Thursday, August 28, 2008

Satellite tracking for the 2008 Pyrenees trip

You can follow Piaw, Mike and My (Roberto) adventure through the Pyrenees this year here!

The backstory: I received a satellite tracker (and S.O.S. system) as a present from my family, and this seemed like a fine time to use it!

Lets hope for no rain, just enough sun, and making good time!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Review: Matter

Matter is Iain M. Bank's latest novel set in the Culture universe.

It starts out with the classic story of a betrayal of a King by his trusted Lieutenant, witnessed by his son, the Heir to be, named Ferbin. The son flees with a trusted servant, hoping to seek help from his sister, who was gifted to the Culture and is now an agent in the Special Circumstances unit of the Culture.

Along the way, we discover that the world Ferbin is from, Sursamen, is actually a Shell World, a huge constructed world with many levels, each harboring a different habitat suitable for different beings and in the center a machine to control it all. The makers have long abandoned such shell worlds, and the inter-level access is controlled by different species.

The narrative switches between several viewpoints --- the capital, with the evil Lieutenant now running a boy-prince as Regent, Ferbin and his trusted servant, and then his sister, Djan Seriy, who is now a Special Circumstances agent. There's quite a bit of the usual Banks misdirection, but unlike The Algebraist, where I felt the mystery was well constructed and the plot puzzle fair, the build-up, world building, and construction does not quite match up to the ending.

The ending felt very much as though Banks wrote himself into a corner, and then basically solved it all with big explosions. Not that I don't like big explosions, but the result is definitely not one of Bank's best works. Still, mediocre Banks is very good, all things considered. Recommended, but read his other works first, if you haven't already.

Monday, August 25, 2008

$70 off Kindle

Chase & Amazon are offering $70 off the Kindle by using the discount code VISACARD on checkout. The promotion is for the Chase Amazon.com card (which is a reasonable card to use for Amazon purchases), and I don't know if it'll work with any other credit card if you don't already have one.

On the other hand, if you don't already have an Amazon.com, applying for one will get you $30 off, giving you $100 off the Kindle directly. Not a bad way to go.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Review: Grossan Nasal Irrigator

So like i mentioned in my previous post, I've been on a bit of a cleansing fix these last few weeks. The name of the game this time around is "irrigation"...my last review was on the Waterpik oral irrigator, and now, I'm on my second irrigation machine, but this time for the nose.

Nasal irrigation has been going on for a while. The original techniques for nasal irrigation involved a tea-pot and simply sticking the spout into one side of the nostril, tilting your head as you raise the pot, and letting the warm saline water pour through until it exits on the other side.

Sounds gross doesn't it? Well, here's my favourite youtube video on this. =)



Please note that coffee and whisky aren't recommended at all as you can judge from his reactions =).

Anyhow, a quick note on why I got interested in such a bizarre contraption to irrigate my nose. I've always been a chronic allergy sufferer. I was officially diagnosed almost 10 years ago with allergies, and since then have been on various nasal sprays such as Flonase, Veramyst, Nasonex, Nasalcrom, the various claritin flavor du jour, and other over the counter medicine like benadryl and sudafed.

I also have a deviated septum and my left nostril is significantly smaller than my right. On a breath test, the air flow of the left nostril is about 1/2 that of my right nostril. The deviated septum creates a massive obstruction and things just don't come out easily.

This leads to fairly chronic sinusitis. All my life, mucous and phlegm from my respiratory tract has always been yellow or green, once in a long blue moon, its clear, but for the most part its yellow or green. As the link explains, this means my sinuses are infected fairly often and although it didn't really affect my quality of life, the difference was made clear to me when I started on allergy medications.

Being able to breath from the nose is a pretty wonderful thing.

So anyway, I was introduced via the web to nasal irrigation a few years back, but the typical response to that is to laugh at it, in a not so nice manner. =) As I got older, and got a little more intelligent, and suffered from things like post-nasal drip and lingering coughs and also diagnosed with sleep apnea, I decided to take things up a notch and do some more research into nasal irrigation. The results were fairly conclusive, nasal irrigation done on a regular basis does a lot for one's sinuses and can even help with allergies.

Well, that was that, I went out to Amazon, bought the Grossan Hydro Pulse and waited patiently for it to arrive.

Why did I spend a 100 bucks on something like the Grossan instead of a simple Neti-Pot? Its mostly because I can afford something like that now. Were I cash strapped, I'd probably just have gone for the neti pot. Besides, I like my gadgets, and even though its questionable if this cleans better than the neti pot, the amazon reviewers had pretty much glowing things to say about it.

The package is fairly simple. It comes with two nasal irrigator tips, and two tounge/throat cleaning tip, along with the unit itself. Use of the unit is even simpler, the included DVD is a bit of a joke, but its probably worth the 2 minutes of so to watch it. Basically, you fill the tank up with water, add a salt solution packet, stir it up, stick one tip into one nostril of your nose, and turn the unit on.

Wait till the tank is half empty, take the tip out, stick into other side. Repeat till the tank's empty.

The results were astounding. I could actually breath through my nose for the first time in years! By trait, I'm a mouth breather due to not enough airflow thru my nostrils, but about 10 minutes after I used this unit, I could actually get enough airflow that I could stop mouth breathing for extended periods of times!

The second benefit didn't really manifest until the evening. Recall that I had post-nasal drip and a lingering cough because of the PND. That went away too. I didn't really make the connection until I realized I had stopped coughing for more than a few hours.

That basically sold me the machine, but I wanted to use it for at least two weeks before I could make a recommendation and that it wasn't just confirmation bias or buyer's bias.

Well, two weeks have come and gone. I use the machine twice daily, once in the morning, once in the evening. The results are pretty amazing. My sense of smell has improved, my PND cough has gone away, my breathing has improved, I want to say my riding has improved due to better breath control, but that's probably not 100% due to this.

