Monday, June 30, 2008

Navigating the incredibly complex Munich public transit system

The German train system is designed for people who live in Germany, not for people from abroad. As a result, the system is complex in a way that makes optimization difficult, if not impossible, for all but non-natives. Even natives sometimes screw up and buy the wrong tickets (or a more expensive one than necessary).

The Munich local train system is the MVV. How complex can a subway be? If you're German, it can be incredibly complex. There are no less than 3 different ticketing systems!

System #1: For one trip. Here, you buy a ticket for each trip. There are 4 zones, and depending on how many zones you cross, you pay 2.2, 4.4, 6.6, or 8.8 Euros. Unless you buy with a smart-chipped ATM card, in which case you pay a little less. If you don't have one of those, you can get the same discount, but only by buying a Streifenkarte, which is a stripped ticket where instead of buying a ticket for each trip, you use a certain number of stripes and fold them into the canceling machine for each trip.

System #2: For multiple trips in the same day (the Tageskarte system). Again, these are zoned. You pay 5 Euros for inner-city trips, with a sliding scale up to 10 Euros for all zones. You pay for the most zones you'll need, and can take unlimited rides given the same day. To complicate this, if more than 1 of you are traveling together, you can buy the Partner Tageskarte, which runs from 9 to 18 Euros, and lets up to 5 people travel on that one ticket.

System #3: Weekly and Monthly passes. Unlike the other systems, this one doesn't operate on zones but on rings. There are 16 rings, of which rings 1-4 comprise the innermost zone. The prices range from 10 Euros for a weekly ticket that covers zones 1-2, to 200+ Euros for a monthly ticket that covers all the rings. These transferable tickets can be used for an unlimited number of rides within the designated zones. Then, there's the Isarcard 9Uhr, which gives you a discount, but doesn't let you onto the trains between 6-9am. And, for the true natives, you can buy a subscription to the train system, where you pay for 10 months (or 9 months), but get a full year's worth of monthly passes mailed to you.

Toss in the usual mix of discounts for students, kids (which may accompany parents on some tickets but not others) and senior citizens, and you can see why the optimization function can be quite complex. Oh, and before I forget, a day ticket for a bike costs 2.5 Euro. There are no monthly or weekly tickets for bikes. To round it all out, you also have a 3-day city center ticket (for tourists), which provides some other discounts for museums, etc.

In case you're wondering what the machine that dispenses all these tickets looks like:


Oh wait, that machine doesn't dispense tickets using system #3! For those, you have to go to a customer service center, or find a different machine which takes credit cards and has a touch screen instead of buttons. If you're in the main train station, it's easy to confuse those machines with the machines which dispenses tickets for long distance trains.

For someone with flexible work hours (like me), you might think that the Isarcard 9Uhr would be an easy decision. For 60 Euros, you get free run of the entire train system. Well, but I also have a bike, and on weekends, half the time I'll be using the Bayern Ticket with Lisa to make runs outside the city (which is the only time I'll really need a 10 Euro Tageskarte). The rest of the time I only need 5 Euro day tickets or 2.20 trip tickets. So yes, not only is the system complex, it also interacts in an odd fashion with the long distance train system.

Don't get me wrong --- I really like the public transit system (though surprisingly enough, it's not much faster than riding a bike --- I can bike 15.2km to work in about 35 minutes, and the transit takes me 25 --- not including walking to and from the train!) The system is relatively on time (though not as punctual as the Swiss trains), and quite reliable, and useful when it rains.

I started out entitling this blog post, "Navigating the incredibly complex German train system", but I realize that I've run out of time, and haven't even gotten to the real trains, as opposed to just in-city transit, so I'll save that for another time. Those are even more complex!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Review: Gomadic Charging System

With the plethora of electronic devices that makes up my personal travel kit nowadays (chiefest of which is the Kindle) comes also a multiplicity of chargers that I had to carry. While most chargers nowadays come ready-to-travel (110-240 chargers come with nearly every device), having to carry one for each device sucks. Roberto says his personal solution is to stop buying products that don't charge using the mini-USB plug, but I personally don't have that kind of discipline, so end up with needing to charge the Kindle, ipod, AA batteries, and blackberry (the only device I own that takes the mini-usb plug).

There are basically two systems that offer a modular socket, so you can basically plug one universal charger into any number of devices: the iGo or the Gomadic. The iGo system is about twice as expensive per tip as the Gomadic system. The difference? Compatibility with Nokia phones. Apparently, Nokia's charging setup is so screwed up that it requires intelligence on the charging side to regulate the charging system. The result is that you apparently have to build smarts into the tips, which quadruples their costs.

Since I don't own a Nokia phone, I bought the Gomadic, along with the extended battery pack. I bought 4 tips: mini-USB, standard USB, kindle, and ipod. My brother pointed out that I should have bought two of each tip, since they were so cheap, and I would eventually lose a tip. I realized that I should have bought the double charger instead, which would have let me charged two devices with one charger.

Why the standard-USB plug? Because in combination with the Sanyo AA USB charger, I get the ability to recharge NiMH AA batteries, which is what my Garmin GPSMap 76CSX takes. So now I can leave for a bike tour with all these tips and be able to charge every device I am likely to have with me (I am unlikely to have an ipod with me, however!).

I've used the Gomadic charger in both the USA and in Europe, and so far, it's worked like a champ. Note that Gomadic tries to sell you on the fact that this charger will deliver 1000mA to your device, so it will charge twice as quickly as the typical charger. In reality, I have not found that to be true at all --- it takes just as long to charge my Kindle or iPod with my Gomadic as with plugging it into the standard charger. But in any case, if you travel at all, or is sick of having to constantly plug in a different charger into the wall socket, I can recommend the Gomadic device to you --- unless you own a Nokia phone.

