Thursday, October 30, 2008

Review:; My Name is Legion

This collection of linked stories is really old Zelazny. It's so old that I don't remember much of the stories except Home is Hangman, which won the Nebula award and has been reprinted so often that you'd be blind not to have read it at some point.

The three stories share the same protagonist, the nameless person who hacked his way out of the central database that now has data on everyone in the world. Unfortunately, unlike most first person narrators that Zelazny has, the narrator is not very compelling. At this point in his career, Zelazny had not developed the snappy, sardonic, sarcastic style that made his later novels such a delight to read.

The first couple of stories depict the nameless protagonist as sort of a trouble-shooter, someone who can slip into a system and figure out what's wrong. What's interesting is that he's not actually a very likable guy --- willing to kill to protect his identity, and really ruthless when it comes to being able to achieve his ends. Both those aspects disappear in the third novella.

All in all, I can't recommend this book --- it's aged enough that you notice all the discrepancies and issues, and Home is Hangman is over-exposed. His later novels definitely show him off in better light.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Review: The Story of the Tour De France (Vol 2)

After the first volume had me mesmerized, that I would buy the second half (kindle edition) was a forgone conclusion.

Here, you have the story of the Merckx days, the semi-tragic story of the Greg Lemond rides, including all the background story behind his fight with Bernard Hinault, the tactical racing-style of Miguel Indurain, and of course the Lance Armstrong years.

Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt, but I found these stories nowhere as compelling as those in the first volume --- part of it was that I knew so much of it already, but also because the story-telling style felt stilted. For instance, the discussion of the Bjarne Riis story did not mention that Riis admitted that he took EPO until well after the description of the race was over. That's perhaps so as not to spoil the reader's enjoyment of the race, so perhaps it's forgivable.

No analysis of bicycle racing would be complete without an essay on doping, and indeed there is one. Basically, once EPO burst onto the scene, the testing technology did not exist, so speeds went up in the races for the next several years after that. The transformation was so sudden that winners from the previous eras would have been has-beens in the era of EPO.

There's also an analysis of why the Tour de France is still the dominant bicycle race, though that one is much more subjective. Finally, the authors deliver their opinion on who the greatest Tour de France was of all time, though I disagree with their selection. All in all, I'm ok with having paid Kindle price for this volume, but found it a much less compelling read than the first one, so I'd only recommend it if you've already read that and want more.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Hollriegelskreuth to Wolfrathausen


Ride to Wolfrathausen

I had a cold all last couple of weeks, so it was only on Sunday that I felt well enough to go for even a short ride down to Wolfrathausen. It was a beautiful warm fall day, and the ride was surprisingly short, but it ended on the beautiful river in Wolfrathausen with gorgeous fall afternoon sun. This will be our last ride on the tandem until I return to Sunnyvale in December.
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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Review: Interzone Magazine (Subscription)

Interzone Magazine (kindle compatible electronic edition) is a British science fiction magazine. Now, if you're a typical "intellectual elite", your typical thinking is that the British version of any magazine is usually better than the American version. For instance, The Economist is better than Newsweek (kindle edition), and Cycling Plus is in a completely different league than Bicycling magazine. (In fact, bike snobs call Bicycling Buy-cycling for the rampant commercialism exhibited in the magazine as parodied in Bike Snob NYC)

The worst thing about British magazines are the expense of getting them. With the advent of electronic editions, however, Interzone is actually affordable ($24/year from Fictionwise, DRM-free), so I took the plunge and subscribed. For the subscription, I got access to PDFs as well as mobi-book editions (for my Kindle). As expected, the PDFs were nice for before I got my Kindle, but once I got the Kindle it was the only way I could see reading an electronic magazine.

Head-to-head comparison with Asimov's Science Fiction (kindle edition) are inevitable. For your money, $34 will net you 10 issues of Asimov's magazine, and each Asimov's has quite a bit more content than the average Interzone issue. What Interzone has in spades, however, are the interviews with Authors like Iain Banks and Greg Egan. Furthermore, I noticed that Greg Egan tends to get published more frequently in Interzone.

