Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Spreadsheet Asset Allocation Tool

Every so often, someone asks me to help with their finances. Usually, it has to do with asset allocation. I'm not an expert, but one of the things I know how to do is to use a spreadsheet. I usually open up a spreadsheet, and then perform a copy/paste from Vanguard's home screen, then open a second worksheet in the same file, and use that to compute asset allocation, and to see how far off things are.

I recently switched from a PC-based spreadsheet to one based on Google docs and spreadsheets. There are two reasons for this: first is that I ended up with so many different versions of the spreadsheet that I couldn't keep them straight between all the computers and files floating around. It doesn't help that I decided not to bring my Infrant RAID file system with me when I came to Germany, so I can't retrace some of my thinking from before, easily.

The second reason is the GoogleFinance function. This handy little feature lets me use one spreadsheet (instead of creating one per asset allocation period, which was what I was doing), only update the number of shares I have, and then have the asset allocation spreadsheet automatically recalculate. That way, like the big boys, I can rebalance every day if I wanted to. (NOTE: doing so in a taxable account is a bad idea!)

Unlike other financial bloggers, I don't blog anonymously, so I'm not going to show everyone my spreadsheet. However, I have constructed a hypothetical spreadsheet around a simple $100k portfolio with a 75% equity/25% fixed income allocation. The only unfortunate thing about this sample is that you can't download it or copy it or do anything interesting with it, but it gives you an idea of what I go through every asset re-allocation period. There are a few interesting things about this asset allocation, even so:
  1. The portfolio isn't as tax efficient as it could be. For the purposes of capturing the foreign tax credit, it is best to hold the components of the Total International Index Fund rather than the Total fund-of-funds itself. Note that for domestic funds, holding the Total Stock Market Index is the right thing to do tax-wise, since as companies grow or shrink you don't pay the transaction fees for them moving from one market segment size to the next. (Unlike Small/Medium/Large cap categories, stocks don't usually move between countries)
  2. The only alternative type investments is the REIT. I personally use a more complex mix to gain more diversity. However, for a portfolio of this size, if you break things up too much you lose efficiency --- you don't reach the Admiral shares level as quickly as you otherwise might.
  3. Adding a value tilt is as easy as adding an appropriate value fund and adjusting the numbers in the asset allocation worksheet. I consider this superior to holding each of the components separately because you reach the Admiral shares faster (get lower costs), and it's simpler to track. Note that Bernstein recommends holding the components, but he normally deals with such large sums of money that getting the lowest cost share class is a given. The rest of us just aren't that lucky.
Disclaimer: The example spreadsheets and asset allocation are meant for informational purposes only. They are not meant as an endorsement of a particular fund, or to suggest that a particular asset allocation is the right one for you. Please do your own research before embarking on an investment program.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Review: Guardians of the Flame - Legacy

Legacy (DRM-free Kindle-compatible edition) covers 2 more novels in the series, about the next generation of "other-siders", most of which is Jason Cuilliane, son of the emperor and heir apparent. There's been a ton of fore-shadowing involving a sword in prior novels, but these two novels don't do anything related to that.

Instead, the first novel (The Heir Apparent) focuses on Jason panicking during a raid and running away. The rest of the party, of course, feels obliged to draw attention to themselves to that the Culliane heir doesn't get captured (this includes Karl abandoning the empire he built and turning it over to Barons). The net result is a series of big fights, and an conclusion that's perhaps no conclusion.

The second novel (The Warrior Lives) seems to me to be merely a wild goose chase. The only unexpected bit happens right at the end, but the pay-off is not worth the journey. Easy reading if you need a distraction, but I cannot really recommend it.

Chronicles of The Black Company (Books 1 - 3) Kindle Edition

This is going to be a different sort of review. It'll talk very little about the book itself, and a lot more about the Kindle edition of the book. Usually we don't do that sort of thing, but in this case, I feel that its quite warranted.

The Black Company is probably one of the most amazing fantasy series out there. It started with 3 books, and then later on expanded to 9. But not in a bad way (see Robert Jordan with his Eye of the World series). In fact, its so far away from Robert Jordan's style that a case can be made that these two series are diametrically opposed. Cook's writing style in The Black Company doesn't lend itself to long exposes of what his characters do with their hair, or skirts, or whatever, its pretty much just action, dialogue, and the bare minimum of descriptions to set the scenes.

And that's because there's a real story to tell. The Black Company tells the tale of a mercenary unit that is the very best at what it does, whether that is killing people, defending a city, or what not. Along the way, they get involved with high powered sorcerers and its a page turner to find out how they deal or don't deal with the various threats they encounter, along the twists and turns of the fortunes of the company. This isn't a high-fantasy novel in the sense that the only races in the world are humans, no elves, no dwarves, no halfings, but there IS magic, and magical monsters, though present, are uncommon. The powerful mages in the world are demi-gods and nigh-near unkillable.

The real meat of the story is that you do care for the fate of the company. The dialogue is witty, the characters seem real, and the adversaries are never as black or white as you'd like them to be. Its a fantasy novel for the mature audience, in short.

Now, onto the Kindle portion of the review.

The Kindle edition of this novel sucks, in a word. I've read many a kindle edition of books and this was the first one that I've found numerous typo's, type-set errors (where you see a word displayed twice in a row, or missing a word in the beginning of the chapter).

Having read the original paperback releases of the books, the beginning of each chapter that starts with a calligraphed word is accurate, but someone didn't do the conversion correct as the calligraphed word covers up part of that first word. So often you're left guessing what the word is. Its not hard, but it IS annoying. It becomes more of a problem in books 2 and 3 because Cook decided to make his chapters shorter, and so you get more missing words.

Still, for 9.99 and for what I think is one of the best fantasy series that exists, its still quite worth the money. If you haven't read the series yet, run and buy the dead tree version or the kindle version if you've got a kindle!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Salzkammergut Bike Route

Salburg Lakes

Radina's Photos


Ever since my last Salzburg Trip, I've wanted to explore more of the Salzburg Lakes area. There's not a lot of steep climbing there, so it's ideal for tandem cycling, so when the forecast gave me only a 30% chance of rain this weekend, I dragged Lisa out of bed and onto the train with the big bike on Saturday morning.

Joining us was Radina, a Bulgarian Physics graduate student finishing up at the University in Garching, near Munich. We met through Toy Town Germany, the web-site for English language speakers.

The train trip was uneventful, taking us into Salzburg's main train station right on schedule at 9:42am. The day started out beautiful, with high clouds but plenty of sun. We quickly found the Salzach river path out of Salzburg heading North. I had originally planned to take the same route I had taken before to get to the Seehamer See (minus a bit of climbing), but noted that the map I had indicated that the Salzkammer Bike Route started a bit further North from where I had departed the Salzach bike path. Radina had a high opinion of the bike routes, so we decided to explore.

Past the turn off I took, the bike path becomes dirt, and after about 15 minutes I saw a sign pointing off to the Salzkammergut trail. It was guarded by a gate with a ramp, however, so I took the time to ask some other cyclists in my halting German whether this was indeed the Salzkammergut trail. They told me yes, and that it was hard. Well, it couldn't possibly be tougher than the route I'd already found, so we gave it a go.