Review: Battlestar Galactica

As mentioned before, I'm a big fan of the remade Battlestar Galactica, easily the best science fiction TV series I've ever watched (at least, Season One and Two tops any single season of Buffy in my book). I was eying the novelization of the mini-series, but seriously didn't think that a novelization would add anything to the brilliant piece of work by Ron Moore.

Of course, the very next week, Tor Books released the Kindle edition for free (HTML for the kindle-deficient), so I jumped on it and read it in a couple of days.

I was unfortunately correct, it's not worth the money (or the time, which is probably better spent watching the mini-series again). I do read faster than I can watch TV, so if you're watching say, the first episode of season one but then gave up because you didn't understand what had gone before, I can see picking up the novelization as quick catch up. But all the good parts of the TV show is lost. Ron Moore's use of negative spaces, dramatic interrupts, and the astoundingly good acting (especially for a SciFi channel show) are all gone, and that which remains is a pale shadow of the TV show. You do pick up a few background details here and there that you might have missed, but by and large, Carver did not add anything to the show. The other big deal is that while the TV show could show how the characters learned and developed, the novel tried telling you that.

I think I would have been better served by a published teleplay of the mini series than by a novelization. Not recommended.

Wolfrathausen to Holzkirchen

Wolfrathausen to Holzkirchen


The morning looked beautiful, so we caught the 9:55 S-Bahn to Wolfrathausen. With the somewhat strenuous hike the day before, we weren't in any mood to do any challenging rides, but I had plotted out a route from Wolfrathausen to Holzkirchen a while back and wanted to check it out. Of course, I had cleverly left the map at the office, so I had only the GPS, which meant that we got lost very quickly after leaving town. Fortunately, near the Isar, we found a couple that set us straight, and soon thereafter, we passed a pair of women stuck by the road side with a dropped chain that seemed to be resisting their attempts to fix it. I took a look at it, borrowed the stick they were using, and Grant Petersen style reset the chain. It was still jammed, however, so I looked at the front derailleur, tweaked the shifter a bit, and everything fell into place. The two women looked at me like I was a genius, but I was spared from any depredations by my lovely stoker. The two women would play leap frog with the tandem until lunch time.

The road turned beautiful, and I was quite pleased with the plan I had come up with a few weeks ago. We passed rolling hills, climbed shaded hills, and wound around the lovely Bavarian foothills until a series of fast rollers took us into Holzkirchen. There, we had lunch at a cafetaria (Pizza), and did a bit more riding in the area before stopping for ice cream and visiting the local Sunday market (a rarity in Bavaria)

Not bad for 44 miles and 2145 feet of climbing.

Walchensee Hike

Walchensee Hike


Stefan told me that he and Irene were going to go hiking near Walchensee, and I jumped at the chance. First of all, Stefan's a great organizer, and will have everything down, right down to which direction to walk in. Secondly, I'd ridden past the Walchensee a while back, and it was gorgeous.

So I dragged Lisa out of bed at 6am, got everything ready and caught the 7:44am train to Munich's main train station, met up with Stefan by 8:20, and caught the train to Tutzing, where we switched to another train to Kofel, where a bus picked us up and then dropped us off to Walchensee. The hike began in a forested area and we were glad of the shade, since the day had already warmed up. The climb began gently enough, but after about a half hour or so suddenly started to get steep and granted us occasional views of the valley below. The Walchensee is at the Northern most end of the alps, so when we got near the top we got to see the plains of Germany far to the South. As we walked along, we got to see the ridge that we were going to hike. It didn't look nearly as precarious as Helvelyn peak in the Lakes District, and the trail was surprisingly sparse with hikers, despite Stefan telling me that the German alps were way too crowded.

Following the signs to Heimgarten, we finally crested and saw the restaurant waiting for us, with a fake bus-stop sign. We bought food and ate quickly, because we were invaded by a swarm of bugs, which while not being the stinging kind, still made eating lunch annoying as we had to stop occasionally to swat at them. At one point my companions laughed really hard and I had to ask why, and it turned out that two bugs were copulating on my shoulder.

After lunch, we pressed on along the ridge. The book apparently said that there was some scrambling involved, but it was all really tame. At no point did we feel like the ridge was precarious, and the views were rewarding. The weather, which had seemed a little ominous earlier, cleared up really nicely and gave us good visibility and the occasional cloud cover as shade. At the shelter near the second summit we took pictures of each other, ate some food, and then hiked down to the cable car, which cost 6.7 Euros per person. The descent happened in about 10 minutes, and we had about 40 minutes before the bus arrived, which gave us plenty of time to eat ice cream and chat before the trip home.

This is a stunningly pretty hike, and I was much impressed. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cultural Differences

We've now moved in to our apartment in Pullach, which is a nice 90 square meter apartment with 2 toilets. Our landlords, even though they didn't advertise it as a fully furnished apartment, furnished it with enough stuff that we're not really going to have to buy much. Even silverware was already in the apartment. This is quite different from the usual apartment move-in experience from what others tell me --- I'm told that usually the kitchen is completely bereft of appliances (we even have a microwave and a dishwasher and fridge). We even have a fold out guest bed in the living room/dining area. (Hint: if you want to visit, come in July/August, nobody seems to want to come to Munich during that period --- by contrast, September/October's pretty much booked up, and by all accounts November's pretty miserable)

The move-in was not without hassle though. First, I had to register with the city when we moved in. Yes, Germany is a police state. When I mentioned this to my colleagues, one of them asked, "What, you don't have to register when you move?" "No, you might want to tell your bank, but if you don't update the address on your driver's license nobody cares --- it's more inconvenient for you to renew, and that's it." "But how would the police know where to find you?" Not that it's really hard for the police to really find you if they want to in the US, but it's definitely a different attitude.