Suffice it to say that I highly recommend this product as well. If the price of the Grossan HydroPulse is too high, I'd still suggest going to your drug store and just picking up a nasal irrigator. I am going to be trying one out for the next few weeks while I travel, so look for an update to this review when I finally use a manual nasal irrigator.

I consider nasal irrigation to be a a life changing habit, and I highly encourage everyone to try it. As usual, perhaps talk to your doctor first to make sure you have no special conditions, but I suspect 99% of the population have no problems and will benefit greatly from nasal irrigation. As a personal anecdote, I've stopped using all my allergy sprays and haven't suffered from any allergy syndromes for the last two weeks. This sampling might be inaccurate as I'm also undergoing allergy shot treatments and perhaps the pollen count is not terrible this year. But as mentioned above, the real dramatic improvements is my ability to breath through my nose and my sense of smell has never been better.

Review: Waterpik Ultra

So I've been in a bit of a cleansing mood these last few months. A combination of sickness, the dentist telling me that I need to better take care of my teeth (and i floss, do 10 minute brushes, and mouthwash every day!), and a lingering cough finally got me off my butt to order a couple of items. This review here will talk about the Waterpik Ultra. You can get it from Amazon at below 50 dollars.

I received the unit two weeks ago and has been using it for that long. First the Aesthetics. The unit itself is quite small, smaller than you expect, consisting of a water tank capable of holding 600ml of water, a case so you can put all the spare piks the unit comes with that also doubles as a lid for the water tank, and the sprayer/nozzle.

The tips that comes with the unit are as follows:

# Two standard jet tips -- Cleans deep between teeth and below the gumline
# One tongue cleaner -- Removes bacteria that cause bad breath
# One orthodontic tip -- Cleans hard to reach areas around braces and other dental work
# One Pik Pocket tip -- Gently delivers therapeutic rinses into gum pockets
# One toothbrush tip -- You can brush and water jet at the same time

So all in all, the package is pretty featured packed.

So how does it work? You basically fill the tank with water or mouthwash, pick the pressure settings and then turn the unit on. In minutes, water starts pulsing out of the pik itself. Place the pik with your mouth closed at a 90 degree angle from where the gum meets the teeth and the cleaning starts. The first time I used it, I put the pressure on 1 and it felt like a cleaning from the dentist.

Now, feeling as clean as it does from the dentist, and it being as clean are two separate things, but the amazing thing is that the waterpik does clean out stuff from way back, the wisdom tooth area where the pockets are typically the biggest and you'll also find the biggest chunks of stuff. A good flossing can remove about 70% of the stuff that lodges back there, but the waterpik actually gets over 80 to 90% based on what I feel. Usually after I floss, I can still feel a bit of stuff back there, but the effort to dig it out is usually too difficult. With the Waterpik, a good spray and its usually out. So I'm fairly impressed.

On the topic of accessories, as can be seen from the list above, it comes with a ton of stuff. I've used the pik pocket and the tounge cleaner and the brush, and they all seem to be...less than useful. Perhaps I just like the high pressure feel of the regular pik, after two weeks, I'm on pressure setting 6, and can use 10 if I want to, but the rest of the accessories seems more interested in diffusing the water so that it floods rather than pulses. It just doesn't feel as clean after I used the pik, and the brush, as I mentioned above is useless. Stick to your automated toothbrushes folks!

The other nice side effect of using the Waterpik thus far is the feel that it gives you a gum massage.

Research has also proven that the Waterpik does do the job. Note that it does read like a Waterpik commercial, but I could detect no real bias as others are mentioned and the reason for the seeming Waterpik bias is because they've been on the market forever.

In short, if your oral care is less than ideal and you feel like you could spend less pain at the dentist, I highly encourage you pick up a Waterpik. Even if it breaks like some reviewers on Amazon states a year into it, it'll still be less than the price of an extra cleaning at the dentist! I go 4 times a year and pay 70 dollars each time out of pocket for the 2 extra cleanings, so spending 50 dollars more a year to improve my dental hygiene? Its a no brainer!

Highly recommended product, based on the research and my personal experience so far.

Wolfrathausen/Schielersee/Holzkirchen

 



It was a beautiful day, so we rushed out to the S-Bahn to catch the train to Wolfrathausen with barely seconds to spare. Leaving the train station, we immediately headed East, following the route I once found to Holzkirchen, but ignoring a detour that had gotten us lost and making very good time. The weather was really nice, giving us nice views of crepuscular beams coming through the trees, and gentle mist rising from the ground (it had rained the day before) giving the impression that the ground was smoking.

We rode past Wolfrahausen and immediately followed the route I had used before to Scheliersee, this time paying close attention to where I had gotten lost before --- it turned out that the GPS signaled for a left turn where there was no road! This was the first time I'd found a bug in the Garmin Mapsource, so it was truely unique. The tour this time involved a lot less dirt (in fact, no dirt at all), and as we approached Scheliersee, we started looking for places to eat. After a few false turns we made it to Scheliersee where the tourist information office was open on a Sunday, of all things!

The woman in the office (who spoke no English, but fortunately my German is decent enough) directed us to a Biergarten, where we ordered half a roasted chicken, a shrimp salad, and pork chops, and ate it all down. Mike & Roberto made quick work of their beers but as usual I couldn't even finish my Radler (which is only half alcoholic). We debated doing maybe an extra ride up to a higher lake, but looking at how much more riding we had to do, we decided against it.

Riding back along the ridge I had planned before, I was impressed at how pretty it was, even though most of the wildflowers were gone. There was a bit of annoying traffic here and there, but whenever I spotted a turnoff we found something good to ride on, and there was enough bike paths for many of the really bad sections. We made our way past Seehamer See, and then went on to see the town of Valley, at the bottom of a 24% grade. We made it into Holzkirchen around 4:00pm, with enough time to eat a lot of ice cream and catch the train back to Solln at 5:02pm.