As dirt paths go, this part of the Salzkammergut trail wasn't bad, but fresh gravel had been laid all over the trail recently, which made it a bit sketchy here and there, even with the 700x32 tires I was running. The ramps were also a bit painful to negotiated on the tandem, but since we only had 2 of those to contend with, it wasn't too bad. We were rather grateful when pavement reappeared, however, since if it got steep, the dirt and gravel would make for tough going.

At the town of Anthering, the road started headed steeply uphill, not as steep as before, but since it was in the open instead of shaded, we all started sweating profusely. At one point, Radina had to stop because she had put sunscreen over her forehead, and the sweat washing that down into her eyes, must have been quite painful. It took less than 30 minutes, however, before we reached the hamlet of Modlham, and there the grade gave way to gentle rolling hills that were a joy to descend and climb. Radina was quite impressed that she had to pedal to keep up with us downhill since she had no trouble keeping up with us uphill.

Soon, we started a moderate descent into Obertrum am See, which was the lake I had visited before. We rolled along a bit on the familiar road, and when I saw the bakery in Seeham, we stopped, bought some lunch, and got permission to eat it at the swimming beach in town, which charged admission if you actually wanted to swim.

After lunch, we headed North again towards the Mattsee, and there in town, took a wrong turn and got off the bike route. Well, I stared at the map and couldn't quite figure out what was going on. Radina took the map and provided a second opinion --- that we needed to make a left somewhere before starting the descent. So we climbed back up to the top of the hill and there made a right turn before being reassured that we were on the bike route.

The signs were quite sparse, however, and soon we were lost again, heading into Neumarkt instead of heading directly to Strasswalchen. At this point, I started remembering that I had a GPS unit, and put it to good use. The detour to Neumarkt, however, got us to a supermarket that was opened all Saturday, so we bought a bunch of fruits, some drinks, stuffed it into our bags, and kept going.

In Strasswalchen, the bike route became well signed again, and we were taken past the Irsee, which was quite pretty, despite the overcast skies. We felt a few rain drops here and there, but it wasn't bad. Lisa started getting tired, and asked about lodging, so we stopped at every hotel along the way, but found that every place was booked. We were quite dismayed (especially when one of the places we checked had rooms but the man owning it told us he was too lazy to clean up the rooms enough to rent it) until about 1km from Mondsee, I spotted out of the corner of my eye a sign with beds pointing to the right, followed the driveway down to the end and found someone with rooms willing to rent it out for 25 Euros per person. With the beautiful view of the mountains (though we could not see the Lake), we took the rooms, took showers, had a nap, and then went to a local restaurant for a surprisingly inexpensive but filling meal.

I woke up at 6am on Sunday, feeling very good and ready to go. We ate almost all the food we had bought the day before, and then left around 8am to head into the Mondsee. Of all the lakes on this trip, the Mondsee is my favorite. We rolled along the lake, taking in the gorgeous morning --- the road was wet from rain the night before, but the sky was clear, granting us glorious views of the low clouds hanging around the surrounding mountains. We rolled along the single track road, and literally flew along it --- it felt so good and fast that at the top of a rise, I said to Lisa, that was so good, let's go back and do that stretch again. And so we did! Of all the touring I've done in the last few years, I've never immediately repeated a stretch of road, but this stretch was gorgeous and worth repeating right away while the conditions were good.

At the little village of Au, we made the decision to ride to Unterach to see the Attersee. Once there, we cut through a campground and walked to the water's edge to see another beautiful lake in front of us. Then we backtracked and headed onto the South side of the Mondsee. I had noticed markings on the map for a tunnel, and was quite nervous about it, but it turned out that the bike route included routings around the tunnel! First, we wound around a slide protection gallery (granting us a far better view of the lake than a car driver would get), then we weaved between a road under rock overhangs and the lake before plunging into a bikes-only tunnel. I remember being impressed by Austrian bike paths before, but this must have cost an enormous amount of money, and to see it first hand still impressed me.

Too quickly, we left the beautiful Mondsee behind, and headed over to Wolfgangersee, which Radina had built up as being quite the jewel of the area. Well, with all the hype, there was no way it could live up to it, but as we descended down into St. Gilgen, the views simply took my breath away! It was still early, so we took the opportunity to have a quick snack, and then rode through the tourist trap that was St. Gilgen, but did not make it all the way to the Abersee. We decided at this point that we should ride back towards Salzburg, since Lisa had a plane to catch the next morning and Radina was also saddle-sore, it being her first multi-day tour.

Back in St. Gilgen, Lisa ordered an omelette, I had a soup. We then headed out towards Salzburg on the big climb out of the lakes area. The climb wasn't as strenous as yesterday's, but it was quite a bit longer, though the views behind us were pretty. Nevertheless, there was quite a bit of traffic and we were annoyed by it until the bike path showed up. Once on the bike path, we climbed for a bit before descending and seeing the Fuschlsee from a distance. At this point, it got so warm that I swore that I would have ice cream in Salzburg, no matter what. A bypass route took us away from the main road towards Salzburg, but to our surprise once we were within 10km of Salzburg it was just down hill all the way in town.

Once in town, the GPS unit came into play again and we found the train station soon enough (though not without finding the wrong one as Lisa confused my instructions for "Hauptbahnof" with "Bahnof"). There, we bought train tickets, ate ice cream (I had 2!), and then got onto the train back home.

I've heard people talk a lot about terrain perfect for tandems --- if there's a tour made for tandems, it is this one. The climbs aren't long, and aren't particularly steep, and the rollers are a delight --- there are many hills you can just stomp up on your middle chain-ring (or big one if you're in shape --- we're not), and lots of gorgeous rollers. But most of all, the facilities are impressive --- you don't need reservations, and the route is mostly well signed (do carry a map, though!). This is an excellent first tour for anyone (there are more lakes we hadn't explored yet), and highly recommended for beginning cycle tourists or tandemists. If you are out of shape or just nervous about touring, there are luggage services that will do baggage transfer for you, as well as make reservations, provide support, maps, etc. But why give up your freedom? Pack your panniers, fill up your bottles, and ride!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Cultural Differences II: Appliances

Another interesting difference between Germans (and I'm guessing this applies to most of Europe) and Americans are the household appliances. For one thing, German appliances are small and cute. Our dish-washer, for instance, can do at most one dinner's worth of dishes, pots, and pans. This does mean you get to use the dishwasher every night, and also since the tablets hold the same amount of detergent as the US ones, the dishes get much cleaner.

The big difference, however, is that American machines (like the washing machine and the dishwasher) are optimized for speed and volume, while German machines are optimized for energy and water savings. (250 Euros a month for a 2 bedroom apartment is not considered out of line, even though German apartments are better insulated than American houses by and large)

The result of this is that the appliances are first of all expensive, and they are slow. A typical washing machine in the US will do a load of laundry in about 45 minutes. It would not be unusual for a German machine to take 3 entire hours to do the same load, with the same settings. The process by which it does so is entertaining --- turn on an American laundry machine and you will hear water immediately start pouring in and soaking the laundry. The machine will then burst into action, agitating and making a host of impressive sounds.