Then I had to supply a deposit (3 months rent is standard in Germany). There's a standard method for doing this in Germany, which is to setup an escrow account and you and the landlord have joint rights over it. That cost 15 Euros to setup. But my landlord didn't want it done that way, because she had a previous bad experience. So I had to undo all that, and give her cash, which is questionable, but I have a receipt for it. I figure that these are people with keys to our apartment --- if we don't trust them, we have no business living there anyway.

Utilities are expensive --- for our apartment, it is estimated at 250 Euros a month (for water, electricity, common area maintenance, and cable TV, which came with the apartment whether we wanted it or not --- but we got a TV along with our mostly furnished apartment, so that's not bad). I guess that's why everyone seems more environmentally conscious in Europe --- the costs are setup so that you will think before you buy an energy inefficient washing machine.

One glitch about the move in was that our landlady didn't want to share her washing machine with us, so we're having to buy our own. Apparently, it's not unusual for renters to stay in one place for years at a time in Germany, so apparently this is quite normal. I've found a used one, and hopefully it will work well enough for me to sell it when I leave.

DSL was a hassle --- because we didn't want to sign a 2 year contract, the company hit us with all the activation fees, and didn't supply basics like a DSL modem. It took me quite a while to set it all up, but now I have internet at home. (Yes, that's why posting has been light)

I will confirm this: my bike commute is easily the prettiest I've ever had. The area around here is beautifully green, and the German lifestyle is definitely one I could get used to. It's not a bad way to live, and I'm glad to have the opportunity to do so --- so far, it's been the best combination of Asia and the US I have experienced, though the costs are definitely way up there, and of course, the taxes would be insanely high if I were to stay past November. There are other issues (the weather isn't California perfect, and I've had 3 flat tires in the last 2 days from glass on the bike path), but all in all, it's definitely worth the experience.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Review: Duma Key

Duma Key(Kindle Edition) is Stephen King's latest novel. After reading On Writing, I was reminded of how readable King was, and upon sampling the first few chapters of Duma Key, was sucked in and immediately bought the novel (the Kindle price at $10 also makes it an easy sell).

The novel revolves around Edgar Freemantle, a developer who made millions building homes, offices, and banks. While driving through a construction a crane runs over his SUV, crushing it (and him). The result is a head injury, amputation of his right arm, and recurring pain in his hip, which had to be reconstructed. It is clear from reading this part of the novel that King has intimate knowledge of major injuries as well as recovery --- having first hand experience as well, his descriptions and characterization of the victim is real. In Freemantle's case, the consequences are even more dire --- his wife leaves him, and he is left unable to do the job he enjoyed. His psychiatrist saves him from suicide by suggesting that he changes location and takes up a hobby which he enjoyed before --- drawing.

Take his doctor's advise, Freemantle moves to Florida and discovers to his surprise, that he's good at his work. His work improves dramatically in an astonishingly short amount of time, and his mental and physical state heals. He meets neighbors, and enjoys their company. Yet both folks living near him appear to have suffered head injuries, and he discovers that one of them, Elizabeth Eastlake, was also an artistic prodigy who has given up her art, claiming that she had no talent.

True to King's form, Freemantle soon discovers that his paintings aren't just disturbing, his talent enables him to reshape the world, and Duma Key isn't what it seems...

I won't spoil the rest of the novel for you. The plot is relatively straight-forward, the writing is trademark King --- easy to read, but with excellent use of characters, dialogue, and imagery, and therefore probably not at all easy to write. The themes involved --- art, creation, healing, and family --- are dealt with deftly, competently, and without pretension. They arise naturally as part of the story, and at no point do they feel artificial. The characters, however, are what makes the book shine --- from the speech patterns to the narrative (the novel is mostly written in first person from Freemantle's perspective), every bit of characterization oozes authenticity.

This book is a long read --- I drained my Kindle from a full charge to empty three quarters of the way through the book (I was using a font size larger than usual). Yet at no point did I feel that the book was bloated. The ending was satisfying and didn't feel like cheating at all, with all the pieces having been presented to the reader a while back. Highly recommended for those looking for a summer read.

Nordlingen to Rothenberg

Rothenburg, Germany - June 2008



We caught the 7:04am train on Saturday and one train changed later were in Nordlingen. After circling around town for a bit, we headed off on the trip to Swabisch Hall as described in Germany By Bike. I had laid out the GPS route by hand the day before, but for whatever reason it kept getting confused and we found a lot of strange routes. Nevertheless, the day was beautiful and the scenery very nice. This was Lisa's first major ride since she graduated, and I discovered that I was no longer acclimated to the tandem after so much time on my single, so we stopped frequently to rest.

After several detours, we rolled into Tanhauser for lunch. For whatever reason, we could not find the route to Dinkelsbuhl, but since I had laid out an alternate route via GPS, I thought we could go on to Swabisch Hall. Sad to say, even this was too ambitious for us in our current state, and when we passed Ettwallegen, Lisa called for a stop. I immediately punched Find on the GPS and brought up the list of nearby train stations and headed for the nearest one. When we got there, however, I discovered that the cost of the train to Rothenburg would be too much, and as we were making up our minds as to where to go, a bunch of folks came up and hogged up the machine until a train arrived for Crailsheim. That was approximately the right direction, and I didn't want to wait around for another hour when we should be looking for lodging, so we got on. (This is the incredibly straight line seen on the GPS log)

20 minutes later, we were in Crailsheim, and a quick ride around town revealed many restaurants and a hotel in our price range (88 Euros for the two of us for a night). We got a room in the highest floor with great views of the town, and then proceeded to shower and take a walk around town. We had gone 40 miles that day.