How about story quality? With 4 issues under my belt, I'm afraid I have to say that the typical story in Asimov's seems just a bit higher quality. This might just be a taste thing, but I also like the typical story in the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy (DRM-free electronic subscription) as well, so I'm afraid I have to say that Interzone comes up short compared to both the major speculative fiction magazines out there. That said, however, if you like author interviews (and the interviews are OK, not blow-your-mind great), I think Interzone is your only real choice, and at $24, the price is right. (Note: I can get Asimov's for $18 a year on paper, but I am seriously considering the Kindle edition or the DRM-free edition once my paper subscription lapses)

Review: Courageous

Courageous (kindle edition) is Jack Campbell's third book in his lost fleet series. The series is fundamentally an excuse for several 3-dimensional relativity-based fleet battles, and this book does not disappoint.

While the first two books show-case severely one-sided victories on the side of the Protagonist (John Geary a.k.a. "Black Jack" Geary to the rest of the fleet), this novel introduces an enemy that seemed to have learned from the previous defeats. At the same time, Geary seems to have decided that he had done enough running and that the next most unpredictable move would be to head straight home. The result is a series of set-piece battles that are entertaining with regards to time, location, multiple deployed fleets, and of course, 3D topography. Half-way through this book though, I wondered if these concepts might have been better introduced through a video-game with timing controls than through a novels --- I started to consider that Campbell should include diagrams of fleet formations along with his descriptions of the set-piece battles.

The character development is handled as clumsily as is usual for science fiction. Seriously, don't read this book for a good look at character development --- the characters seem to regress to pre-puberty kids as far as that's concerned. Nevertheless, I'm well and sucked in now, so I will buy the next few books like the zombie that I am. Recommended, but perhaps you should read the entire series at your library, eh?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Zugspitze Trip

Zugspitze Trip

It was a beautiful day, so we headed up to the Zugspitze. Lovely fall colors, wonderful clear weather, and views that had to be seen to be believed!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Long Term Review: Kindle

Since Oprah is set to endorse the Kindle, I figure it's also time for me to provide a 6 month review of the Kindle. (See earlier review)

I think there's no doubt whatsoever that the Kindle has affected how much I read. As of today, I've read 71 books in 2008, while in 2007, while for all of 2007, I recorded 44 books So the Kindle has probably doubled my reading rate. What's even more interesting is that it has also skewed my reading. Fiction is easier to come by for free on the Kindle, so I read more of it than non-fiction. Looking again at 2007, more than half my reading was non-fiction, while fiction easily dominates my 2008 reading. Tellingly, graphic novels which are easy to read on paper but impossible to read on the Kindle, got no attention at all in 2008.

All this also ignores all the fiction magazines I bought and read on the Kindle without reviews (I don't review short stories because it would be less work for anyone to read them than to look for a review of one).

I've dropped my Kindle, which chipped one side but has left no other damage, and used it as an MP3 player (only at night, not on the bike) during the Tour Across France, and the Tour's long French meals meant that the Kindle got lots and lots of use. Both my brothers have one each, as does Mike Samuel, and all our Kindles are tied to one account, which means that when one person buys a book, everyone else gets to read it. (Hint: tie your Kindle to a prolific reader's account, and you'll likely never have to buy your own reading material ever again, provided you have similar tastes) I have bought a second battery so I can swap batteries if I were to drain it, for instance, while sailing through Turkey.

Lots of people talk about how eReader on the iPhone or other smart phone is all they need. My response to that is that people who say that aren't avid readers --- the content range on the Kindle is much larger than that available on eReader. Neither The Snowball nor The Story of the Tour de France are available via eReader, not to mention the very worth your time The Trouble with Physics. For whatever reason, got their DRM model right, and I don't anticipate that content gap between the Kindle and the other readers to narrow any time soon. Sony's Reader might be the closest in terms of getting content, but the latter two of the three above mentioned books aren't available on Sony's bookstore either.

All in all, if you like to read, don't think about it --- just buy a Kindle (use promo code OPRAHWINFREY for $50 for the next week). Your eyes will thank you, and you will find yourself doing way more reading than you did before. Best of all, wherever you go, you will be able to read in sips, something recommended by non other than Stephen King himself. No more excuses for not being able to read 4 hours a day!

Review: The Art of the Start

The Art of the Start (kindle edition) is Guy Kawasaki's short book for entrepreneurs.

The important thing to note is that Guy Kawasaki got his start as an evangelist for Apple during the 1990s. He's not an engineer, so his perspective from start-ups is that of a marketing and branding person. That's pretty valuable, but he's not going to tell you how to build product other than to build a good one.