The German machine, on the other hand, will first run the water as well, but the process is gentle and slow. You can then, if you are patient enough, watch the water seep slowly down into your clothing. The machine will then spin for about half a spin, and then stop. If you didn't know better, at this point you would think that the power had cut off. But a patient man is rewarded by the machine spinning for about half a spin in the other direction and then pausing. My only guess is that the machines are modeling the fluid dynamics of the laundry system it's got loaded, and all that number crunching means that it can only run the motors that much before it has to pause to compute the next cycle.

Nevertheless, what comes out of a German machine is very clean --- so much so that many machines come with a "short wash" option --- meaning that instead of taking 4 hours for the computation to finish, it only takes 2. Our dish washer is similarly slow, and can take 3 hours to do an entire cycle.

As one might guess, as a result of the high energy costs (which are driven by environmentalism more than by necessity), most people don't use drying machines, but instead hang their laundry to dry.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Perils of Ordering from Amazon.de (when you own a Kindle)

As many folks know, all it takes for you to be able to order Kindle books on-line even if you're overseas is a U.S. credit card with a U.S. billing address. That's what I've been doing all year, and it's worked very well. However, last Tuesday, when I tried to buy Hungry from Paris, I got the following dreaded message:
We could not process your order because of geographical restrictions
on the product which you were attempting to purchase. Please refer to
the terms of use for this product to determine the geographical
restrictions.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.

This terrified me. Had I lost my Amazon.com privileges? Thinking that this was some nefarious IP geo-location at work, I asked my brother to try buying the book through his Kindle. (Since he's tied to my account, once he bought the book I should be able to download it) No luck. I IM'd a friend of mine who worked at Amazon US, and we walked through the problem. It turned out that I had recently bought a Rice Cooker from Amazon.de and had it shipped to a German address. This was a bad thing, because it also set my default one-click buy address to a German address for my Amazon US account. (I only have one-click buy turned on for the Kindle, since there's no way to turn that off on the Kindle)

This caused Amazon to think I was now in Germany (which I was), but once I deleted the German address, I could buy Kindle books again. Phew! I asked my friend why all this effort to link the German and U.S. accounts --- he said that there are people like me who buy books from foreign Amazon sites when they can't find them in the U.S. (I've done that once or twice, come to think of it) Nevertheless, this is something to watch out for if you bought a Kindle and are using it overseas.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hotel Recommendation: Hotel De La Paix Montparnasse

I first visited Paris 10 years ago. Together with a friend, we explored many many hotels --- all of them were expensive, most of them were too noisy to sleep in, and my Lonely Planet guide was of no help. Until my friend picked up a brochure for Hotel De La Paix Montparnasse. This is a cozy little hotel in the Montparnasse area, right on the Raspail metro stop.

It's not very luxurious. However, it has one major feature --- rooms facing away from the main boulevard, with blinds that completely block out the light, and windows thick enough to eliminate the street noise. You can really sleep well in this hotel. I returned recently after 10 years, and the place hasn't changed. The staff is still courteous and friendly, and the rooms are as nice as I remember. The breakfast is kinda expensive (but this is Paris), but unlike many hotels, it's optional --- so if you're a late sleeper and are likely to have brunch anyway, skip it. Or just buy a couple of croissants from a bakery and eat it in your room for breakfast.

Since moderately priced hotels with rooms that are quiet are quite tough to find in Paris, I heartily give this hotel a recommendation. (For instance, we paid 97 Euros a night, while a friend who's staying at youth hostel is paying 44 Euros a night)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review: The Guardians of the Flame

I first read about The Guardians of the Flame series in Dragon Magazine. That's because the premise of the series is that of a bunch of D&D players (I'm using D&D in the generic sense) who were transported into the world by their DM, ostensibly to find a gate back into our world so that their DM (who's certain that he'd be a powerful wizard in that world) could translate himself back.

When I saw that Baen had put up almost the entire series in E-book format for $5 each, I told my brother about the series, and it didn't take long before we had them in our hot little Kindles. Each volume is actually a collection of 2-3 novels in the series (the series started in the 1980s, back when a fantasy novel could be 200-300 pages without being seen as being too embarrassingly thin on the shelf).

The first novel dealt with the plight of D&D players who'd been translated into their player characters. They very quickly realize that these faux dark-ages worlds aren't all that fun to be in, and proceed quickly on their quest. The characters have quite a bit of tension between them, and not everybody co-operates (at least, at the beginning). As with almost every PC party that's ever existed, they get into trouble at nearly every town they visit, and have to run for their lives.

The first novel is quite good, and the ending of it, unsurprising enough, sets up the rest of the series, pitting our heroes against the slave-trade culture of the world they're in. The second novel deals with the idea that if you have a bunch of modern college students, including an engineer, in a faux middle-ages world, you can actually do a great job building a kingdom --- if enough of you know enough to make gunpowder, for instance, you could have a pretty good racket going. The implications aren't fully explored, however, in favor of more action adventure for the protagonist of the story, Karl, who's an impulsive Barbarian-type character.

The last novel of the first volume covers Karl becoming an emperor, after an former enemy's son tries to assassinate him. This is a typical sword and sorcery novel, with guns to complicate matters, but nothing that interesting. It's unfortunate that the characters show very development at all. All in all, decent enough entertainment, and worth $5, but fails to live up to the promise of what could be a very interesting premise.

The Paris Bicycle Transport System

 I first read about the Velib bike transport system on the New York Times website. Since we were there this past weekend on vacation anyway, we decided to try it out.
Paris Bicycle Rental System

The system is stream-lined for Paris residents and not visitors, so the visitor experience is quite cumbersome. Whereas a Paris resident would just get a membership card and swipe the card to check out a bike, the visitor has to buy a pass. 1 day passes are 1 Euro, and 7 day passes are 5 Euro. Since we used walking and the metro exclusively our first day, we bought the 1 day pass. And yes, you have to sign up for each of you. The big downer for most American tourists is that you pretty much need a European credit card to register for the system.

On to the process: you first buy a day pass (it's good for a complete 24 hours, so it makes sense to wait until you really need them). You sign up by going through both the touch screen and the key pad systems, choosing a 1 day pass, and keying in your PIN (yes, chip and pin systems are prevalent throughout Europe). You then select a 4-digit pin so even if you lose your ticket someone else can't just check out a bike in your name. You're then given a ticket --- you must keep this ticket or you won't be able to use it. I've seen at least one case where there was a ticket in the machine slot, because some hapless tourist signed up for it and left his ticket in frustration because he couldn't figure out the system.

Then you go to the other side of the vending machine and use the LCD menu there to pick a bike. But first, pick out a bike and note the post position. This is important because with the cheapness of the rentals, the bikes get abused and aren't all in the same condition. So check the tires for air, test the cranks to make sure they'll rotate, and check to make sure the bike has a chain and the brakes work. Then select "Other Language" on the menu, "Day Pass", key in your ticket number and pin, select your bike, and off you go!

When we were first in Paris, we looked around for a map of where all the bike racks and stations were. This turned out to be superfluous. Anywhere a tourist is likely to want to be, there's a rack. There was one across the street from our hotel, another one 2 blocks away, and 2 entire racks 4 blocks away. Anywhere we wanted to eat or visit, there was a rack on the way there, or right around the corner from there. Since the bike rentals are free for 30 minutes, you really have an incentive to pick up the bike at the last minute, ride it to your destination, check it in, and then check it out again when you need it. This keeps the bikes circulating, and the automated check in and check out system is a pleasure to use, if a little cumbersome for those of us with day passes.