The next morning promised to be even warmer, so we got up early, ate breakfast, and got onto the road by 8am. Climbing out of Crailsheim was very beautiful and had next to no traffic, and I resorted to setting the GPS for the next town rather than trying to use a previously set route. When we descended out of the forests, however, temperatures climbed rapidly. Fortunately, the climbs had stopped, so we barreled along making great time. Soon enough, we saw the signs for the Romantic Roads (in both English and Japanese), and for Rothenburg.

We got into Rothenburg by 10:30am, having done 30 miles, but it was already uncomfortably warm, so I was glad to be finished with the riding. We did touristy things for a few hours, and then got onto a train back to Munich. It was so hot that we resorted to asking for water from Hans & Sibylle, another pair of cyclists just finishing their bike tour as well. All in all, it was a nice tour, but I think the Munich area is prettier.

Equipment review: the front dérailleur cable is almost gone on the tandem, and the velcro on our trunk bag is worn out by too many years of touring. Other than that, things worked very well --- I hope we can get back in shape soon.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Sinking Saddles Returns

On my last post I got a comment that I didn't see in a timely manner, so I'm responding here.

From Ket: Thanks, helpful post. I recently pruchased the specialized Jett-store measured my sitting bones. The first ride was 70miles. The next day and until the next ride a week later, my sit bones were still TENDER! I didn't want to give up on my new saddle, thinking that my soft tissue needed to "break in." I really liked the cut-out, no numbness of genital area. Several 40-50mi rides later, I'm still sore. Will my sit bones eventually toughen-up?

I actually had the same problem on the Jett, to a certain extent. In fact, as I mentioned before, I couldn't handle the Jett on the tandem. I suspect the answer to your question is: maybe. Helpful, eh? Well, there are a few fixable things and a few unfixable things that I've found contribute to seat bone soreness:
  • Legs that are tired or not as strong as you'd like. Ever notice that when you get tired, you sit on the saddle more? I don't just mean sitting down, I mean really putting weight there. You don't mention how unusual this 70mi ride was for you, but you might have just overdone it a bit with a new saddle.
  • (Unavoidably) rough terrain. If you can't stand up over it or lift yourself up over it and it hits you in the butt, it's probably going to hurt later. I suspect that if you did the same thing with the saddle without the bike, it would have the same effect.
  • High handedness. A lot of women's bikes seem designed to make you sit up. I have no idea whether this is more comfortable for people (other than in the soft tissue arena), but I find that there's a certain angle after which the sit bones are far more unhappy. Happily, at that point I'm also sitting up far enough to relieve some of the pressure on my soft tissue, giving me more room to compromise on saddle hardness.
For me, the tandem hit every single one of these points: I started doing longer rides over mountain biking terrain on a road tandem that seems to have been designed for shorter stokers who like to sit up. Not only that, I had been borrowing a Jett from a friend and moved to a brand-new one of my own. I bruised my seat bones. They hurt. I'm happily back on the Jett now, but only on my single bikes, and only after giving my sit bones a bit of a rest by rotating saddles for a few weeks. Bruising takes far too long to heal!

As for the tandem, I had to abandon the Jett (as much as I love it) and move to a saddle more appropriate for the more sit-up-and-beg stoker position. I'm trying out a Terry Butterfly now and am thus far happy with it. I did a 75 mile mountain climb (on pavement) and a good bit of dirt riding with it in the last few weeks and it's holding up well. It's not squishy enough to drop me on my soft tissue (given that I'm sitting up more) but not hard enough to punish my seat bones (in combination with a spiffy suspension seatpost). One caution about Terry saddles: they break in after a while, so look for something that's harder than you want and go on relatively short rides at first.

The short answer is that if you're not hitting any of the unfixable problems I mention above, then I'd guess that you did what I did and bruised your seat bones (or the tissue around 'em) getting a little overly enthusiastic about a brand-new saddle that doesn't cause soft tissue pain and numbness. It takes a while to heal, unfortunately, so be nice to your butt and rotate saddles for a while.

I was going to post about my new adventure with brake levers, but I've rambled too long and I'll save it for another time.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Review: How Doctors Think

How Doctors Think (kindle edition) is a book about misdiagnosis. It starts off introducing a woman who was misdiagnosed as being anorexic, but turned out to have a case of celiac disease. Between the misdiagnosis and the proper diagnosis, she suffered for a period of 10 years.

The book covers the three major forms of cognitive errors that lead to misdiagnosis: Anchoring (fixating on a diagnosis that was already provided), Availability (looking at the first thing that comes to mind, rather than searching for more possible diagnosis that might better fit the evidence), and Attribution (having confirmed a problem, attributing all problems to it, rather than considering the possibility of having more than one disease afflicting the patient).

The book presents case study after case study, each covering a specialty in medicine, from Radiology to Surgery and Oncology. Each case study is poignant, interesting in and of itself, and educational. One is reminded time after time that doctors are only human, and that it takes an extra-ordinary one to be capable of diagosing an unusual problem, and that the patient has to take an active role in his care --- Groopman frequently discusses instances where the patient's statement triggers a physician to look deeper or consider other possibilities.

The book also criticizes modern American health-care, where primary care physicians (who do most of the difficult diagnostic work) get paid less than specialist. A whole chapter is also devoted to conflicts of interests between what's good for the doctor financially, and what's good for the patient, including a heart-breaking story about a patient who ignores her oncologist's advice.