Not bad for 70miles and 4192 feet of climb.
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Friday, August 22, 2008

Panoromic Photos from Rosenlaui







Phil has put together a bunch of panoramic photos from our tour of Rosenlaui. To get the full impact, click through, and select "Download Photo". Be impressed. He said that these pictures were constructed using Hugins

Review: Soul, by Tobsha Learner

Soul was one of Tor's giveaways. The novel revolves around Julia Huntington, a geneticist/researcher who comes home from trying circumstances in Afghanistan to find that her husband has run away with her best friend. Since her research is into genetics, she tries to figure out whether or not there's a gene for violence --- i.e., whether there are folks who can kill without regrets or post-traumatic stress disorders.

The parallel narrative of the story is about Lavinia Huntington, one of Julia's ancestors who was accused and convicted of the murder of her husband. We learn of her marriage, her son, and the circumstances which lead up to her husband's death.

The theme here is that of biology is destiny. We wonder whether or not Julia will end up murdering her ex-husband in a fit of anger, and the author deliberately tries to draw parallels between the two genetically linked women. The message seems to be that we shouldn't do such research (which is hogwash), and that we do have free will. Any serious study of genetics however, will reveal that genes definitely don't for instance, lead you to murder someone, so I think either the author didn't understand his research, or just wanted to write a morality play, which unfortunately is awfully heavy-handed and obvious.

Not recommended.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Review: To Home and Ehvenor

Home and Ehvenor (DRM-free kindle-compatible edition) is the third in the series of Joel Rosenberg's transplanted D&D players story-line.

Since the last viewpoint character was dead, we now have a new viewpoint character in the form of Walter Slovotsky, the party's Rogue (or thief, in OD&D vernacular). The plot this time revolves around two issues --- a rift in reality that the main characters have to track down, and a raider from their own side gone rogue. The first novel in this omnibus deals with the first. This one could have been a great fantasy story --- the twists in time, and the party figuring out what's going on could have been great. But Rosenberg fools around with showing us how smart Slovotsky is, and then has one of the characters Deus Ex Machinas the ending and figures everything out without actually providing any revelation as to the nature of his world's reality to the reader. That's a bummer.

The second half of the omnibus is even worse --- it's like a bad D&D campaign where the DM has run out of ideas and decides that a side-quest is what the party needs. Well, this particular side-quest is so boring and pointless, I don't see how a reasonable PC wouldn't say, "Screw this, it's not my problem!" Finishing the book was a chore, and I only did it because it snowed in Rosenlaui. Not at all recommended.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Trip Report: Rosenlaui

Rosenlaui


When I first accepted my Munich assignment, I sort of had this vision that I'd get a nice big apartment, and I'd have plenty of friends come to visit. To my surprise, all through the best travel season (June, July, etc), I had no visitors. Then this past week, Phil Sung, my former intern arrived for a visit. Apparently, when he asked me for suggestions 6 months ago, I mentioned Rosenlaui, and Phil was kind enough to get reservations for him and me. I've visited Rosenlaui 3 times now, on all previous tour of the Alps, but each time was for one night each, and being on a bicycle tour, we just rode through.

We decided to drive up, instead of taking the train. This theoretically would take us less time, and give us more flexibility, and cost less. In practice, with better planning we could have saved some time and money, but we would have had to give up a wonderful meal at the Lammi restaurant, and I guess that's worth a little bit of money.

The drive was interesting, and I got to ues my GPS' navigation function --- interestingly enough, this was the first time I compared it head to head against Google Maps, and found that the Garmin City Navigator NT was quite a bit better --- every time the two disagreed, Garmin's directions were much more likely to follow the "official designated route" as shown by the highway authorities.

We arrived at the Lammi Restaurant at 1:00pm, and had the wonderful home made brat-wurst with Noodles. This is the place that made all other sausages (yes, even many German sausages) a disappointment, and we thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful meal and ordered ice cream after wards to top it off. We then headed up Grosse Scheidegg, stopping at the Hotel Zwirgi to have a quick peek at the famous Reichenbach Falls. The road was narrow and winding and I remembered why I enjoyed climbing it so much on the bike --- it's too narrow for there to be a lot of traffic, and what traffic there was had to go slow because of the Post Bus (which has right of way), and the scenery.

We got to Rosenlaui around 3:00pm, and checked in with Christine. After putting in everything we brought with us into the tourist room, we decided to take advantage of the good weather and go for a hike. We initially started out down the Valley to Kalterbrunnen, where we picked up the trail to Hohbam. Once we got there, we discovered we had enough time to make the hike more extensive, and chose to go all the way to Engelthornehutte at 1901m. We got there around 6:00pm, and headed down the hill, along glaciers and beautiful rock gardens. The descent was a little challenging, and we wished we hadn't left the hiking sticks in the car. We got back to the Hotel at 7:30pm, just in time for the nightly 4 course dinner.

The next morning was gray and cloudy, and after a quick breakfast, we headed down the hill in a drizzle to see Lauterbrunnen. I was just there in July, but figured Phil should have a chance to see the touristy sights as well, since he was quite worn out from the day before. We saw the Staubbach Falls, the Trummelbach Falls, and walked around Stechelberg, but the rain kept coming down. We didn't manage to make the Lammi for lunch, but stopped in Meiringen to see the bottom of the Riechenbach Falls, and to learn that we would rather see the Gorge at Rosenlaui than the one in Meiringen.

So we went to that one, and enjoyed the gorge, with its underground swirls of water. We liked it so much we did it a second time, and it was just as impressive. Then it was back to the hotel for hot showers to warm up and another glorious 4 course dinner.

Saturday morning looked foggy when I woke up, but when I ran into Andreas he told me to look outside, and sure enough, it was brilliantly clear! I showed Phil how to perform an exposure lock on his camera so we could capture some of the spirit of the moment, then quickly got ready and started out on an ambitious hike. We first headed up the trail on Grosse Scheidegg. I've done this bike ride many times but the hike is prettier --- lots more water exposure, and grand views of the glaciers and open space. At the top, I asked Phil what he would rather do, take the Post Bus to Grindelwald to catch the Jungfrau Bahn, or keep going on the hike. He chose the hike, and we paused at the summit to look at the amazing scenery right in front of us --- fresh snow had capped all the local summits (including the Eiger and the Jungfrau), and everything looked so clean and white it was blinding.