The bike themselves are surprisingly nice riding machines, rather than the clunker bikes that I see on Google campus, for instance. That's because there's actually a 150 Euro penalty for stealing the bike (or for having your bike stolen), so there's an incentive to actually get decent bikes. The bikes are all 3 speed, hub-geared bikes with baskets and generator head and tail lights. In a city as well lit as Paris, that's all you need. Nobody seems to wear helmets in Paris, and I'll confess than neither did I. Paris is really flat, so 3 gears are all you really need, and I could crank as fast as I want on them. The bikes are heavy, tires and all, but it's all you would need for urban transportation and utility cycling.

There are bugs in the system --- for instance, at some bike stations even though there are bikes parked, the system doesn't acknowledge them and let you check them out. Some stations seem perpetually short of bikes. We did see a few trucks driving around with racks of those bikes, and those trucks presumably try to resupply bikes stations that have shortages, but they're obviously inadequate. A small number of bikes do have defects (missing basket, missing chain, flat tire, and lights that have been wrecked are the ones I saw), but by and large I could always find a working bike when I needed one. I would very much love to see this system adopted in American cities or Silicon Valley.

In any case, this is the cheapest way to travel in Paris (the metro system is perpetually overly warm, and costs 1.1 Euro per trip), so if you're in Paris and have a European credit card (or can arrange for a pre-paid card), please try it!

Review: Hungry for Paris

It was two days before my trip to Paris for a food-oriented visit. I had my hotel booked, I had my train tickets, but no restaurant reservations, and other than the memory of a street in Paris 10 years ago, no idea as to where to go. I went over to the Kindle store, typed "Paris" into the search box, and it came up with 2 results. A Rick Steve's guide (which I turned up my nose at), and Hungry for Paris (Kindle edition), which I bought (though not without some interesting complications which I'll write about later).

Normally, I try to write a review only after I've read a book cover to cover. But restaurant guides aren't intended to be used that way, so I'll cover how we used it.
Parisian Restuarant Trip

Lunch on Friday: we had lunch at a random Brasserie chosen by one of Lisa's co-workers. It had a decent chicken dish (with rice), but the Creme Brulee wasn't up to par. In any case, we didn't use the book for this selection, so it's irrelevant to this review.

Dinner: Au Pied de Fouet @ 3 Rue Saint Benoit. This is where having the Kindle version of the book shines. I searched for "Confit du Canard" and this was one of the restaurants that turned up. Reading the description, I was glad to find that it was a hole in the wall, which is the kind of restaurant I like the most. (I didn't bring a suit and tie, and refuse to dine in restaurants that require that I dress up --- I'm the customer, not the restaurant) We followed the recommendations of the book, and they were excellent. For starters we had the lentil salad and the soup of the day. Then, I had the Duck Confit (just to show how spoiled I am --- good as this was, I don't think it's as good as Cafe 5IVE at the Google Mountain View campus), Lisa had the Sauteed Chicken Livers, and both were quite good. Then I had the Creme Caramel, while Lisa had a fascinating cake that was also excellent. The cost: 32 Euros. What made our day was that the place being such a hole in the wall, we were seated at the same 4 person table as a French mother-son pair who were out to dinner, and the conversation was fun --- they let us sample some of their food, and even taught us French words and helped us translate --- this is not the kind of experience you will have at any old restaurant. Highly recommended. The staff also provided incredible service. We walked back to our hotel in euphoria, impressed with the entire experience.

Saturday Lunch: Lisa wanted to go to the Musee D'Orsay. And after a whole morning of culture, I knew I had to get some decent food. We went to L'Ami Jean, 27 Rue Malar at 1:00pm for a late lunch and this was the best meal of the entire trip! For starters, we ordered some sardines with salad, and it was excellent --- very delicate, but very flavorful. For lunch, I ordered the book-recommended Pentocles in a clay-pot. OK, the portion size was small, but the flavor was just outstanding --- I could not believe how good it tasted --- the sauce was intense, and I mopped it all up with bread. Lisa had an excellent Sea-Bass with the best crispy bacon I'd ever seen --- so thin you could see almost right through it! Cost: 70 Euros, and worth every penny. Heck, order more food and spend more and you won't regret it.

Dinner: Lisa loves crepes, so we looked in the book and found Breizh Cafe, 109 Rue Vieille du Temple. The savory crepes were excellent, with the Buckwheat done just right and the dry cider that came with it put the taste right into perspective. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The dessert, a chocolate crepe with chocolate ice cream, was delightful. The staff was also extremely friendly, and our waitress (a charming young lady) spent a lot of time trying to persuade us to visit her home in Brittany. Cost: 42 Euros.

Sunday Brunch: Lisa wanted to see Chinatown, and I had found Le Bambou at 70 Rue Baudricourt. We ordered Vietnamese crepe, some Dim Sum (called Vietnamese Ravioli in the book) and Pho. This was quite disappointing, and the only miss we found in the book. Lesson: don't trust recommendations of white guys for Asian food, even a white guy who's lived in Paris. Cost: 45 Euros.

Sunday Dinner: Le Petite Pontoise. I hadn't had Foie Gras yet, so I had to take this opportunity to order it. It was excellent. I had the Poulet Roti (Rotisserie Chicken) while Lisa had the Salt-Encrusted fish. The mashed potatoes that came with my dish was wonderful, and the chicken was well above average. Lisa didn't think much of her fish. The Creme Brulee, however, blew us away. (Yes, better than Google food --- which makes it outstanding) Cost: 70 Euros.

As you can see, 5 outings, 4 hits and 1 miss. And the costs weren't completely out of line either. In fact, the dining experience Lobrano recommends are really outstanding, and I doubt if we could have found them by ourselves. You can read the regular guidebooks and find all the expensive restaurants, but anyone can eat well for a lot of money. Eating well on the cheap is very difficult, and if all you have is a few days in Paris, this book is well worth the $8 Kindle price, or even the $16 dead tree edition. Highly recommended.

One more thing: the book also comes with lots of interesting essays about eating in France, and the author's experience dining in various places. So it's good entertaining reading, but seriously, I don't buy restaurant guides for entertaining reading, so even without this, it would have been worth the money. The fact that the author is actually a good writer who can tell a great story is a bonus.