Groopman comes across as humble, and all too aware of the limitations of modern medicine. What's interesting to me is that in computer science, the algorithmic/Bayesian approach to diagnostics is the state of the art, while this book is essentially a critique of the approach, and how time spent thinking deeper about the problem when rare cases arise must necessarily supersede the algorithmic approach.

All in all, this is a great book, and highly recommended. If you're stuck on a bug, this is a great book to have by your side to read --- some of the techniques described are great questions to ask as well. I paid full Kindle price for it and have no regrets. If you or a loved one has a difficult medical condition, you owe it to yourselves to read this book and to give a copy to the patient.

I'll close with this passage that illustrates that doctors and software engineers also suffer from the same problem. The top 10% outperforms the median by a huge factor, just like in software engineering:
Potchen’s study using the sixty films was to compare the top twenty radiologists, who had a diagnostic accuracy of nearly 95 percent, with the bottom twenty, who had a diagnostic accuracy of 75 percent. Most worrisome was the level of confidence each group had in its analysis. The radiologists who performed poorly were not only inaccurate; they were also very confident that they were right when they were in fact wrong. “Observers’ lack of ability to discriminate normal from abnormal films does not necessarily diminish their confidence,” Potchen wrote.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Review: In the Garden of Iden

I will admit to not being the world's biggest fan of Kage Baker's Company stories --- time travel is a pretty worn sub-genre of science fiction, and her rules make time travel so robust that I have a hard time getting excited by her plots or characters.

When Tor released In the Garden of Iden (Dead Tree Edition) for free, however, I started reading as a look see, and got sucked in, finish the novel over a couple of days. The story revolves around a Spanish operative in the 16th century. After being rescued from the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition by a Company operative, Rosa is inducted into the group of immortals, working for the mysterious entity known as Dr. Zeus. She is trained as a botanist, assigned to return to England in the 16th century (yes, during the time of Henry the 8th) and asked to collect plant samples that have since become extinct.

The backstory is completed in a matter of pages, granting Baker time to provide you with a sense of identity through Rosa's eyes. You gain an affinity for the character and learn to identify with her. The plot is pretty simple: a new operative on her first assignment falls in love with a mortal, and considers eloping with him. (I won't spoil the ending for you)

You can tell that this is an early book in a series, since there are hints dropped about mental instability and glitches in the system of the operatives, but these are just alluded to, and don't play a central role in the story (which annoys me to no end). Nevertheless, the characters are drawn out well, the narrative moves smoothly, and the results of immortal intervention in the name of the company (as it plays out its role in the unchanging history) works itself in and ties up loose ends rather neatly.

Not a complete waste of time, and yes, that's damning with faint praise. You could be stuck with far worse novels on a plane, and of course, at the Kindle price, it's worth the money.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Review: On Writing

I must confess to not having read a lot of Stephen King (despite having seen a number of movies based on his novels or short stories), which might have been my loss, since this book is definitely the work of someone who's thought hard about writing (Kindle Edition).

The first part of the book is autobiographical, describing King's childhood, his obsession with writing and making sales, his meeting his wife, and the first sale of Carrie, which brought him into public eye. The second part of the book goes down to the nitty-gritty, on what writing means, what are the important tools in the writer's toolbox, and how to go about it.

Here's King on writing:
What Writing Is Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it --- for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists, folks like J. B. Rhine have busted their brains trying to create a valid testing process to isolate it, and all the time it’s been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s Purloined Letter. All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.

King minces no words on what he considers important. My favorite section is when he exhorts the would-be writer on reading:

Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.

Sounds like an endorsement for the Kindle, doesn't it (my sipping of books has gone up 300% since I bought mine)? King goes on to emphasize honesty in writing:
Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.

King emphasizes over and over again that everything is subordinate to the story, and doesn't believe at all in plotting. In particular, his preferred method appears to be to create an interesting situation, have a bunch of characters drive it, and then close. Then he lets the novel fallow for a period of months before going back to it afresh and then using his reading skills to tease out the theme, and then emphasize those in the rewrite. This system clearly works for him (and he emphasizes that at no point does he consider commercial viability during the writing and rewriting of the book), and seems like a valuable process to emulate.

The book closes with a description of the car-pedestrian collision that nearly killed King and destroyed his ability to write for a few years. As is normal in American Society, the driver of the car got off with a minimal jail time, despite King's stature. It also described his recovery, and writings' importance to him as that.

Two appendices round out the book, one, a sample story before and after a rewrite, to illustrate the process (and to show how ruthless King's edits are --- one should strive to do the same), and excellent insight into the process. The second is a list of books that King found good reading --- by no means are these all high brow books (all of Harry Potter is in there, for instance), but given King's emphasis on story, that's understandable.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book, and will pick up more of King's novels as a result. I'm typically not a writer of fiction, often considering myself a journeyman, writing book reviews, trip journals, and other practical manuals rather than a creator of worlds and characters, but if I ever decide to go in that direction I'll be glad to have read this book (and shall return to it). Highly recommended.

Review: Nudge

I've been a fan of Richard Thaler since I read The Winner's Curse, a great book explaining why winners in auctions (for instance, in the bid to invest in Facebook) often turn out to be losers.

Nudge (kindle edition) introduces the concept of Libertarian Paternalism --- the concept that while not taking away your choices, we can architect the selection process so that most people end up doing the right thing. My favorite example in this book is the Save More Tomorrow program, where employees who opt-in (perhaps even by default) get their raises automatically added to their 401(k) program. Once you get started, of course, lots of other things become obvious, such as the default choice of investments for 401(k) plans, which are notoriously difficult to navigate for typical investors.

