, but how would you make it distasteful enough that he wouldn't want to cling to power for as long as he can? The society in Adiamante answers that question in an interesting fashion, which is that the exercise of power has a cost, which must be paid off through labor when the term is up.

The setting is Old Earth, after many struggles between various factions of humanities (one of which was forcibly shipped off to the stars) and where the remnants of humanity have learned to live with a fragile ecosystem. When one of the fragments of humanities returns to Earth to redress old wrongs, the people of the Earth elect Ector as the Coordinator to lead them through this crisis. (Ector was elected because he recently lost his wife, which meant that in this very dangerous position he had less to lose than many)

Old Earth's society is portrayed as a strange Utopia, one in which material goods are rare and expensive, but high technology in the form of an information net is incredibly advanced. The interaction between the invaders and Ector as Coordinator is constrained, as Old Earth's social Construct does not permit pre-emptive strikes:
We are sending you home to Gates, and we're providing a ship as a symbol of trust. That is because the key to the universe, the key to survival, is trust. Trust is acting in good faith when you have no reason so to act. Trust is refraining from attacking an enemy first, no matter what the cost. Why is that wise? Because once any person or society strikes first, that action sows the seeds of corruption. Logic, even pure cyb logic, is formidable enough that it can justify any action, no matter how base or corrupt, as necessary to survival. Physical survival is not enough, not for either a person or a society. A society's principles must also survive, and if you betray your principles for physical survival, then you have doomed your offspring and your society. Principles can be improved, and we have
slowly changed ours for what we believe to be the better, but they should never be changed or discarded for short-term expediency. No matter what the price, we must do what is right, and part of what is right is trust.
(Kindle Loc. 3115)

From the above passage you might think that this book might have been written in response to the invasion of Iraq, and you would be wrong --- this book was published in 1996, long before the events of September 11th, 2001. That it has even more relevance today than when it was published I think speaks well of the themes and approach that Modesitt took.

The details of the Construct as well as the Cyb invaders are revealed slowly, and we learn the challenges and the price that Ector and his society will have to pay for the purposes of long-term stability. If you're looking for cheap fast thrills, or a science fiction that you know and love, look elsewhere (Richard Morgan's books are great for that). This is science fiction told in a stately pace, with lots to think about. My only criticism is that the Kindle edition was formatted with several glitches, and I never got to like any of the characters as much as I enjoyed the exploration of a very interesting and well-thought out society and social contract. Nevertheless, the book is recommended, and I'm going to have to read more Modesitt in the future.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

My signed Krugman book

Way back in December last year, before he won the Nobel prize, Paul Krugman dropped by Google to give a talk:

After the talk, there was a private session with him where some of us got to ask him question, and he was a great person to ask questions of (especially about the upcoming elections, and policy --- I'll admit to out-sourcing my policy research to him whenever I can).

While I was not smart enough to bring a camera so that I could have a picture with him, but I did manage to get my copy of The Conscience of A Liberal signed:


After Krugman won the Nobel, I remembered that I had the autograph and got my brother to scan it for me to share.
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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Review: Talent is Over-Rated

Talent is Overrated (Kindle Edition) is a short, quick read with but one thesis: there is no such thing as talent. While there are certain physical and mental pre-requisites, the difference in performance at a high level can all be attributed to but one thing: the quantity of deliberate practice one is able to achieve.

Deliberate practice isn't just doing what you're good at, but a program aimed at expanding your comfort zone --- the challenge has to be tough enough that it improves your abilities, but not so challenging that you're discouraged --- it requires your full attention. In fact, at the start, most beginners require a teacher or some guided program to tell you how to practice, and in certain fields such as sports (golf, or horseback riding, for instance), a coach is essential even for the best athletes, for the same reason that if you can't see what you're doing, you don't know what you're doing wrong.

Colvin expands on several examples, including an interesting case of a Hungarian couple (who weren't great chess players themselves) deliberately setting out to train three daughters to become eminent chess players. When I think about it, this is how I became a decent programmer --- when I started school, outside class, I would work on my own programs. Each successive project would be more and more complex as my abilities grew. The amount of work I did became obsessive, even to the point where I paid no attention to members of the opposite sex during this period of obsession. One of the reason why there's this stereotype of absent-minded professors or computer-obsessed geeks is because it's real. Colvin even remarks on this:
We often see the price people pay in their rise to the top of any field; even if their marriages or other relationships survive, their interests outside their field typically cannot. Howard Gardner, after studying his seven exceptional achievers, noted that "usually, as a means of being able to continue work, the creator sacrificed normal relationships in the personal sphere." Such people are "committed obsessively to their work. Social life or hobbies are almost immaterial." That may sound like admirable self-sacrifice and direction of purpose, but it often goes much
further, and it can be ugly. As Gardner notes, "the self-confidence merges with egotism, egocentrism, and narcissism: each of the creators seems highly self-absorbed, not only wholly involved in his or her own projects, but likely to pursue them at the cost of other individuals." The story of the great achiever who leaves a wake of anger and betrayal is a common one.
(Kindle loc 3266)
This is indeed the price of success, and everywhere I've spoken with folks about famous successful people, it's usually accompanied with whispers about the price paid. (Not that there aren't well-adjusted successful people, I've met some of them and they exist)