On the bike, I always just descended to Grindelwald, but I'd always wondered where the hiking trail went. It looked like it went quite a bit higher, and I turned out to be right. It headed up to 2000m, where you could split and head over to First (2200m), or back down to Rosenlaui Valley. The Rosenlaui Map indicated that the route might be a little challenging, so I offered to Phil my opinion that it was better to delay First for a future visit and just do the Hornseeli Trail.

Sure enough, the trail started heading upwards after a short descent, and the going got steep. Right after a corner, we saw that not only did it get steep, it got muddy. I should have switched back to hiking boots then, but I stubbornly thought that it would get better at the lake. Well, the lake was pretty, but had too many cows visiting it recently, so there I finally gave in and put on hiking boots to stomp through the mud and water. Phil, unfortunately was not as well equip, and after a while gave up and switched to sandals.

The scenery was gorgeous. To one side, fall after fall could be seen. To another, streams cascaded down right into the trail. Ahead of us was beautiful farmland where a river ran through it. All this was framed by gleaming white peaks, with strands of clouds and fog hanging in the air, lending our mountains an air of mystery. I could have cried, for it was all so precious.

At the bottom of the hill, Phil took some time to wash his feet, and I switched back to running shoes and fresh socks. We looked around and were amazed at the landscape before us. Unfortunately, at this point, Phil's camera battery chose to give up the ghost --- heart stricken by all the physical beauty before us, no doubt. Well, we kept going down the Romantik Weg (Romantic Way). At this point, we had choices between longer routes or shorter routes, but Phil's knee was starting to hurt so we picked the easy route to Schwarzalp, stopped there for ice cream and to buy some alpine cheese, and then headed back to Rosenlaui, where hot showers and another fabulous meal awaited us.

Sunday wasn't as pretty --- the snows were almost all gone, and it started to drizzle an hour into a 2 hour walk we had saved for ourselves. So we bundled ourselves reluctantly into the car, and headed back to Munich, vowing that we would find a way to come back to this hauntingly beautiful place.

Take note: Rosenlaui has no TV, no internet access, no cell phone coverage, and no running water in its rooms. Our room had no electrical outlet but Christine told us it was an anamoly. Don't go there expecting a modern resort. Do expect a fabulous fixed menu dinner for an amazing price, and excellent hiking. Next time I do a bike tour there, I'll be staying for more than one night --- it's too nice not to!

Rosenlaui comes highly recommended. You won't find it in most of the guidebooks about the area, and you will need reservations if you're going to be there during the weekend. By its very nature, it will not draw too many tourists, but if you're the adventurous type, go there for a week. You won't regret it.

P.S. Phil found some photo stitching software and applied that wizardry to one of the pictures:

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Another Rosenlaui Picture

 


Couldn't resist. Look at it and be jealous.
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Back from Rosenlaui

 


Just got back from Rosenlaui. It was gorgeous. Full trip report to come later.
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Monday, August 11, 2008

The True Cost of Cheap Parts

I was recently in a debate on a mailing list about using cheap standard hubs versus low-maintenance hubs like the Phil Wood. Most people take into consideration only the up front costs, and the pain that ensues, rather than the total cost of ownership. Here are two models for modeling that:

The resale model:
In 1993, I bought a pair of Phil Woods for $120. 13 years later, I sold the pair for $110. The expensive hubs cost $10 over 13 years. No matter how cheap the Deore LX hubs are, you can't beat the resale value of the expensive hubs.

The TCO model:
A typical hub overhaul costs about 30 minutes per hub. Let's say it costs you $15 per overhaul (valuing your time at about $30 an hour at half an hour per overhaul, and ignoring the cost of grease, cleaner and ball bearings). Let's say an overhaul happens every 5000 miles. I can get Phil Wood hubs for about $450 a pair. Since we're talking about a pair of hubs here, that's $30 every 5000 miles. At that rate, it'll take 75000 miles before the Phil Woods are cheaper from a Total Cost of Ownership perspective. Every mile after that, the Phils are saving you money. Over a total life time of around 300,000 miles (which is what Jobst reports for his ball bearing hubs), the Phils will save you about $1350 in maintenance costs. And then don't forget to add in the money you spent buying the special cone wrenches, and the additional time you need to preload the bearings, and the Phil wins even more.

Most people who make enough money to have multiple bikes or to be able to buy a nice bike value their time more than $15 an hour (and most people do have to pay something for ball bearings --- the cheapest place I found on ebay sold DuraAce/Record quality ball bearings for about $10/100, grease, and cleaners), so do the math for yourself as to whether using cheap hubs actually save you money.

Over and over again, I've learnt over the years that cheaping out on outdoor equipment is just not worth it. In the long run, you'll pay more for the cheap stuff than for the expensive goodies that come with lifetime warranties.

The Security Boondoggle

I've been having to think about security at work recently (never something good for my mood), and despite rarely wanting to blog about Computer Science, I ran into something too funny and endemic of typical security issues that I'll break the rule this time.

First, I read the MIT presentation about subway hacking, which is in itself hilarious funny and very much worth a read. Go ahead and read it and then come back --- the rest of this post assumes that you have.

Well, I happen to know people who used to work on that kind of transportation security system, so I sent them e-mail to tease them about the security work. Here's a response (names and details redacted):
[they hired] a security guy who guards all the encryption code zealously. I mean.. he was quite the nazi and because of his position, he let's people know it. Everyone who wanted to work on the encryption code for XXX subways had to go through him.

One day, the worse programmer I ever know (although he claimed he invented the keyboard) was assigned to debug an issue on the fare cards and encryption god was out of town. Well, he basically reversed engineered the encryption code by manually trying everything until it worked. Took him a week but he did it. That scared the shit out of XXX because he was quite possibly a sanitation engineer who pretended to type on the keyboard.