As a matter of fact, over my last 4+ years at Google, I've seen huge numbers of financial mistakes. In one case, an employee had to be talked into putting enough money away to get the employer match (which at Google was very generous). In another, someone had split their monies across multiple funds which ended up confusing his asset allocation and made rebalancing quite difficult. Both mistakes would have been avoided had default choices been selected by the company that were reasonable.

Thaler and Sunstein apply this concept to a variety of topics, from healthcare to food selection in schools, where choice architecture can make a big difference to people's lives. They are also aware of the limitations of Libertarian Paternalism as a concept --- for instance, they don't claim that their healthcare proposals are a good substitute for universal healthcare, and they realize that capitalism will not
provide an incentive for supermarkets to stop selling you unhealthy foods.

A lot of the research for this book was drawn from much existing research that's become well known and documented in several other books. In any case, I recommend this book, but not at full price --- either check it out from the library or wait for the paperback.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Lufthansa Misplaced my Tandem

For whatever reason, when we arrived in Munich, the tandem did not show up. Direct flights are definitely the way to go if you're going to fly with a bike and expect it to show up on the other side. A bunch of snafus kept them from delivering it today --- first, they were unable to call my cell phone (a US number), then when I called to ask them to deliver it, they seemed unwilling to do so. I eventually was given the number to the delivery service that Lufthansa uses, and got them to schedule a delivery time tomorrow. Why they wouldn't just schedule one for us today is beyond me. Good thing we're not planning on any serious riding --- I'd be hopping mad if I was.

Last year, the same thing happened in Zurich, and again, Lufthansa gave us the run-around. We eventually decided to just head over to the airport to pick up the bikes, because it was just too much to burn vacation time waiting for them to get around to delivering. It's one thing to do this for an essentially free service, but it's another when they're charging incredible excess luggage fees ($127). Of course, the real fear is what all this extra transition is going to do to the bike. Fortunately, Santana bike boxes are very sturdy, and by getting it delivered to the apartment there's a chance I might get to reuse the box.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Sinking Saddles

Just for introduction, I am not Piaw. I am, in fact, female. Given the number of times recently I've been having the same conversation, I thought I'd reiterate it here in the hope that it would be edifying for others as well.

Right up front, let me say that everyone's butt is different. Even more importantly for fitting a saddle, everyone's soft tissue (read: genitalia) is also different. There are, however, certain important similarities that help narrow down the kind of saddle that is likely to be comfortable for you. Several of the guidelines to picking a good saddle are counterintuitive, but work well for me and the women I know.

As a woman, I've had to learn the hard way that few bike stores are inclined to take me seriously (and I greatly treasure those that are). Even those that are are generally staffed by men whose best help on certain female-specific fit issues amounts to the reiteration of something they heard worked for a friend of theirs or (far worse) reading the advertising on the item's packaging. In the case of bike saddles, this often comes down to claims that this will be comfortable for everyone and is the best thing since sliced bread. Having gone through a number of far-too-expensive iterations of this, there are now a few things that I look for in a saddle:

1. Where do my seat bones end up? The right answer here is "on the saddle". I'm not a big person (I wear a size 4-6), but my seat bones are wide enough apart that a narrow saddle means that my seat bones slide right off the sides of the saddle. In the case of a particular narrow saddle (that I rode for years before I learned that pain is an indication of something wrong) my seat bones actually sat on the hard plastic ridge around the edge. On a Brooks B-17, I sit right on the metal rivets. Neither is a sign of many happy miles to come. You can measure the distance between the outsides of your seat bones a few ways, but my favorite is lying on my back, curling my knees to my chest and poking around until I find them. Then it's a relatively simple task to do the measurement. When you compare this measurement to the size of saddles, remember that the seat bones are supposed to go on the saddle, not on the edge, so add at least 10-15mm (depending on saddle design).

2. How hard is it? The right answer here is "way harder than you'd expect". If your thumb sinks into the seatbone portion of the saddle, run away. It's totally counterintuitive, I know, but think about what's going to happen when you ride. You sit on the saddle and your seat bones sink right into that squishiness. Then the next thing that happens is all the soft structures squish into the foam and you're bearing weight on all of them. This is great in a mattress, but not so good in a saddle. You don't just get pain, you get numbness, and then you get that terrible feeling of sensation coming back. I had a saddle once that was so bad in this respect (combined with totally failing test #3) that I took to riding while always standing up. It was great for my legs, but not so good for things like stopping.

3. Is there a ridge where my soft tissue is going to go? My number 1 indication that a saddle is not actually designed for a woman (instead being a crappy, overpriced, pink copy of the men's version) is a big honking ridge in the soft-tissue region. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, look at the (men's) Flite saddle. If you feel any inclination to put your soft tissue on the nose of that saddle, I suspect that you're either a man or a masochist. Many women's saddles (even ones with cutouts) have a less-extreme version of the ridge and no woman I know can tolerate it.

4. How slippery is it? If the saddle is too slippery, it's hard to employ my absolutely favorite fitting technique: tip the saddle nose down. (It's especially fun to do this on saddles for women who are in so much pain that they're considering giving up riding. It helps a lot for nearly everyone.) If you tip the saddle down too far, you'll put too much weight on your hands. Saddle friction helps with this, because it keeps your butt planted on the saddle instead of trying to migrate forward.

How exactly this advice plays out for you depends on what kind of riding you're doing. If you're sitting up on your bike more than I am, then the soft tissue aspect won't be quite as important and you may need a slightly softer saddle. This goes double if you're sitting up pretty far on a tandem. I managed to beat my seat bones up quite thoroughly riding stoker on a road tandem on mountain biking trails, so I'm trying out a slightly softer saddle that I wouldn't let anywhere near my road bike.