The details are pretty interesting. For instance, in an FAQ, he tells you how much you should pay for a board of director member (0.25-0.5% of the company, 1-2% for a super-star). That kind of important benchmarking is very important for most founders, who make the mistake of not being generous enough to early employees or (rarely) being too generous. It would have been nice to see that kind of stuff in a table somewhere, but I guess if I want to see that, maybe I'll have to write a book.

Overall, this will be a useful book when you've already built a product and want to start selling it or bootstrapping or raising money to launch the company. It won't, however, tell you whether your product is any good, or what kind of company structure you should have. During the Web 2.0 boom, lots of companies launched plenty of web-sites with the idea that if you got users first, the monetization would follow. I'm not sure that's going to work going forward, and I'm glad that Guy Kawasaki points out that both Apple and Microsoft were not venture-funded startups --- they bootstrapped themselves into profitability.

Given how short this book is, it's worth reading, but then again, so's Paul Graham's startup essays. Both have their own biases, and perhaps one of these days, someone will have to write a book to temper the ra-ra startup enthusiasm with a bit of realism. Mildly recommended --- check it out from your library rather than pay Amazon price for it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Review: Flash

L. E. Modesitt's Flash(kindle edition) is set in the near future, where countries have been dissolved and re-created to provide a backdrop where a lot of police (called safety officers) functions have been automated, but where powers of privacy, etc., are so strong that it is almost impossible for the safety officers to gather enough evidence to convict anyone.

Into this setting, meet Dr. Jonat deVrai, a former marine who has turned himself into a product placement consultant, someone who analyzes the effectiveness of a product placement campaign. At the start of the novel, he is commissioned by a well-regarded institute to perform a study on the effectiveness of such techniques in a political campaign. This study leads him to follow 4 political campaigns, but strange things start to happen --- his business starts to boom, and then he starts to get shot at, and threats starts to show.

What's great about the novel is the realism. Jonat deVrai is no hero --- he has nieces to meet, a sister who keeps trying to match-make him, and lots of interruptions that otherwise keep him from doing his job. When he finally has to start defending himself, he starts to do so (as a trained marine would) in such a way as to not interfere with the rest of his life.

The romance in the novel is handled a bit woodenly --- the reader sees it long before the characters do, which perhaps is intentional but does leave you why Jonat is so dense! But the build up to the climax is very well done, and the ending satisfactory --- you don't get the all-loose-ends tied up neatness that some novels have that lead you to wonder if they really wanted to write "and they lived happily ever after" at the end of the book.

Recommended as a dense, interesting read, and I will look for more of L.E. Modesitt's work in the future.

Review: Orphans of Chaos

Orphans of Chaos (kindle edition) starts off deceptively like The Golden Compass or many other such young-adult novels --- a teenage narrator (told very pleasantly in first person by a young and beautiful girl named Amelia) says matter-of-factly that it took her and her friends a while to discover that they weren't really human.

The rest of the novel revolves around the exploration of what these young people really are, and the process by which they find out that the English boarding school that they are in aren't really what it seems. They discover that they have special powers, but interpret them in completely different ways (Amelia sees everything in terms of Einsteinian Physics, but her friend might see the same phenomena as being caused by fairies).

Two things, however, make this not quite the typical young adult novel. First is the prevalence of sexual motives and suggestiveness --- there are several scenes that might have come right out of some fantasy erotica novel, rather than a science fiction or fantasy novel. That's how explicit it gets. Secondly, in young adult novels, the protagonists change and grow. That's pretty much the point of a YA novel. But John C. Wright chose to reset everything at the end of the novel right back to the state that they were in in the beginning. This feels quite a bit like cheating --- unless the next novel resumes and doesn't waste time explaining everything we learned in this one (fat chance of that), it's going to make this novel feel like a wasted novel.

The writing is not bad, competently done, with all the allusions to Greek mythology handled very well and in an intelligent fashion. But the above two problems left me with such a bad taste in my mouth that I cannot think that I will pay money to read the rest of the series. (I got the novel for free during the ebook promotion)

Review: Starfish

Starfish(Creative Commons Licensed electronic editions) is the first in Peter Watt's Rifters series. The novel is set in 2050, when under-water Geothermal power plants have become feasible, and are serving the power needs of a world flooded by the results of excessive fossil fuel consumption.