Addendum: Note that there are few vegetarian and vegan options in the book. Look, if you're going to Europe to eat the local food, neither option is really part of the traditional cuisine, so don't bother trying to go vegetarian. So if you want good vegan/vegetarian food, go to China, Japan, and India. The Shaolin theory of vegetarianism still applies, five years after I first coined it on my first tandem tour of Europe.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Misunderstandings of the Efficient Market Hypothesis can be a serious threat to your financial health

Recently, someone on a financial planning mailing list I was on tried to sell active investing again, citing this post. He essentially bragged that he was beating the S&P 500, and repeated the tired old claims that the S&P 500 was essentially actively managed anyway, since companies shifted in and out of the index. I felt compelled to reply, and here's an abridged version of it:
  1. Performance benchmarking --- As mentioned before, the S&P 500 shouldn't be your benchmark if your portfolio doesn't have the risk characteristics that are similar. The efficient market hypothesis doesn't say it's impossible for you to beat S&P 500 --- what it says is that you can't beat the S&P 500 without taking more risk in your portfolio! The important thing to remember is that firstly, investment performance is measured in decades, not years, and that over the same period, a brain-dead simple asset allocation (say, Vanguard Target Retirement 2045) can also beat the S&P 500 by 2-3 percentage points over the same period just by taking more risk --- say, by investing in international stocks. One of my favorite examples is the financial blogger http://pfblog.com. Early on, he claimed that he was doing so much better than the S&P 500, which meant that he was a genius. Then someone pointed out that he had to benchmark against a similar-risk portfolio, and it turned out that his out- performance wasn't there after all, and definitely in recent quarters it had been non-existent.
  2. Investment Strategy. I'm going to do research and beat the benchmark. I actually know one person who succeeded in doing this --- he quit his day job and invested full time. But that out-performance came at the expense of his job performance as a software engineer --- after 3-4 years of doing this, he was no longer able to survive a typical software engineering interview in Silicon Valley. If you already have a multi-million dollar portfolio it might be worth while to do this. If you're still dependent on your day job, don't do it! Getting that next promotion is likely to be worth more from a long term career point of view!
  3. Over multi-decade periods, I've seen more portfolio disasters from active management than from passive management. One extreme example was described in an earlier blog post.
  4. As William Bernstein said during his visit to Google: Just because you believe in the efficient market does not absolve you of the responsibility to do the math and look at what makes sense." But when the math points you in a certain direction, it is sufficient to make small adjustments to capture some additional return ---there's no need to bet your entire nest-egg. Several years ago, I saw that the way Americans guzzled oil was unlikely to be sustainable --- my way of dealing with it was to add something like 5% Energy to my portfolio during an asset re-allocation (through Vanguard's Energy Fund --- I didn't bother trying to find a good active fund --- my office mate bought Brazilian oil stocks with much better returns --- he's satisfied with his return and won't stop bragging about them, and I'm happy that I did something --- it did give me a slight performance bump --- but I'm not that proud of it because I did so by taking more risk)
  5. History. It is hard for most modern investors to imagine the world in the 1970s when Vanguard was founded. Back then, there was not a single index fund. John Bogle did an amazing two things: first, he introduced the index fund (as imperfect as the S&P 500 was, it's still very good, especially compared to the typically managed active index fund). Secondly, he setup Vanguard's corporate structure in such a way that there's no conflict of interest between the interests of the customer, and the way Vanguard was run. If he had set up Vanguard's structure the way Fidelity's structure was, he'd be worth vastly more money today --- at the expense of Vanguard's customers. It is this reason that John Bogle is a hero. Understanding this history (and why Vanguard is much less likely to screw you over in the long multi-decade time frame which is when investment success is determined) is the key to understanding why people speak of him in such reverential terms.
In any case, it's no coincidence that one of the most successful investors of all time (20% growth over 20 years) when he had to write an investment book for individual investors, still ended up recommending the tired old index funds. And to a large extent, I agree with Swensen --- in the world where there is every incentive on wall street to sell you the active story (none of the under-performing real life examples I used above were stupid people --- yet they made more money for their advisors than for themselves), going the passive, asset-allocation route is truly unconventional and is more likely to lead to success.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Is the Kindle starting to tip the Publishing industry?

Ever since I bought my Kindle in March, every time I saw a book I wanted that wasn't on the Kindle but was on the dead trees, I'd send e-mail to the publishers and authors to try to get them to put it on the Kindle.

From April through June, I mostly got no reply, or Thank you for your feedback type automated responses. Authors have mostly said things like, "I have no control over it --- the publisher makes the decision." Then recently, the replies have started changing to, "We're working on it. In fact, we're working on our entire back-list and bringing it up soon. Stay in touch."

Is this a sign that the Kindle is tipping the publishing industry? I hope so. I would especially love to have travel guides on the Kindle.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Review: The Best of the Year: Science Fiction 2007 Edition

I got sent a 10% off coupon for the electronic edition of Rich Horton's 2008 Anthology (dead tree edition), and with the discount couldn't resist, especially after I noticed that 3 of the stories in it won a Hugo, and the stories in it pre-dated my subscription to Asimov's Science Fiction magazine (dead tree edition).

All in all, this is a pretty good collection, though there were perhaps way too many stories about religion for it to be completely my taste. The best story sits near the end of the book, Robert Reed's A Billion Eves, a haunting parallel universe tale with a twist. Robert Charles Wilson weighed in with an excellent thriller, The Cartesian Theater, and Water Jon William's Incarnation Day was similarly excellent. Ian Watson's take on reincarnation, Saving for a Sunny Day was also of note.

Strangely enough, the Hugo winner, Okanoggan Falls left me cold. Nevertheless, I got full value for my money, and if not for the fact that my Asimov's subscription will probably make buying next year's collection redundant, I'd be buying it as soon as it came out. In fact, anthologies like this will make me rethink my subscription to science fiction magazines --- it's definitely much more cost effective to buy collections than to subscribe, especially with the ridiculous prices magazines seem to want to charge for the electronic subscriptions --- I can get Asimov's for $18 a year from Mags4Cheap, so why not give me the same price for the electronic versions?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Kindle Battery life

I was wondering why my Kindle didn't have the kind of battery life that others reported. Well, it turns out that others have similar issues, and someone came up with a really plausible theory:
I called Amazon to ask if the Kindle indexes while it is in sleep mode, which it does do, and currently I have a theory that because when I first got my Kindle I through my SD card with 100+ books in it, that everytime I've slept it so far on battery, it goes NUTS trying to catch up indexing, hence my dead battery way too fast.

Given that I'm reading at a high rate, and swap books in and out of the Kindle on a regular basis, I'm guessing that the indexing is indeed the source of my Kindle battery life problem. My brother had similar problems when he first got his Kindle and left it in sleep mode in a backpack with a freshly loaded Kindle. Now I just have to find the hidden switch to turn indexing on or off. In any case, I'm guessing that leaving the charger home isn't something that I'll do for all but the shortest trips.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Thoughts on Financial Planning

I recently had occasion to discuss financial planning with several folks with a variety of backgrounds and interests. And it's really interesting to me how challenging financial planning is:
  1. Several folks had all the recommended books on their book shelves (Four Pillars of Investing[kindle edition], Random Walk Down Wall Street[kindle edition]), but had either not read them, or not understood them.
  2. Several folks understood what the right thing to do was, but just simply didn't do them. The discipline to execute is in fact one of the reasons why some people need a financial advisor, even if they're intellectually capable of understanding the fundamentals
  3. Being smart can just as easily work against you --- smart people have a tendency to want to second-guess the market. That usually works against you because there are just as many other smart people trying to do this as well, so they all cancel out and you end up not getting a good result either.
  4. Costs really matter. In many countries (in particular European countries), the financial markets are so under-developed that brokerage commissions are high, and costs are high. What I'm finding is that in Europe most people don't trust the stock markets, and turn to real estate to finance their retirements, along with all the hassle that entails.
  5. Finally, financial planning is hard because returns are measured by decades, not months or even years. This makes all the usual methods of learning (do something, see if it works, and do more if it does) fail --- the kind of discipline and devotion to learning from history that this requires ensures that there are very few Warren Buffets out there, and that you're unlikely to be one of them. It also leads to the kind of retirement planning disasters described in Nudge.
All in all, I am coming more and more in agreement with Bill Bernstein's statement:
Will, for example, small U.S. investors become ever more involved in the capital markets? This is largely a political question, dependent on whether the electorate ever wakes up to the mess of IRA/defined contribution pottage sold to them by the libertarian right. Over the past few decades, it has become apparent to even the most enthusiastic proponents of private accounts that most plan participants are about as qualified to manage their retirement portfolios as they are to do brain surgery or play left wing for the Rangers. Some autonomy needs to be stripped from them by mandating default opt-ins, lifecycle funds, annuitization, and so forth. Would it not be better simply to throw in the towel, throw out Wall Street, and establish a national pension system? Most Europeans, when they gaze upon our retirement system (and our health care system as well), laugh themselves silly.