Anyway, these MIT kids need to take a lesson from some of those tricksters in XXX. The most creative ones know exactly where to crease a magnetic stripe so that the fare card will give unlimited rides. This is without the benefit of any technology. Another one would manually tape several cards over each other to create a super ride card. Of course, there are the ones that just brings a gun and a bat and just shoot the machine until they can get in. Those ones are much less creative.


That description of the security Nazi unfortunately matches my experiences with computer systems in general --- when systems designers think about security, they immediately think of complex crypto system, encrypting everything everywhere, and in general making life difficult for the legitimate user. In reality, most security attacks work on the weakest link --- the social engineering approach, or the physical system. So your most valuable security people isn't the guy with the PhD in cryptography, but your UI designers and engineers. If you make a system so painful to use because of security, then users will actively find a way to defeat it. (For instance, if I buy a computer game, I usually end up finding a pirated version anyway and installing it because the user experience is better!)

A few years ago, Eric Rescorla gave a talk at Google entitled The Internet is Already Too Secure. It was a great talk, and it makes the very important point that it's too easy to get academic respectability for designing and implementing complex crypto systems for security. What's really hard is designing easy to use systems that users will adopt and achieve widespread adoption and success (like ssh), with good-enough security that the rest of the system is the weakest link. But whenever I talk to security experts that's never what I hear. It's always about making life hard for the legitimate user!

Consider this story about two payment systems: one system was much cheaper than the other, but required additional input from the user to verify security. The other system was much more expensive, but required no work from the user to use, and hence was much less secure. Both systems were widely available at all point of sales. The higher security system had next to no fraud. But the lower security, more expensive system was much more popular. The maker of the lower security system made so much more money than the other system that it more than paid for reimbursing merchants for fraudulent use. In case you haven't figured it out, the lower security system is the Visa/Mastercard payment system, and the higher security system is the pin-required debit card system. Convenience, and making things easy for the legitimate user should trump all security concerns --- if that's not in your design goal, you've already screwed up big time and it doesn't matter how much security you put in --- commercial success will be out of your reach, so you'll never have any security problems to worry about.

And for those who are wondering, the Munich MVV system uses the least secure method of all --- the honor system. Until you get caught a few times, it's actually cheaper not to navigate the difficult-to-use ticket system. In the time I've been in Munich, I've only been checked once (yes, I had a ticket when I was checked) --- but the system still works (when the ticket inspectors came through, not one person on my incredibly crowded train was a cheater). My guess is, going with a more complex security model would have cost the MVV money, rather than save them any. In that sense, more security is just a tax on legitimate user, rather than helping anyone at all.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Walchensee Loop

Walchensee Loop


After rather successfully killing myself last week, I decided to take it a bit easier this week, so when Radina told me that she was going to head out from Wolfrathausen to Walchensee, I agred to join her. The morning was cool, so I started with arm warmers and knee warmers. It also helped that we started out on the Isar Radweg, which while mostly unpaved, was also very well shaded (so much so that the trail was still muddy from yesterday's rains --- yuck!).

Soon, the trail gave us two choices, an 16km ride to Bad Tolz, or a 10km ride to Bad Tolz. Well, mama didn't raise no dummy, so I chose the 10km ride, which turned out to make the distance shorter by climbing a hill. That was fine by me, though on dirt, the climb was a bit difficult --- I had mounted 700x28mm tires the day before, however, so I was quite pleased that I had done so.

The day shaped up to be pretty warm, and by the top of the hill, I decided to shed my leg and arm warmers and put on sun screen. The short descent down the hill wasn't very fun, but a few rollers later, we were dumped out onto smooth asphalt and a fantastic descent. A few jiggles of the road, and we were finally on the bike path into Bad Tolz. I had previously only ridden into Bad Tolz from the South, and coming from the North was quite different --- you hit a lake to your left and a river, and the view of Bad Tolz from the bike path is quite impressive.

We then followed the Isar bike path again, something I had never done before. Somewhere in the vicinity of Lengries, however, the bike path crosses the river, and not wanting to do so, we stayed on the West side of the river and got onto the road. From here, it was a straight shot up the Jachen river into the Walchensee. I had first ridden this road from the opposite direction in April, and at that time there was a strong wind headed this way, making the descent not much fun. The climb was so gentle that I hardly felt it at all, and certainly didn't think much of it until we got close to the Walchensee.

At the Walchensee, I spotted the bike path which I didn't realize existed the last time I had been there. Well, Radina wanted some pictures, and this was a good place for lunch anyway, so we rode down to the closest beach, ate lunch, took pictures, and then got going again. The bike path was unpaved, of course, but crowded nonetheless. At one point the bike path goes up the hill while the walking path goes along the lake. That reduced the traffic some but as soon as the climb was over and the road became paved again the place became crowded.

Wind-surfers dotted the lake like bees around a field of flowers. Sunbathers, swimmers, and rubber rafts paid court to the rocky beaches. It hadn't been nearly as crowded the last time I rode here, so summer must have arrived! After a bit of contemplation we immediately rode to the end of the road and turned right. I remembered this road from our hike a month back. The traffic was annoying as I remembered but no buses passed us. The climb, fortunately was short and not steep at all, and the descent down into Kochel was fun!

When the road flattened out, however, the traffic was not so fun. I proposed following a route I had planned, but Radinaa took a look at the climb I was proposing and would have none of it. So we tooled around along the flatlands, taking the direct route back to Wolfrathausen, where we had ice cream before getting onto the train.

Not bad for 820m, and a thoroughly nice day.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Review: Steel Beach

Reporter Hildy Johnson has a problem: He keeps trying to kill himself. Each time he does, so, however, he is rescued by Luna City's central computer, in complete violation of his civil rights.

When I first read this book in 1994, I thought it was a great novel --- it covered all the interesting parts of science fiction --- a world in which humans had been evicted from the planet by an alien species to save the whales, a world in which humans change gender just as easily as they can change clothes, and a world where the central computer (CC) is so integral to humanity's day to day life that it was impossible to do without it.