Now, you can't just put up a power plant and then not provide maintenance, so the authorities put in a crew to keep everything up and running. The problem is, what kind of people would be willing to live 3000m under the surface? The answer: misfits, pedophiles, and other criminals exchanging a work term in exchange for far less desirable consequences of their previous lives.

Peter Watt's web page claims that he's written a really depressing future, but to someone well versed in the actual predictions of what might happen if we keep burning fossil fuels, he looks quite optimistic. After the first half of the book exploring what it's like and what kind of modifications humans would need to live under-water, the book gradually expands to take in the rest of the world, revealing the scientists behind the project, and the sinister aims of the corporation running it.

The characters are wooden, and written in such a way that I could care less about any of them --- at no point did I feel anything resembling an emotional connection to anyone in the novel, and that is the novel's downfall. At the climax, when bad things start to happen really fast and things start to explode, I felt empty, as though everything was happening so far away it didn't matter. Even the action scenes evoked no reaction from me.

I have no intention of reading any of the rest of the series, but since it's all free, you might as well try it and see if you'll like it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Review: Dauntless and Fearless

Since these two books are short, I've chosen to lump them together in one review. Military Science Fiction is a guilty habit of mine, though I am finding over the years that the kind of stuff that Baen Books publishes (like anything by David Weber, David Drake, or Jerry Pournelle) is so right-wing politically that I can't read more than a few pages before giving up in disgust. So it was in trepidation that I bought the first book in the series, Dauntless(kindle edition).

The Lost Fleet series puts us behind the mind of John Geary, a former war hero in the Alliance Fleet that was lost in battle a century ago, only to be recovered from deep sleep just before the Alliance Fleet lost a decisive battle against the Syndic, the corporation-based civilization that does not believe in democracy (Wow, the enemy is not a left-winged socialist civilization? This is a first in Military SF). Through a turn of events, John Geary ends up commanding the remnants of the Fleet, and having to guide it through Syndic space back to the Alliance.

The shtick behind the series (as far as space battles are concerned) is relativity. Even though there's FTL drive, that only works between star systems, not within them, so all battles within the systems are performed through the lens of both time distortion and hour-long waits between contact for the fleets to accelerate and decelerate as they approach their targets. I haven't kept up with my military SF in years, but I think Jack Campbell (aka John Hemry) is the first to deal with relativity as a factor between star-ship combat as a primary factor, and the kind of strategy and tactics that can be brought to bear when time distortion becomes an issue during a battle.

That aside, the other militaristic elements are well-done, right up to logistics, material supplies, and of course, the all important troop morale and dissension amongst the officers of the fleet.

The characters are wooden, however, and the characterization weak at best. The only interesting cultural difference is that the Alliance is apparently an ancestor worshiping culture, which is also new in military science fiction.

Dauntless serves to introduce the characters, the set up, and the relativistic space battles. Fearless (kindle edition) deals with dissension in the ranks, with a competing war hero back from the dead to challenge John Geary.

All in all, this is perfect airplane reading --- easy going, not very challenging material, and not as deep as say, David Feintuch's Midshipman's Hope series. I'll pick up the other books in the series, and review them two at a time. The only serious criticism I have is that the books are so short that they hardly feel worth even the $5.59 Kindle price.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Review: The Trouble with Physics

When I was an undergraduate in Computer Science, my instructors and I would occasionally have lunch and talk about Physics envy. You know, those Physics people could actually prove theorems and show that their experiments worked, while for us Computer Scientists to argue about Object-Oriented programming versus Functional programming just felt like kids discussing which flavor of ice-cream was better. While civil engineers could plug in equations and build bridges, the best software engineers build gossamer-like strands of code that support computing structures far better than any theory of Computer Science could give you, showing you that we don't have any idea how to teach you how to write code, any more than the English department knew how to teach you to be a great novelist.

The Trouble with Physics (Kindle Edition) might very well put an end to future young Computer Scientists having any more Physics envy, which might be a good thing. The first part of the book covers string theory, how it evolved, what problems it tries to solve, and what the major research areas are. I've done some previous reading on the topic, Peter Shor in his review of the book covers the technical part of the book quite well:

String theorists: We've got the Standard Model, and it works great,
but it doesn't include gravity, and it doesn't explain lots of
other stuff, like why all the elementary particles have the masses
they do. We need a new, broader theory.