My current favorite saddle (for a road rider) that you have some chance of still being able to buy is last year's Specialized Jett: the 155 version is wide enough for my seat bones, it's hard enough to keep the seat bones up in the air and (aided by the cutout) my weight off of my soft tissue, and the little circles of higher-friction material keep my butt planted where I want it to be. I haven't tried out this year's Specialized Jett, but I hear rumours that it's softer and that the white version is more slippery. This isn't a good sign.

My old favorite saddle was my Terry Zero X. Unfortunately, they stopped making the kind I bought several years ago and the new ones are so soft after I break them in that I get an unacceptable amount of soft tissue pressure. Still, Terry saddles are good to try, especially if your handlebars are not lower than your saddle. If you want them to start making harder saddles again, make sure to let them know. Given how people tend to buy based on saddle squishiness, it's important to let manufacturers know that people often ride based on saddle hardness.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Follow up Mint.com Review

Yes, I kept my mint.com account, and still play with it on occasion, especially when I'm in Germany, where I haven't been able to keep tabs on my Quicken account as often as I usually do. Hint to Intuit: move Quicken to the web, as soon as possible, and stop trying to charge me $20 to store my data on your servers.

Recently, when they announced the new investments section of the product, I jumped in and signed up for the beta. So far, the feature is nothing to write home about. There's a portfolio view, which lets you look at your various accounts and transactions. But there's no search or filtering functionality, so if (like me), you use your money market account as a general transaction account, good luck hunting for that check you wrote last month.

The performance tab is bad. I don't understand why so many financial websites don't understand fundamental investment principles and effectively design for the day-trader. 6 months is a really short time for a long term investor. Having that as your longest possible period is really useless. Then, mint.com insists on providing me with a stock by stock comparison with some index, like the S&P 500.

But a good investor doesn't care about that stock by stock comparison. He wants to aggregate his portfolio, and compare it with a benchmark. As mentioned before, the S&P 500 should not be your investment benchmark!

I really feel that mint.com dropped the ball on this one. When introducing a product for beginners, you have an opportunity (and dare I say responsibility) to introduce best practices. Provide sample asset allocations. Allow the user to model different portfolios over long time periods (10 years is a good start. 50 years is even better. 100 years, and I might be ready to give up Quicken). Give the user a good interface for managing his taxable events, and paying estimated taxes.

As it currently stands, this first step just doesn't cut it. I'm sticking to my spreadsheet method of keeping track of my portfolio sales and taxable events. And I'm moving that data on the internet so that my stay in Germany doesn't cause me to lose track of that stuff --- but I'm using Google Docs and Spreadsheets instead of mint.com.

Riding the Frankenbike

For my short visit to California, I didn't bother lugging my custom bike over just to lug it back to Germany again, especially since this time I have to bring the tandem over. So I borrowed my brother's Frankenbike and used it to commute to work.

It's a great bike. The funny thing is I don't miss any of the gears. 5 speed drive-trains really don't suck, which makes me wonder why anybody rides 8 speeds, 9 speeds, or 10 speeds. Oh wait, because you can't buy any 5 speed cassette hubs, and cassette hubs are better than freewheels.

The only gear I could consider that I was missing was the 12 tooth cog --- if I were chasing Cheryl Prothero along Portola Valley and she cranked up to 30mph, I would want that gear. But that's strictly speaking only an argument for 6 speed freewheels.

Too often, in cycling, we always assume that the latest and greatest is the best. It isn't. 10 speed chains are weaker, cost more, and frequently the indexing goes out of whack in all but the best conditions. A woman friend of mine ripped teeth of her 10 speed chainrings, because they got shaved so thin that they don't last. Lisa and I have ripped apart 9 speed chains on our tandem. So all those advancements in technology that brought us 8, 9, and 10 speed drive-trains? Marketing. Pure and simple. And we only have ourselves to blame, because we suck it all up, and then ask for 11 speeds.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Review: Look to Windward

I remember reading Look to Windward a few years ago, and found myself re-reading it on the plane. This was in many ways Iain Bank's post 9/11 novel, and the themes reflect it.

The Culture has an unsuccessful intervention in another civilization (by attempting to remove the caste system). That intervention leads to civil war, causing massive numbers of deaths, and resulting in The Culture admitting their error, apologizing for its actions (it claimed a low probability of such a disaster), and making reparations.

Those reparations are insufficient for many of the Chelgrians, and that faction lays a plot to essentially send a suicide bomber to a Culture orbital to kill an estimated 5 billion Culture entities as retribution. The plot then revolves around the bomber (Major Quilan), his motivations, his cover story (an attempt to repatriate a famous Chelgrian composer), and an apparent race against time as the plot is uncovered in a different part of the galaxy.

As a novel, this lies squarely in the mediocre part of Banks' work. It's not as good as Player of Games, but is at least more accessible than Excession (especially in the characters). There is a bit of fun as Banks produces a page after another of ship names that are perhaps amongst the best characteristics of the Culture universe. The misdirection part of the novel doesn't quite work, and of course, one wishes that the counter-intelligence portion of the Culture's real-world counterparts are as effective as the Culture's.

Nevertheless, even mediocre Banks is still excellent fiction. Recommended if you can get it from the library.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

On ipods and cities

I've had an ipod in one form or another since 2005, but aside from the occasional non-cycling trip, it never found its way to any kind of regular use. It was only until I got to Munich that I realized that I'm in this unique category of commuters --- the cycle commute at suburban speeds doesn't make it desirable for me to listen to music on my commute. The rest of the world either drives, walks, or take transit, and when I was in Munich, walking or taking transit, I would actually use my ipod for the 20 minutes (each way) that I would walk to work, or the 15 minutes it would take to use transit. (I never used transit to save time, but to avoid poor weather, or to carry lots of baggage) Yes, cyclists in Munich actually do use ipods, but they also aren't cycling at suburban commute speeds.