Unfortunately, this is one of those books that don't seem to hold up to repeated reading. The libertarian creed that seems to be continuously tossed at you is really annoying, and the much of the plot is pointless --- with human life being effectively immortal, Varley seems to think we would spend our time gossiping about celebrities, getting drunk, or engage in historic re-enactments. (OK, perhaps as a D&D player I shouldn't laugh at the latter)

The plot is rambling, and the narrator is narcissistic and shallow. The world is nicely realized at first glance, but on second read through one realizes that the technology is never described, is highly implausible, and the null-suit, for instance is definitely a deus ex machina, an instance where the writer basically wrote himself into a corner and set it all up so his heroine can survive long enough to tell the story.

All the while reading this story, I tried to remember what about it that I loved so much. I think the big one is when the narrator changes gender as casually as he changed a wardrobe. It's an interesting point of divergence from other science fiction, and it was great to see Varley put subtle changes into the character's narrative to the point where you forget that the character used to be male and start thinking of her as she. I'm afraid, however, that just one writing trick does not make an entire novel worthy.

I didn't feel like I wasted time reading this book, so it comes recommended. I'm just disappointed because I expected to come back to this book enthusiastic and raving about it but ended up not liking it as much as I remembered.

Holzkirchen Loop Ride

It rained last night, and it rained this morning, but I saw what I thought was a patch of clearing around noon and decided that what the heck, I'd paid for an IsarCard this month, I might as well get my money's worth. I caught the 12:44 train to Solln, and there switched to the fast train to Holzkirchen, getting there in 20 minutes. During the train switch, however, I got caught in a heavy down pour, and started wondering whether I had made the right decision.

By the time I got to Holzkirchen, the weather didn't look nicer, with ominous clouds in the sky, but at least it wasn't raining --- as I rolled out of Holzkirchen, I felt a few drops here and there, but nothing serious. The roads were wet though! I'd picked out what I thought was an interesting loop this time, and sure enough, it was interesting --- in 35 miles I'd climbed about 2500', which is quite reasonable for the area.

The climbing wasn't a big deal, though --- it was the headwind. A strong South West wind blew, so I was getting either a headwind from the South, or a headwind from the East the entire ride. The ride was pretty, but I couldn't see much --- hopefully, tomorrow's ride will yield nice pictures of the alps.
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Review: The Munich/Paris Night Train

There's nothing so romantic as the idea of a night train. Get onto one of the night trains at 9:00pm in Munich at night, wake up in Paris the next morning at 6:00am. Coming back from Paris to Munich, it's 11pm to 9am. The cost is about 75 Euros each way per person, which compares unfavorably with the 93 Euros round trip on the plane. One would think that given the cost of fuel, and the carbon footprint of the train versus the plane, the train should be cheaper, but while Airlines in Europe are largely deregulated now, trains are still National Monopolies, and so are still priced that way. Naturally, if you're only on it one way, it's cheaper to take the train, and there are student specials that can get the price down to about 50 Euros each way if you're a student, etc.

Each cabin in second class has 6 bunks, dormitory style, stacked on top of one another. There's barely any room for luggage --- there's a rail on the top, and there's room below. I'm 5' 10", and the beds are just about an inch too short when I stretch out. Fortunately, I sleep in a fetal position anyway, so the roominess is not an issue.

Bring ear plugs --- not only is the train not as quiet as the regular trains, the chances are that you're sharing with 5 other folks on the train, and if any of them are men (or if you're unlucky and end up in a compartment with me), then one of them will snore. Lisa didn't sleep well at all on our trip. I, on the other hand, slept very well and didn't have any issues at all.

The cabin is tight and crowded, so other than reading and sleeping, don't expect to get much done. There does seem to be an unusual number of beautiful young ladies on our trip from Paris back to Munich, so perhaps if you're a single guy there's appeal there.

All in all, the experience isn't particularly romantic, so if I were to be asked to recommend a way to get from Munich to Paris or vice-versa, I'd tell folks to fly. Oh yes, and you have to book in advance. Don't expect the prices I quoted to be available if you're booking last minute.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Commuting

I had the fortune of riding with Grant Petersen back in 1993, after an introduction by Eric House, whom Rivendell sponsored. We met him for one of his commute rides, and I was jealous. He got to ride Pinehurst road, a beauty, take a zig zag through the regional parks near Berkeley, and then emerge into San Leandro for a 20 mile ride, of which 10 miles was off road.

I now have a commute to be jealous of, with even more terrain variety. On my commute I have about 5km of dirt, 30m of cobbles, 3 bridge crossings, 1 long tunnel, and 2km (if that) of city riding. Most of it is along the Isar river, so there are no traffic lights, or any traffic whatsoever. There's even a major descent and climb (of about 50-100m or so), of reasonable steepness to keep me in shape. In the evening on good weather days, the bike path fills with people --- picnics along the river, informal parties, or people just out riding, enjoying the weather. Once in a while, I even get the sound of a clanking clunker being pedaled like a maniac by a strong German woman trying to get somewhere in a hurry, passing me at speed despite her bike's constant protests. It is very funny to watch, and always puts a big grin on my face. You can't make this stuff up!

There is a penalty for this --- my first 2 weeks, I had 4 flat tires. To show that it wasn't just because I run thinner tires than most Germans would, there was one day when 3 mountain bikers and I were by the side of the bike path fixing flats. One even had to beg a couple of patches from me. It turns out that a favored past-time of Germans is sitting under the overhead crossings on the bike paths at night, drinking beer from beer bottles, and then smashing the bottles onto the bike path. One bridge, the Thaikirche bridge, is particularly bad in this regard, and I've learned to either bypass it, or to stop, and carry my bike 10 meters before riding it again (it's faster than fixing a flat tire) --- it's good for cycle-cross training.

But all in all, I'm happy with this commute --- even in the rain, there's not a day when riding next to the river doesn't make me feel like I'm touring, rather than commuting to work. I could take the train to work if it rains, but these memories are going to stay with me long after I leave Munich. Cycling is such an essential part of life here (even the intern at the office who hates cycling cycles to work), I don't know how Americans who live here without participating in the sport can consider that they've experienced the culture.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Is housing a good investment?