One thought comes to mind, in Unlocking the Clubhouse, Margolis and Fisher claim that even though the women in their computer science program came to computers and programming late, they caught up to the men by the end of the four year program. By contrast, this is what Colvin says:
In any field where people can start early, starting late may put one in an eternal and possibly hopeless quest to catch up. For example, when those top-ranked violinists turn professional, they don't stop practicing. On the contrary, they practice even more, averaging more than thirty hours a week, accumulating more than fifteen hundred hours a year. (Kindle loc: 2745)
I was wondering how to reconcile what both books were saying when it struck me --- even at CMU, the computer science program is tracking the mean (or the average) student. The average CS major isn't obsessively writing programs to make himself better every day of the week (unlike the obsessed wizard-wanna-be). Tracking the peak performers probably makes more sense, and there you would expect to see the men and women who were exposed to computers as kids and who grew up programming to far out-strip the average. And in fact, whenever I encounter such men and women, their abilities really shine --- they truly are what others called talented, but I think this book does explain where such apparent talent comes from.

If this is true, then if we want more women and minorities in Computer Science, then we have to dig deeper than at the university level. We'll have reach students at the elementary or high school level, and engender enthusiasm there. I suspect that our current approaches are too little, too late, at least, to produce the kind of advances that software engineers in top performing companies are expected to do.

The flaws of the book show up in the last few chapters, when Colvin tries to think about how deliberate practice might be applied to business management, and how things might work there. I think it's a stretch. Personally, I think that when you look at successful technology companies, for instance, they almost always succeed when you have a founder (or two) who is steeped in the technology leading the company --- it's not clear that they are great businessmen, but their technical knowledge of the domain their firms work in is impeccable, so other firms that are more marketing-driven or financially-driven eventually cannot compete as long as the field requires constant technical innovation (once the field matures, though, history suggests that all bets are off).

All in all, this is a book worth reading, and gave me plenty of think about. Recommended. If you're too cheap to buy the book, read the article in the New York Times instead.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review: Valiant

Valiant(Kindle Edition) is the fourth book in the Lost Fleet series featuring Captain John "Blackjack" Geary, who was rescued from an escape pod from 100 years ago to lead a fleet back into Alliance space. The series is mostly brain candy, good for airplane reading or between heavy reads.

Once again, we have relativistic set-pieces of battles in space, but this time, the focus is on relationships --- both fleet level politics, and the romantic kind. As you can imagine from Campbell's past, the romantic relationships are handled extremely badly, with characters behaving for the sake of plot, rather than as human beings would. Fleet level politics is handled a little better, and John Geary learns to finally delegate. It is perhaps a truism that naval novels are mostly morality plays about leadership, a theme dating back to the Hornblow novels, so this isn't a surprise.

There's also a background plot that's been playing along throughout the novel series, and I won't spoil it here, but rest assured that it moves along as well. Unfortunately, with so little space, we basically finish the novel feeling as though not much happened. Only recommended if you're a fan of the series.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Miyuki Nakajima


People who hang out with my brothers and I know that we are musically omnivorous --- one example of that is that I enjoy Japanese music, despite not knowing enough Japanese to get out of trouble (thanks to a year of Berkeley's language lab, though, my Japanese accent is good enough that even Japanese folks think I know more than I do). Now, you might think that I got to like Japanese music in Japanese class, and you'd be wrong. Or perhaps I picked it up in Singapore, and you'd be wrong too --- we didn't get access to a lot of Japanese music until we got to the US.

What did happen once we did get access to Japanese pop music, though was that we realized how much of the Chinese pop music we heard in Singapore owed its origins to music produced by some Japanese artist. It was very disconcerting to realize that the same music (with translated lyrics, even) was being heard in multiple languages around the same time in Asia, thanks to the hegemony of music companies such as EMI.

One of the results of this mixed-mode musical sharing is that (as in this example video) music videos in Asia tend to be subtitled --- in the language that they are sung in! This is very helpful if you're trying to learn the language, but for someone who knows both Chinese and a little bit of Japanese, it's also fascinating. For instance, in this video at 2:01 (and other times --- it's part of the chorus), she sings, "私は大丈夫", meaning "I'm OK." Now, most folks know that 私 means "I" (female form) in Japanese. But in Chinese, the same character means "private" --- you can see how "private" evolves to "I". 大丈夫, however, is typically only used in Chinese in the context 男子汉大丈夫, which translates (roughly) to "A manly man." I'm always entertained by these almost, but not quite matches between Japanese and Chinese. (The last two characters by themselves, 丈夫, means husband in Chinese)

In any case, as you can tell from this song, "Maybe", the Japanese aren't shy about mixing English in, just so you can get a little triple-language action there. I'm a fan of Miyuki Nakajima, and this video shows why. She's not particularly pretty, but she's very expressive, and at the very least, her songs tell a story and she tries to tell it visually (though again in classically exaggerated Japanese fashion). Enjoy! (My favorite song of hers has an English title, "With", but I can't find a good enough video to post)