Nature: Here's a great new theory I can sell you. It combines
quantum field theory and gravity, and there's only one adjustable
parameter in it, so all you have to do is find the right value
of that parameter, and the Standard Model will pop right out.

String theorists: We'll take it.

String theorists (some time later): Wait a minute, Nature,
our new theory won't fit into our driveway. String theory
has ten dimensions, and our driveway only has four.

Nature: I can sell you a Calabi-Yau manifold. These are
really neat gadgets, and they'll fold up string theory into
four dimensions, no problem.

String theorists: We'll take one of those as well, please.

Nature: Happy to help.

String theorists (some time later): Wait a minute, Nature,
there's too many different ways to fold our Calabi-Yao
manifold up. And it keeps trying to come unfolded. And
string theory is only compatible with a negative cosmological
constant, and we own a positive one.

Nature: No problem. Just let me tie this Calabi-Yao manifold
up with some strings and branes, and maybe a little duct tape,
and you'll be all set.

String theorists: But our beautiful new theory is so ugly now!

Nature: Ah! But the Anthropic Principle says that all the
best theories are ugly.

String theorists: It does?

Nature: It does. And once you make it the fashion to be ugly,
you'll ensure that other theories will never beat you in
beauty contests.

String theorists: Hooray! Hooray! Look at our beautiful new theory.

You get the idea. But Smolin's criticism of string theory goes even deeper than that. First of all, the underlying basic assumptions behind string theory are as-yet unproven. Yet the string theory community has not placed an emphasis on working on that critical foundation. Secondly, the theory makes no predictions that can be verified. That's because there are so many free variables in the theory that you can make whatever results you want come out of it. Worse of all, as a result of the dominance of string theory in theoretical physics departments, Physics (according to Smolin) has made no progress in the last twenty years.

How could this happen? And why do the rest of us (who don't get funded by NSF grants) care? At this point, most reviewers wander comfortably into the sunset, but I started getting intrigued, because Smolin's criticism here is a very deep one --- it's not just criticism of Physics and how it gets funded, but of the entire scientific process, and the kind of validation needed for a scientist to get support. This is a fascinating dialogue, and very relevant not just to Physics in general, but in all fields of academic study, but Smolin's criticisms are criticisms of the peer-reviewed promotion and grant system that subjects Physics to these academic fads that can stall progress for decades at a time.

The story goes like this: young scientists get their research agenda set by senior scientists --- that's because in graduate school, they are dependent on not just funding, but on the feedback of their senior advisers who write letters of recommendations to the hiring committees of the universities that will end up hiring (or not hire) them. Senior scientists need people to do work for them, so they tend to select technicians --- people who perfect the math and can do it quickly. In turn, when these technicians get hired, they in turn depend on the peer reviews written for them by senior scientists for their promotion-committees in order to get tenure. This leads to doing work that can be recognized quickly, but also work that is to a large extent less risky --- you're better off working on something that everyone else knows something about than thinking deep thoughts that might potentially revolutionize the field. As a result this leads to the entire field all working on one thing at a time (e.g., string theory), while other important avenues get neglected. It also leads to group-think, since those who reject the current status quo (e.g., folks who don't believe in string theory) find it hard to get hired as scientists, or to get tenure. In particular, Smolin singles out the one feature of the peer-promotion/hiring process that I also dislike, which is the forced ranking of "This scientist is better than that scientist" that's so frequently required --- it almost always leads to a bias towards the fast thinker who is a great technician, away from the deep thinker. (I always rebel against such simplified rankings of persons when I manage people)

The problem with this approach is that it does work quite well during times of normal science, when there's a promising theory and working out its implications are important. But when you need to re-think the underpinnings of Physics, it falls up short, because the kind of people most suited to that kind of work, usually tend not to be great technicians. Albert Einstein is the classic example --- he was not considered particularly bright, and basically could not get a job as a scientist. (He worked at the patent office in Switzerland while thinking up his most famous ideas) Smolin goes on to name several other scientists in the same mold, at least one of which literally quit the field of science for 10 years while he thought deeply and read a lot about the underlying problems for multiple decades before he was recognized as a great thinker on the topic --- and even then he still had a hard time getting hired!