Speaking of transit, Munich's transit is incredibly complicated, with three fare systems, one for buying one-use tickets, one for buying day tickets, and one for buying weekly or monthly passes. As a resident, you can figure it out, but boy, non-German speaking tourists who don't read guidebooks before they show up are going to have a massively hard time with it. The optimization function for using the transit isn't even easy for a resident to gauge, let alone figure out.

Basically, if you're going to be here within a calendar month, one round trip to the airport on different days will make buying a monthly pass worth while. But of course, if you're jet-lagged and don't speak English, good luck figuring out the machines! Now that answers are completely different if you're traveling in a group, or if your trip spans 2 months, or if you have to be some place before 9am. I have no idea why it has to be so complicated --- like almost all transit systems, the one in Munich is run at a slight loss, and revenue generation should be secondary (since many residents who use the transit just buy the passes and are done with it).

Monday, June 02, 2008

Raising the Bar Revisited

My brother bought the kindle edition of Raising the Bar(dead tree edition) after I told him about the book, so when it showed up on my Kindle (yes, my brothers and I all share the same Kindle account for sharing convenience) I read it again.

I reviewed this book last year, but re-reading it reminds me that it is such a great book and that I really like it. If you're a touring cyclist, you owe it to yourself to read this book. It really highlights the huge difference between the guided tours, the heavily loaded tours, and the spirit of adventure.

I've alluded to all that in the past, but I'll say this for sure: most people, when given the opportunity, will turn down adventure. That's why guided tours and packaged vacations are so popular, even though they cost 3-4 times what a white road adventure tour costs, to use Gary Erickson's terminology. (That's right, for the cost of one of those cycling vacations, I can tour for 3-4 months!) Given the choice between being cocooned in a bubble of America, with other English speakers to talk to, with a cue sheet given to you every morning, and all meals and snacks taken care of, most folks would rather do that. On my tours, I have to pick my own route (with input from others in the group of course), talk to people who don't speak English, buy food, select restaurants, select hotels, all on the fly. But the entire package is what's appealing --- the freedom to go where I please, stay an extra day, and tailor the ride to my needs is worth the effort. And the people you meet know that you're vulnerable, and because of that, go out of their way to help you. If you don't put yourself in that position, you will never really get to know the people of the country you are visiting.

The same thing applies to events like Team-in-training. Most folks would get a much better program by either joining a cycling club or doing their own rides themselves. Both options are much much cheaper than the typical TIT pledge (take the difference and donate all that money to charity, rather than paying for the typical charity ride overhead). But for some reason, to join a cycling club would stretch most people beyond their comfort zone.

Then again, the fact that most of the world is like that means that people like Gary Erickson, Jobst Brandt, and to a lesser extent, myself, get the advantage of doing what we enjoy doing without an avalanche of other cycle tourists descending on our little country hotels driving prices up, so perhaps I should not talk up this way of life too much.

Once again, read Raising the Bar, if you haven't already. (And yes, it's another company that gives employees free massages --- it's not just strange companies like Google that does it)

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Holzkirchen Loop Ride (2)

Holzkirchen Loop 2

Today, I made the basic cycle touring mistake --- I forgot to bring a paper map with me on the trip to Holzkirchen. It wasn't too bad at first, since I still had my GPS unit, and had programmed in the desired route earlier. Chris and I found the 20% grade I had discovered on an earlier ride, and it turned out to be just as fun as I expected --- fully shaded, and very pretty. Zipping along into Meisbach, however, I soon discovered that part of the route had inadvertently been routed along a road with way too much traffic for my preferences.

As was my wont, I took a turn off the main road just to see if I could find a smaller one, but unfortunately, doing that confused the GPS, to the point I had to bring up the menu and hit the recalculate button. That reset the GPS, and it rerouted us back to Holzkirchen rather than attempting to follow the route again. That was no good, but at that point we had done about 40km, so decided that it was ok to have a 70 or 80km day.

Unfortunately, the return route also tried to follow the main route, and we soon decided to ignore that in favor of small roads. A few false turns, and we soon found ourself at a dead end. However, there was a small dirt path, and a road was seen on the GPS just in the direction the path was headed in, so we rode down the path and were rewarded by a river side track.

Soon, however, we were at a cross roads, and the GPS couldn't make up its mind as to which way to go, so we picked one at random. After a bit, however, I noticed that we weren't getting any closer to Holzkirchen. I stopped a man going the other way, and he said he was going to Holzkirchen and invited us to follow him. When in doubt, as a local, as it were.

Soon enough, we were cycling through by ways, a gorgeous bike path that led us through meadows and lovely lakes. We were soon in Holzkirchen where our guide told us that 300m before the train station was the best ice cream in Bavaria. So we stopped there for ice cream, and then hopped on the train back.

Not bad, 80km, and 1153m of climb on a hot beautiful sunny day.

Interesting Sights

Today I saw something interesting. I saw a girl riding a bicycle with a helmet in the basket behind the seat. Now why would you not wear that helmet if you're going to bother carrying it? A moment later I saw her boyfriend roller blading with a helmet on, and then noticed that in the basket was also a set of roller blades. The implications were obvious --- roller blading was so dangerous that you needed to wear a helmet, but cycling is so safe that a helmet is unnecessary. Irony of ironies, the helmet she was carrying was obviously a bike helmet.

Now some of that safety is real --- cycling in Germany is three times safer than cycling in the USA. But a lot of that has to do with a culture that would rather encourage cycling without helmets than no cycling. By increasing the number of cyclists (a lot of women would give up cycling rather than mess up their hair), safety for all cyclists is also improved.