I was recently on an email thread where people were talking about housing as an investment.  In response to an assertion that housing has historically returned less than the S&P 500, someone asked, "Are you counting the rent that you aren't paying?"  My answer:

Yes.

House prices nationwide (sorry for the US-bias, but I don't have data for international markets) have very poor inflation-adjusted returns. Shiller (of the Case-Shiller house price indices) showed that house prices appreciated by 0.4% a year after inflation, from 1870-2004.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_housing_bubble

If you buy a house, you don't pay rent.  But instead, you either pay for your mortgage interest, or you lose out on the return you could have had if your house were invested in stocks.  Assume that you're paying your mortgage interest.  At a 6% mortgage rate, you're paying .5% of your house price a month in mortgage.  People don't call it rent, but that's exactly what you're doing -- renting money to "own" the house so that you can live in it.  Even at the highest tax brackets and the mortgage deduction (call it ~40%) that's still .3% of the house price a month in mortgage costs.  Historically, house prices and rents have moved together (and there's good reason for them to -- if house prices rise relative to rents, people will choose to rent, driving up rents and driving down house prices).  That ratio (house price to yearly rent) has been about 21 or so.  When that ratio goes higher, houses are expensive and renting is cheap.  When it goes lower, renting is expensive.

http://www.frbsf.org/news/speeches/2008/charts.pdf, page 20.

So if your house is $X, and you're paying .3% (after taxes) a month in mortgage "rent", that's .036X a year in mortgage "rent".  The inverse of that, 27.8, is the price to rent ratio.  But remember that that simple calculation ignores costs of ownership -- property taxes (add 1% of X yearly), maintenance (another 1% ish), and so forth.  You get to the point where the cost of home ownership is very similar to the cost of renting.  Add .6% for property taxes (after the tax deduction), 1% for maintenance (no tax deduction there!), and you're paying .052X a year to own the house.  That's a price to rent of about 19.2.  With an historical ratio of about 21, you could have rented an equivalent apartment (or house) for less money.  Suddenly renting looks like the better deal.  The point here is that owning a home, by way of a mortgage, is expensive.

Choose instead to pay cash for the house so there is no mortgage.  (We can all dream.)  Now, instead you're losing out on the possibility of investing that money.  If your house is $X, you lose out on the risk-free rate times X.  Right now, that's the t-bill rate of about 1.52%, or almost 1% after taxes (no state taxes on treasuries).  (I note here for completeness that this is an historically low rate.)  You still have to pay property taxes and maintenance (1.6% after taxes).  Now, you're paying .026X a year to own the house, for a price to rent of about 38.  Wow, ownership looks great!

Of course, you could have taken that money and invested it in something slightly riskier, like a diversified stock+bond portfolio, making something like 7% a year.  (And that's certainly a more liquid asset than a house!)  There will be up and down years, but say long-term you can make 7% a year.  You have to pay taxes, so let's generously (from a "woohoo housing" perspective) assume it's all taxed as income at your marginal tax rate.  That's 4.2% after taxes.  Add in property taxes and maintenance, that's 5.8% after taxes.  Ouch.  Price to rent is just 17.2.

We haven't even considered the transaction costs of home ownership.  For starters, you pay 6% to a realtor just to move, which you have to remember to subtract from your returns.  There's the cost of applying for the mortgage, ...

In short, home ownership isn't a good deal.  There are certainly regions of the US where it *has* been a good deal in the past.  However, the main reason people make money on home ownership is because of their leveraged investment by way of a mortgage.  If you want leverage, start stocking up on S&P 500 futures or something.

If you want a nice place to live in, buy a home.  :)

Breaking News: Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund just became more tax efficient

One of the reasons why folks like Bernstein recommend holding the components of the Total International Index Fund rather than the fund itself is that the Total International Index Fund is not tax efficient.

Well, that just changed! The fund is now going to carry half its portfolio directly in stocks, rather than as just the components of the other funds. This releases 50% of the foreign tax credit, which should help considerably with tax efficiency. How much does it help? My guess is that the 50% of the portfolio that's going directly to stocks is the largest 50% by market cap, and those tend to be the high dividend ones. But I'm not as familiar as international situations, so I don't know how that will go.

In any case, this is very good news, and reduces my desire to switch to the FTSE-all world Index, for instance, quite considerably.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Review: Tarzan of the Apes

One of the big attractions of the Kindle is the ability to load it up with old goodies for free or a nominal price. An early one was Tarzan (Kindle Edition)

Perhaps the sad thing about reading old books is that you'll never approach the innocence you had when you first read them as a child. For instance, as a child, I never noticed how much a product of his times Edgar Rice Burroughs was. He was racist, convinced of the superiority of the white race in every way. He was sexist, with the women in the stories only concerned about marriage, and constantly either saying that they were glad to have a man around or being told not to worry their pretty heads.

But the main character, of course, is Tarzan, and Tarzan is every bit as much of a super-hero as Batman or Superman is --- intelligent, strong, mobile, and possessed of incredible strength of character (despite his upbringing), Burroughs infused him with every bit of idealism he could find. In many ways, this original Tarzan is primal, skilled, and shy in a way that later renditions never managed.

All in all, I enjoyed the read, but fear reading the sequels, since the overt racism and sexism is quite a bit off-putting. Nevertheless, this is the original Tarzan!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Erding Radmarathon (not quite a century)



I woke up at 5, ate a piece of bread, and hurried out to the S-Bahn to catch the 5:24 train to Erding. This would be my first almost-century in Germany, so I didn't know what to expect from a German century. The first thing was that it's cheap: 8 Euros for the 154km ride. The second thing was that there's no SAG support --- unlike American centuries, the concept of having cars drive the route to help you in case you're in trouble would drive the cost up and be too environmentally unfriendly for a bike ride. Third, Californian centuries put chalk marks on the road to indicate the route, but here in Germany with narrow roads and frequent rains, the chalk would be washed away too quickly. Instead, the markers are arrows placed at intersection at about eye level. Overall, the placement was good --- there was only one marker I saw that was partially behind a bush.