One would think that university administrators, who are very competitive might recognize this problem and realize that unconventional thinkers are relatively cheap, high risk/high reward hires, and hire them, but of course, that's not how it works, since the hiring process at major universities is peer and committee based, as described above. The result is a stale-mate, where string theory might hold sway for several decades until one particularly fine thinker finally writes a ground-breaking paper that revolutionizes the field.

Smolin proposes several ways around this, mostly by making the hierarchy flatter, giving people more scope, and creating more opportunities for high-risk/high-payoff people. What's fascinating is that he thinks that businesses, like high tech companies and venture capitalists have the answer. Coming from the opposite direction, I know for sure that it does not, and in fact, one of the reasons I believe a recent, well-known large tech company was largely so successful mostly because it actively borrowed its hiring and promotion model from academia. Naturally, the jury is still out, and it may be that it takes several centuries for the peer-based hiring and promotions systems to calcify into a system that blocks progress for decades at a time.

Regardless, for providing such provoking food for thought and interesting reading, The Trouble with Physics (Kindle Edition). Even if you hated Physics in school (which I did --- and Lee Smolin did mention the stifling curriculum being one reason why we're getting fewer scientists today), you will find it a great read. highly recommended

Monday, October 20, 2008

Review: The Story of the Tour De France Vol 1

When people talk to me about bike racing (especially during Tour de France season), my response nowadays is: "That kind of bike riding has nothing to do with the kind of bike riding I do!" The list of these differences is plentiful:
  • I don't ride with a follow vehicle with a spare bike.
  • I do all my own repairs!
  • I carry my own lugguage on multi-day trips
  • I don't care whether it is paved or unpaved.
  • I don't take drugs, other than the allergy medications prescribed for me by my doctor

In other words, the current Tour de France setup seems to be from another planet, as far as I'm concerned. Yet this was not always so --- the early races were purer --- you had to finish with the same bike you started with, even when the organization grudgingly allowed you to buy replacement parts:
Stage 14, the penultimate stage, put Scieur to the test. Well into
the day’s 433 kilometers, Scieur’s rear wheel failed with 11 broken
spokes. Tour rules of that time said that if the mechanical failure is
real and no repair possible a rider may replace the broken item. When
Scieur’s wheel broke there were no Tour monitors around to verify his
problem. After replacing the wheel he strapped the broken wheel to his
back and carried it for 300 kilometers to show the officials at the
finish that his need was real. Scars left on his back by the sprocket
remained with him for years. (Kindle Loc. 1436-41 )

Not for these heroes the easy quick wheel swap. As I read my way through this fascinating book (Kindle Edition), I found myself using the highlight feature of the Kindle repeatedly. The sadistic part of me, for instance, loved the story of how Mountain stages got added to the Tour de France:
With 2 months to go to the start of the 1910 Tour, Desgrange sent
Steinès to the Pyrenees to see if indeed, it was practical for the
riders to climb the mountains in the Tour de France. His
reconnaissance trip was very eventful. Ascending the Tourmalet his
car was stopped on the mountain by a snowdrift. Abandoning the car, he
set off on foot and lost his way on the snowy mountain at night. He
finally fell off a ledge of snow into a ravine. The locals who set out
to find the missing scout found him at 3:00 a.m. Steinès sent the
following famous telegram to Desgrange: “No trouble crossing
Tourmalet. Roads satisfactory. No problem for cyclists. Steinès“
(Kindle Loc. 640-46)

All the stories you'd expect to see from a history of the Tour is there. Eugene Christophe breaking his forks (multiple times), the unpaved nature of the roads, and even a reference to the wooden rims in use during those days. The prose does get purple at times, but the passion that the McGanns have for their subject never seems to pale. And then there's the whimsical:
On stage 19, from Metz to Charleville, about 100 kilometers from the
finish Frantz went over a railroad track and broke his frame. The
representative of the Alcyon bicycle company traveling with the team
panicked over the bad publicity sure to follow the news of the failure
of the Yellow Jersey’s frame. He wanted Frantz to travel to an Alcyon
bicycle dealer and get a replacement bike. The team manager, Ludovic
Feuillet, feeling that first and foremost it was his job to win the
Tour, vetoed the idea because of the huge time loss this would entail.
While this argument was going on, a woman with her classic lady’s bike
complete with wide saddle, fenders, and bell, was watching at the side
of the road. That bike was good enough for Frantz. He jumped on the
bike and tore down the road with his team. They did that final 100
kilometers at 27 kilometers per hour. Frantz ended up losing only 28
minutes. The old rule that riders had to start and finish on the same
bike was fortunately no longer in force.
(Kindle Loc. 2134-43)