In short, the typical person is as qualified to be his own financial planner as he is to be his own plumber (myself included). Unfortunately, unlike plumbers, where it is quite possible to find an honest and competent plumber in nearly every town, the existence of competent and honest financial planners is all but myth. That's why I ultimately end up doing all of it myself. In my travels, I find myself meeting lots of retired Americans --- almost all of them (a surprising number of them former teachers) are beneficiaries of the defined benefit system which has been phased out in recent years. I wonder if my generation will be able to travel as extensively as those whom I have met at the same age.

Review: Value Averaging

Value Averaging (Kindle Edition) comes highly recommended by none other than William Bernstein, the master of asset allocation himself.

This short book is incredibly dense reading. The concept of value averaging itself is simple: rather than buying a constant dollar amount of shares on a regular basis (dollar-cost averaging), what you do is to chart out a projected progression of your portfolio over time, and on a regular basis, add money or sell shares to match the charted progression. The result is a disciplined buying strategy that buys more stocks when the price is low, and sells them when the price is high.

If that was all, you wouldn't be paying even the Kindle-discounted $10 to buy this book. There are several complications. First of all, over time, your portfolio should grow --- if all you're doing is saving a fixed amount of money over each interval, then the adjustments you can make with that fixed sum eventually gets swamped by the portfolio growth itself. So you'll have to also adjust your savings by the projected growth (unfortunately, if your income doesn't grow as your portfolio grows, you might be in a bit of a bind in this regards).

Secondly, there are tax implications --- the required selling in a taxable account might trigger capital gains which reduce the efficacy of this approach. Depending on the current capital gains rate, this could complicate implementation.

Finally, if you are saving (and investing) for a particular goal, you might need to adjust your savings rate as the market movements move you closer or further away from your goal --- at the very least in the last few years of your goal you might wish to go to more bonds to reduce the risk of a sudden market collapse preventing you from achieving your goals.

To its credit, the book covers all these details and more. Just as importantly, it provides the spreadsheets by which you can do your computation online for easy downoad.

There are a few problems that I can see with this approach: first of all, this sort of formula investing requires you to provide (in the spreadsheet, if not elsewhere) a projected investment return over the period of savings --- being off in that adjustment can result in dramatic under-saving. Secondly, for someone who's building a portfolio and have no idea of what their future income will be (most people fall into this category), I don't see how this kind of planning can be achieved.

Finally, once you get to your goal (say, your magic number for retirement), there's no guidance as to what you should do now. (Note that there are other resources that help you with this, so that's less of a problem with this book)

People who should read this book:
  • Fresh graduates and people building portfolios over a long period for a specific goal, if they can articulate such goals (college savings, etc)
  • Those with relatively stable income who have their act together enough to be able to work on these spreadsheets
  • Those with a lump-sum investment who find themselves paralyzed because they fear buying into a market at a peak (there's been a number of my colleagues who've fallen into this category --- I recommend this book to them)
This book, however, does not help with:
  • Setting a portfolio allocation
  • Deciding what appropriate goals should be
  • Keeping you disciplined enough to take the buy low/sell high approach that value averaging will naturally ask you to do.
All in all, I liked this book --- the approach and comprehensiveness is welcome. However, it's of limited applicability for me and my portfolio, and I suspect that implementation will be more complex and harder to do than a casual reading of this book might lead you to believe. Recommended as fruit for thought.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Lauterbrunnen Trip

Lauterbrunnen Trip



I think I'm in danger of becoming a Euro-phile. We took a short 5 day trip to Lauterbrunnen Valley, for some hiking and sight-seeing, and I have to say, it's got to be the prettiest place I've seen for some time. In fact, in the US, I can only think of Grand Teton National Park or Glacier/Waterton Lakes National Park that's as pretty, and neither of those places have the infrastructure to support such a variety of activities.

Day 1: This was a transit day, for us to catch the train from Munich to Zurich, a transfer to Lucerne, a panoramic train to Interlaken Ost, and then a short hop to Lauterbrunnen. The scenic train was indeed beautiful --- there were faster connections but this was worth the two hours. After getting onto the Lauterbrunnen train, I realized that this was one of the trains that split in two, with one half going to Grindelwald and the other to Lauterbrunnen. At Wildersil, I stepped outside for a moment to see if there were any indicators as whether we were on the right track, but saw no sign. So I stepped back onto the train to ask another passenger. Lisa, unfortunately, decided that she would try to help me after I'd done that, and of course, after she stepped out the train took off, with me on it and her at the station. (Don't ask me why she thought it was a good idea to leave our luggage unattended) Well, there was nothing for me to do but to go on, and for her to stay. Once in Lauterbrunnen, I checked in at Hotel Staubbach, read a bit, and then went to the train station to pick Lisa up --- when the train came in an hour later. We got into the hotel just as a storm kicked in, complete with thunder and lightning.

Day 2: We got up for a scrumptious meal at the hotel, and went out to walk up to the Staubbach fall. The trail at the bottom of the fall goes up into a tunnel and then emerges behind the fall. I arrived here on last year's tour of the alps, and was pleased to see that it had lost none of its power to please me. The hotel staff recommended that we also see the Trummelbach falls, so after we packed up our stuff and checked out (leaving our stuff in the hotel's storage), we rented a couple of mountain bikes and took off towards Trummelbach falls. Trummelbach falls is a series of cascades inside a mountain that has been carved out with an elevator installed so visitors can view what the cascades look like on the inside. It's a tourist trap, but what a tourist trap! The views of the cascades are stunning, and the feeling of being in a canyon in many places are just too much.

After that, we rode around the valley, getting caught in rain after 3 hours were up, and returned to the hotel, where the staff were happy to lend us towels to dry off. Then we returned the bikes, ate lunch, and headed to the cable car station to head up to Murren, our home for the next 3 nights. Switzerland is expensive, and one never knows how expensive it is until confronted with the fare prices for trains and cable cars. There was a dizzying array of options --- we could buy tickets a la carte, buy a 6 day pass for all the transport on the Murren side of the mountains, buy a 6 day pass for all the transport in the region that gave a discount on some days but not others, and a discount on some routes but free travel on others, or a 14 day pass that had similar characteristics. After some evaluation, I decided on the 6 day pass for the Murren side of the valley, reasoning that one trip to Schilthorn was 100CHF, and getting to Murren and back was another 20CHF, so this was the one for us. (The other passes did not grant Schilthorn for free)

So up the cable car we went, which granted us great views of Wengen on the other side of the valley. It didn't look big to us a the time, but as we got used to the size of Murren and Gimmelwald, we would come to think of Wengen as the big town. The cable car ride wasn't that interesting, but the mountain train on the top that connected the car to Murren was stunning. Views loomed out at us as the train drove along the ridge at 30kph, giving us beautiful views. I shot picture after picture on my camera.