Snow in Munich

Munich Snow

It was cold, but I had to go to town for supplies and do some other random activities anyway. When I came out of the S-Bahn in town it was sunny, and on the spur of the moment I decided to climb the stairs to the top of the tower on Peters Kirche. The top here is much better looking than from Frauen Kirche, because you're exposed out in the open, and have a great 360 degree view. It can get crowded, however, since the staircases were narrow, and so was the top of the tower. Fortunately, I hit a quiet period:
From Munich Snow

Then I had to find the toy museum. Turned out to be not at all where I expected it --- I had ridden my bike and walked past it countless times without registering what it was! It's a tiny museum, but had a nice collection of stuffed animals and even a Barbie collection.

While the weather was nice, I decided to take a quick walk in the English garden, where I found crepuscular beams coming through a hole in the clouds:
From Munich Snow

But it was still so cold that after just half an hour of walking I had to turn and head towards the U-Bahn, where my fingers could at least get warm (yes, I was wearing gloves!).

Snow!


That's right. The night brought snow to my part of Munich. Flurries are still falling. I guess that's it, no more hanging up clothing on the balcony to dry.
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Friday, November 21, 2008

Review: The Audacity of Hope

I will admit that I voted for Hilary Clinton during the Democratic primary in California, largely on the basis of her policy on Healthcare Mandates, which makes much more economic sense than not having mandates. Interestingly enough, it looks like the plans circulating in the senate recently do push for mandates (and I think it will have to be part of the compromise).

In any case, Obama has won the election (there was no question in my mind who I was going to vote for in the general election), and the result is that I found myself reading The Audacity of Hope (dead tree edition) to see the kind of person who could get elected while just a junior senator. (There's a theory that if we know too much about someone we have a tendency not to vote for them, so it might be that being a junior senator is a good thing --- you have name recognition, but no history)

On to the book proper. First of all, it's not ghost written. That's incredibly rare. Even Robert Rubin's In an Uncertain World had to involve a ghost writer. Now, Krugman characterized Obama as the most establishment-type candidate of the Democrats running for president, so I didn't know what to expect. I definitely had heard fragments of his speech on the radio (the media never got tired of There's no Red America, there's no Blue America, there's only the United States of America), and knew that many considered him eloquent, but I was unprepared for how well he writes. For instance, Brad Delong often complains about the press corps, but here's Obama putting forward the same complaint:
This element of convenience also helps explain why, even among the most scrupulous reporters, objectivity often means publishing the talking points of different sides of a debate without any perspective on which side might actually be right. A typical story might begin: “The White House today reported that despite the latest round of tax cuts, the deficit is projected to be cut in half by the year
2010.” This lead will then be followed by a quote from a liberal analyst attacking the White House numbers and a conservative analyst defending the White House numbers. Is one analyst more credible than the other? Is there an independent analyst somewhere who might walk us through the numbers? Who knows? Rarely does the reporter have time for such details; the story is not really about the merits of the tax cut or the dangers of the deficit but rather about the dispute between the parties. After a few paragraphs, the reader can conclude that Republicans and Democrats are just bickering again and turn to the sports page, where the story line is less predictable and the box score tells you who won.
(Kindle Loc 1865)

Obama has assuaged my fears, especially when he does say the things that those of us who've been unabashed liberals all along, though with much more diplomatic words that I could summon --- the Republicans have failed to govern, and cannot be trusted with governance. The conservative values seem to see Gay Marriage as much more important than helping the poor, and that is certainly not Christian. As much as any of us, he is also concerned with the increasing inequality in the country:
But over the long term, doing nothing probably means an America very different from the one most of us grew up in. It will mean a nation even more stratified economically and socially than it currently is: one in which an increasingly prosperous knowledge class, living in exclusive enclaves, will be able to purchase whatever they want on the marketplace—private schools, private health care, private security, and private jets—while a growing number of their fellow citizens are consigned to low-paying service jobs, vulnerable to dislocation, pressed to work longer hours, dependent on an underfunded, overburdened, and underperforming public sector for their health care, their retirement, and their children’s educations. It will mean an America in which we continue to mortgage our assets to foreign lenders and expose ourselves to the whims of oil producers; an America in which we underinvest in the basic scientific research and workforce training that will determine our long-term economic prospects and neglect potential environmental crises. It will mean an America that’s more politically polarized and more politically unstable, as economic frustration boils over and leads people to turn on each other. Worst of all, it will mean fewer opportunities for younger Americans, a decline in the upward mobility that’s been at the heart of this country’s promise since its founding. (Kindle Loc: 2196)

The rest of the book covers more personal details, such as how he met his wife, what her family's struggle means to him, and why he chose to become a politician. It's all worth reading, and you get quite a lot of his thoughts for $4.39. Certainly, after all this, I'm proud of the party I belong to: it is quite clear that Obama could only have come out of the Democratic party. Highly recommended.