The weather was warm, so much so that at 7:00am, before the start, I put on sunscreen and had taken off my leg warmers and arm warmers and put them in my saddlebag. When I first saw the route it seemed a bit flat, and indeed, I never had to put the bike into the granny the entire ride. However, it was very windy, so much so that when a paceline passed me, I hopped on it to get a bit of shelter. The paceline was going at 45kph, however, so after about 10 km I was forced to drop back. Fortunately, we were but 10km from the first checkpoint. We were all given little cards at the start of the ride, and at the first checkpoint and I found out why at the first checkpoint --- you're supposed to get them stamped. At the first checkpoint, I found the usual cycling food --- bananas, power drink, cakes, bread, but no porta-porties. Instead, cyclists would cross the road to use the bushes. (I didn't see too many women cyclists, so I don't know what they did)

The first checkpoint was at 45km, and it wasn't even 8:15 when I arrived. When I left, 5 minutes later a pack of riders passed me at what I thought was an acceptable speed, so I asked permission to join them and got an "of course." The group soon broke up and I found myself riding with a husband and wife team. The man worked for a pharmaceutical company, and was so strong that whenever we went up hills he wouldn't slow down at all, until his wife dropped back and he had to wait for her. At about 80km, however, I realized that I had made a mistake --- I was suddenly very tired, having burned all my matches for the day. I let them go ahead, and fortunately, the next checkpoint was at 90km. I suffered a painful cramp on the way there, but a sip of power drink and eating all my endurolytes made the problem go away, and it didn't recur.

I took a little longer this time, stretching myself, and drinking lots of power drink. But the feeling of tiredness didn't go away, and so I kept going. I felt really slow now, going around 20kph. I tried to hop on to a few pacelines here and there, but couldn't stay on them for very long at all. The bucolic scenery that had looked so pretty earlier today started to bore me, and the skies had become cloudy. And the wind was a constant annoyance.

Fortunately, the last checkpoint was at 124km. This was the most German of the checkpoints, since it served beer! I rested here for about 15 minutes and then went on, hoping the last 30km wouldn't be too painful. I went up the hills slowly and coasted down them as quickly as I could, but unfortunately, most descents ended with a sharp turn or a road intersection, which gave me no run-out. During the last 10km, the wind had gotten so strong that to add insult to injury, I had to pedal down the hills as well.

I arrived at the start/finish at 2:15, making it the fastest century I had still completed to date, but with about half the climbing I usually do for centuries, and feeling much worse than I usually do at the end of one. Nevertheless, at 96 miles and 1610m, it gave me a baseline for how out of shape I am this year --- too much flat riding has definitely taken its toll on me.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Review: The Last Unicorn

After reading the short story Two Hearts in The Best of the Year 2006, I had to go back and read The Last Unicorn again.

The story, for those who don't know, is that the Unicorn discovers that she's the last of her kind, and wanders of in search of what has happened to the rest of her kind. In between, she meets a hapless magician Schmendrick, a cynical woman who'd given up her dreams to live with outlaws called Molly Grue, and faces the dreaded Red Bull, who'd chased away the others of her kind.

The story is funny, full of songs and poetry (though perhaps not as well written as that famous fantasy trilogy), and filled with anachronisms, jumbling up the world of today, the world of yesterday, and the world of fantasy. Yet Beagle's use of language is so astute, so well controlled that we believe every word and let it guide us to its logical conclusion --- for though the Unicorn does fulfill her quest, it is not without cost, and unlike many other fairy tales, everything does not work out in the end.

A lovely, short read. Highly recommended. Heck, if you've read it before but it had been a while ago, pick it up and read it again!

Friday, August 01, 2008

Cultural Differences III: Messages Society Sends

On the way back from our romantic road trip, we sat in a train car with another pair of cyclists. My Kindle battery had drained, and we were in the mood for conversation anyway.

The husband, Hans, was quite an entrepreneur (unusual for Germany), having started several companies, and despite recent retirement, still sat on the boards of several companies. We got to discussing companies, behavior, and I mentioned how difficult it seemed to be to get people to switch jobs.

With the air of a man who was used to making speeches, Hans smiled and said, "What is the value of a life in society? In American society, the value is very clear --- commercial success is how everything is measured. When you look at German society, the messages are more mixed. For instance, when you look at the young people who are at the heart of the environmental movement here in Germany --- they've effected massive changes in German society. Most of them did not gain commercial success by these endeavors, but they were nevertheless very successful in their own way. Here, your friends are mostly defined outside work, and you don't socialize mostly with co-workers, the way Americans and American companies do. When I ran a company, I made sure that new employees were required to spend time on overseas assignment, perhaps a year or two. Many of them grew to enjoy the autonomy you get from being away from the head office."

Obviously, it would be a mistake to say that Hans is representative of his country, any more than I am a representative of mine (it would be very difficult to say which country I would represent, anyway). Yet many of his observations ring true to me. By and large, American society places a high value on individual success, and especially commercial success. While you do get the Ralph Nader or Julia Butterfly Hill, it is not clear that large enough groups of people are motivated sufficiently to join them in effecting large scale changes in American society, the way the environmental movement has done in Germany. Perhaps American society is too fragmented for such cohesive movements to spread. Perhaps race plays too great a role (as Paul Krugman's latest book points out), retarding any progressive movement's success.

Of course, the flip side is also true --- there's no other country that has managed to replicate Silicon Valley, and people like me wouldn't get to make observations like these without the dynamism of the American economy. But perhaps the price of this dynamism is high, and from an individual point of view, income mobility in the US is lower than that of Scandinavian countries, and the same as that of class-conscious Britain.

I doubt if the coming elections will give us a good debate about what kind of society Americans would like to have --- and that's a pity.