When we arrived at Murren, I looked at my map and realized that I had no clue where the Chalet Fontana was. By asking around, we eventually got to the vicinity, but I still walked past it once before finding it right across the street from the one supermarket in town. We got ourselves unpacked, Lisa took a nap, and then we headed out to Almendhubel for our first hike.

We got onto the Almendhubel funicular railway, which was quite an experience --- rather than a rail that climbed up and down via cogs, this was a rail that was pulled up with a cable. At the top, we saw a good view of the mountains and the strangest path I'd ever seen --- but the sign explained that this was a foot massage --- letting your feet experience different textures before giving them a good soaking. We then set out on the so-called Flower trail. However, before we even got half a mile in, it started pouring pretty hard, so Lisa made the call to head back down to Murren. We got back just as the rain stopped, in time for dinner at the Hotel Bellevue, where we both had the Rosti.

Day 3: The forecast for the day was good, so I planned to do a longer hike --- from Almendhubel to Birg, and there by cable car to Schilthorn, where hopefully we'd get good views. Taking full advantage of our holiday pass, we took the funicular again to Almendhubel, and got started up the steep path to the ski areas. A fog rolled in, however, so we only got a few views here and there. It was pretty in a desolate, snowy mountain kind of way. By the time we got to the Schilthorn Hutte, it had gotten quite chilly and I started to wonder if the fog would ever clear up. But as we had a snack there, the sun peeked out and we were once again motivated to climb the last 200m to Birg. The path to Birg was snow-ridden, and on running shoes, it wasn't the greatest but we both made it.

By the time we got to Schilthorn, we were quite hungry and immediately headed for the restaurant. I once again got sticker shock by prices in Switzerland, but by the middle of lunch the fog lifted a bit and we were stunned by the views. You do get what you pay for --- the views of the Eiger, the Monch, and the Jungfrau were nothing short of amazing. We finished lunch quickly and went outside for a few pictures before the fog rolled in again.

Using the cable car to get back to Murren, I noticed it was still only 3:00pm. So after Lisa got her requisite afternoon nap, we took the funicular once again to Almendhubel and headed down the Mountain View trail. The views lower on the mountain were actually even prettier --- wild flowers greeted us everywhere, and there was another view of the ranges every corner. It was even prettier than the Lakes district as I saw it in 2006.

By the time we got done with the hike, it was just 10 minutes before the 6:33 mountain train. The views from the train was even better than the day before, and we ate dinner outside in a restaurant that had a beautiful view of the mountains. After dinner, a lovely alpenglow set in, and I regretted for the 30th time not having a tripod, SLR, and ND grad. filters with me.

Day 4: Today, we decided to do the North Face trail, as recommended by Denise, who owned the Chalet Fontana. We took the train up the Almendhubel again, and headed along the North Face trail. At this point, I'm out of words to describe natural beauty. The surroundings were nothing short of amazing. After a while, we found the trail pointing us to Spurtz, which was a mountain fall where the hiking trail went right behind the falls. We sat there eating chocolate, contemplating the beauty and isolation of it all --- the whole time we were there, we saw no one else!

With the weather so fine, by the time we got to Gimmelwald, we knew we had to go up to the Schilthorn again. And this time we were right --- we could see all around us --- the Thunersee, every ridge (and there were plaques telling us which mountain was which), every glacier, and every detail. The visibility was outstanding. We spent some time walking around as well, and spotted what looked like a gorgeous ridge walk on the way down from Birg. We knew that we wouldn't have time to do this, but it's good to have something to spur us for another visit some time.

I went for a swim while Lisa taught some QiGong to a friend she had met the day before. Dinner was at the Hotel Alpina.

Day 4: Our train wasn't until 2:33pm, so we left at 9:30 to hike down to the valley bottom, leaving our gear in the Chalet Fontana. This 1.5 hour hike didn't take long, but wasn't as pretty as the other hikes we had been on. By the time we reached the bottom, it started raining, and we had a very wet walk to the cable car. Getting back to Murren, we decided to eat at the Almundhubel restaurant, which Lisa had found out was the best restaurant in the area. The food turned out to be fine, but the menu was limited. We then got changed, and hopped onto the mountain train home.

Things to watch out for: Chalet Fontana is very well priced, but Gimmelwald might be a nicer stay because of its quieter nature. Murren is quite expensive and Chalet Fontana doesn't quite give you the European experience because it was mentioned by Rick Steve's Switzerland Guide --- as a result, the place is full of Americans and British folks. What Rick Steves doesn't tell you is that headroom is a problem. Even though Lisa was only 5' 2.5", she kept hitting her head in what was sold to us as the biggest room in the house (it did have room for 3). As a matter of fact, there is only one room in the house that I wouldn't be constantly hitting my head on. So be warned. Now that I've been there in early July, I can say that there's probably other lodging just as cheap and in quieter areas. The cheapest way to approach this would be probably to rent an apartment for a week. That way you can cook and don't have to deal with the amazingly high Swiss restaurant prices.

Despite all these complaints, this was an amazing trip. In fact, after this trip, I wonder why I bother visiting American National parks --- sure you see more wildlife, but in exchange you have to drive a lot (or camp out). The Lauterbrunnen valley is prettier than Yosemite valley by far. I've seen more waterfalls in those 5 days than in 10 years of visiting Yosemite, and the Lauterbrunnen falls are better. So save your money, grit your teeth with the air travel and the European exchange rates, and go. Lauterbrunnen is worth every penny, and if you wait too long the American dollar will be too worthless to be of use in Switzerland anyway.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Review: Fantasy - The Best of the Year 2006

I bought this fantasy collection (kindle compatible edition)after thoroughly enjoying Rich Horton's 2006 Science Fiction collection. It took me much longer to read this book than the science fiction counterpart because I didn't like a number of stories in it, which made certain stories slow going. That said, there were a few gems in it. My personal favorite was Peter Beagle's Two Hearts, a sequel to his beautiful The Last Unicorn, and just as beautifully written --- a tale about how a hero would age and the attempts of his friends to revive him.

Neil Gaiman's Sunbird was also worth reading, as was Pat Cadigan's story about a recovering vampire, Is there Life After Rehab?. The closing piece, a Jack Vance tribute by Matthew Hughes, was also entertaining. A number of pieces left me cold, however, namely Steve Tem's and Marc Laidlaw's stories.

All in all, while not a waste of money (it's cheaper to buy these anthologies than to subscribe to the paper magazines they draw their material from), not as good a value as the science fiction equivalent. Mildly recommended. I'll probably buy the 2007 editions next.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Review: Book of Lost Things

This short book (kindle edition) runs on a familiar theme: a young boy loses his mother to a deadly disease, and then misses her horribly. One night, he hears her calling to him, and following her voice, finds himself in a magic fairy-tale land, and proceeds on a quest to rescue her.

The novel covers a lot of traditional fairy tales, putting entertaining twists on many of them, and perhaps covering a bit of cliched ground. Connolly manages to grant a fresh view on my fairy tales without necessarily spoiling them (though I am getting tired of the riddling troll bridges, but it was used in a way to orient the reader so I can forgive it).

Even the plot isn't as cliched as one might initially think, because the quests and stories used are quickly discarded, and the ending is appropriate, without even a hint of Deus Ex Machina. My big complaint is that the book is too short and hence a quick read (it lasted perhaps half a long train trip). Recommended for a good change of pace from the usual kid lost in a fairy tale land story.

Review: Saturn's Children

This is Charlie Stross' first novel to come out both in the kindle format simultaneous with the hardcover, so I immediately bought it to show my support (that and I like Stross' prior works). This short novel is about a post-human society. Yes, a science fiction novel where humans have become extinct while leaving behind a detritus of robots and other automatons searching for their destiny.

The narrator and viewpoint character is Freya, a sexbot who was instantiated long after the last human has died off. She offends a high ranking (aristo) bot and is forced to flee the system and take on a new persona --- that of a spy and courier. Circumstances force her to insert the soul chip of a sibling named Juliette into one of her slots, which starts to give Freya dreams based on Juliette's life. The plot deepens when she discovers (through Juliette) that her line of bots can be upgraded to become assassins and spies, and things get complicated from there.

Stross has managed to work out many of the interesting details behind a robot-only society (especially one that was built to serve man at the deep fundamental level). For instance, from a bot point of view, creationism is the correct "religion." Late in the book, this passage arises which I found really funny:

"This is our fruit garden. Fruits are the fertilized reproductive organs of the plants you see all around us --- often one tree would bear both male and female flowers, so our Creators, being largely fruitivorous, subsisted on a diet rich in hermaphrodite genitalia..."

Because of the energy requirements of interplanetary (and interstellar) travel, later generations of interplanetary traveling bots would be smaller and lighter, making sexbot models like Freya Ogres by comparison.

The big weakness of the novel is that the ending feels rushed, where the reveals all cascade together, making it tough to keep track of what's going on. The ending does seem a little pat, with poetic justice all around, but that's a slight fault.

Recommended as light airplane reading --- it flows smoothly and isn't as dense as Glasshouse.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Navigating the incredibly complex European train system

First of all, if you're a tourist and are doing what I consider a business trip tour of Europe (if it's Tuesday, we must be in Paris), you're best off with the Eurail pass. They come with various number of travel days, along with a validation system that I haven't bothered to figure out.

If you're in Europe for a long stay, or your trip are widely spaced, or you're bringing a bicycle, then the Eurail pass is not for you and then you have to deal with the European train system directly. Each train system has it's own ticketing system with arcane rules and reservations, so I will only deal with the German system.

The big decision in Germany will be how frequently you travel. There are 3 Bahn-cards (or train cards) that give you discounts and or unlimited train travel. The Bahn-Card 25 gives you 25% off, the Bahn-Card 50 gives you 50% off, and the Bahn-Card 100 grants unlimited train travel. I am told that once upon a time, the German train system was owned fully by the government and so fare structures are simple and everyone could use trains. Now the Deutsche Bahn is about to be privatized, they have to dress up the numbers to make stock attractive to investors, so they've adopted the fare structure that the other successful transportation system has used so profitably --- that of the airlines.

So what happens is that the reservation system releases tickets 3 months in advance. What happens is that the lowest priced tickets are released at that time in limit numbers (those deals are accessible via the Deutsche Bahn website). As those tickets get sold, last minute travelers have to pay more. Furthermore, there are special fares that Bahn-Card 25 holders can get (and some of those fares work even if only one person out of a party has the Bahn-Card).

Complicating this is the difference between trains. The fast trains are the Inter-City and the Euro-City (international) trains. These trains don't stop often, and can go as fast as 300-400kph (unfortunately, those speeds are not achievable in Bavaria). These trains have limited bike capacity, and must be reserved in advance. The remaining trains are regional trains. This distinction is important, because there are two important types of tickets that you can use to your advantage: the Happy Weekend ticket (35 Euro), and the Regional ticket (in my case the Bayern Ticket --- 27 Euro). These tickets let you use the regional trains within the entire state (Bayern Ticket) or throughout Germany for one day for an unlimited amount of time, subject to time restrictions (later than 9am on weekdays, and unlimited for weekends). Up to 5 people can travel on this one ticket, so if you're traveling as a group for a relatively short distance, these the tickets to get. Neither tickets can have Bahn-Cards applied to them. Regional trains will take bikes without reservations, but if they run out of room you're stuck until the next one.

International trains are even more complicated. Some respect the Bahn-Card, some don't. Sometimes, you can get a special deal that makes things like Bahn-Cards useless. An interesting one, for instance, is the night train from Munich to Paris --- you can book bunk beds, get on it, go to bed, and wake up the next morning in the other city. With a special deal, the trip can cost about 75 Euros each way (the same as a flight), which sounds expensive until you realize that in your trip cost is included a free nights hotel, which you would have to pay if you flew to the other city. And the train is way more comfortable than even a first class plane ticket.

With all these choices, specials, and deals, I quickly gave up and found an agent in the form of Euraide. I got lucky and was there on a Saturday afternoon when the general manager, Alan Wissenberg was working overtime. In any case, I've been using their office for most of my train work. Note that while they are great people, they aren't cycling specialists, so they will not know what to do with bicycles on trains, and the special rules involved.

For instance, French long distance trains have chosen completely not to serve cyclists and bicycles unless they are packaged in a special fashion. So for our upcoming Tour of the Pyrenees trip, we bought one of the special priced night trains to Paris, and rented a car, since the time cost of getting the regional trains was so high that we were better off doing so.

On the way back, Roberto wanted to visit Lyon, where he was an exchange student. That's conveniently near Geneva, where we would escape the French train system onto the Swiss system. The Swiss system (and the German one, for that matter) are much more bike friendly, but don't allow for bike reservations from a German train station. But all through the last few years, I've traveled using the Swiss train system without needing a bike reservation at all, so I bought the passenger only special (112 Euros for 3 of us, from Geneva to Munich --- much cheaper than flying), and then booked a bike reservation for the part of the trip that was on the German train crossing international borders from St. Gallen to Munich. To bridge the distance from Perpignan to the Lyons region, we rented a car.

One of my hopes on visiting Europe was that train travel would be much cheaper than driving, and more bike friendly than flying. The reality on the ground has proved to be rather disillusioning. This is a pity, because trains and bikes are the perfect combination, as anyone who's done so can attest. Nevertheless, in the US, renting the car would have been the only option for us, with all the attendant problems that come with it, so I'm glad that we managed to negotiate the system as is.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Review: In the Midnight Hour

I'm beginning to realize that Tor's free e-books might just not be for me. Take In the Midnight Hour (free kindle download), for instance. Girl meets guy, they fall in love right away, but spend a good half the book with heaving bosoms and longing for each other while moving plot tokens around, and then finish with a grand finale, vanquishing enemies, and restoring the universe to its proper place. Character development? Well, both main characters are perfect, and everyone else is a stereotype.

If this book was sold as a bodice ripper, I wouldn't have picked it up. As it is, it was given away as a Fantasy novel. Well, it's fantasy alright, but perhaps of the kind best restricted to day dreaming.

Recommended only for people who like bodice rippers. Yech! I don't know anyone like that.