I believe that if the Tour de France still had the equipment rules they had in the early days, I might be persuaded to watch it. It would definitely be a more interesting race. In fact, according to the book, until 1937, an individual could still enter the race as a tourist-routier, someone who took care of all his own accomodations/route, and attempt to win. (The highest placed finisher was 2nd) Finally, for those who want a historical perspective on doping, there's evidence here too that everyone doped in the 1950s:
Of all the contenders, Jean Malléjac’s collapse was the most
dramatic. Malléjac was 10 kilometers from the summit of Mont Ventoux
when he started weaving and then fell to the ground. He still had one
foot strapped into the pedal, his leg still pumping involuntarily
trying to turn the crank. The Tour race doctor, Pierre Dumas, had to
pry Malléjac’s mouth open to administer medicine. He was taken away in
an ambulance. On the way to hospital he had another fit. He had to be
strapped down both in the ambulance and later in his hospital bed. It
was assumed that Malléjac had taken an overdose of amphetamines, but
he always denied it. Half a dozen other riders also collapsed in the
heat, but none with the drama of Jean Malléjac. Was Malléjac some rare
exception and the other riders were clean? French team manager Bidot
later said that he believed that three-fourths of the riders in the
1950s were doped.
(Kindle Loc. 4943-51)

I bought this book on a Thursday night and finished it on the plane trip to Turkey on Saturday. This was exceedingly bad for I kept wanting to have Volume 2 present. For what it's worth this summer I did watch a stage of the Tour live on TV on a Saturday. It was boring as heck. Reading this book might well convince you (as it did me) that the best way to experience the Tour is the way it was experienced by Henri Desgrange's readers in 1903 --- by reading! Needless to say, despite my dis-taste for the way the Tour de France is run nowadays, I will buy volume 2 as soon as it is out for the Kindle. McGanns' writing and research has won me over.

[Update: I've now reviewed Volume 2: 1965-2007]

Turkey Sailing Trip

Turkey Sailing

I just got back from a sailing trip in Turkey with Lisa and my parents. Short summary: It's gorgeous, take a look at the photos. Trip report:

Day 1: Got there, got settled on the boat. Found Turkish people and Marmaris sailing (the outfit) very friendly. The boat was provisioned as expected, and the boat very clean. The sight of the Meditereanean Moor filled my heart with joy --- since the meditereannean only has 30 centimeters of tide (1 foot), this type of mooring is unique to the area, and I was excited to get to know it.

Day 2: Met the skipper, Ibrahim, and after finishing our provisioning, took off. Our route was constrained because I had chosen a one way trip. We would mostly hug the coast. We left for a swimming bay, did some swimming and snorkeling, and then sailed on to our final destination for the night, where the local restaurant was happy to send a dinghy out to help us tie the stern line to shore. This was my first exposure to the typical mediteranean crowded moor. We chose to have dinner on the boat, and did a bit of swimming.

Day 3: More swimming in the morning, and then quite a bit of sailing, past Greece, and then back to another Turkish place. We then visited Ogun's place, a moor with a great place for dinner (Ogun's place), where we picked up water, recharged batteries, and got more provisions.

Day 4: We headed over to Knidos, where we docked and visited the famous ruins of Knidos, which once was part of Greece. (The Greek took all the islands between Greece and Turkey during world war 2, so don't feel sorry for them!) While there, we met the Backroads Cycling/Sailing Tour through Turkey, riding through on Backroads supplied Ti bikes. Their ground-only cost was $6000 a person for a 9 day trip (6 days cycling, 3 days sailing). The Piaw cost fot the same trip, $6000 (for all 4 of us, including plane tickets to and from Turkey fromn Munich!). Ah, the price you pay when you have to have a local guide. Oh wait, we had a local guide (Ibrahim)! Makes me wonder why anyone thinks there's a recession going on. We then headed into the Aegean sea, which was nice and quiet, where Ibrahim found a nice bay with just enough space for one more. I did a very salty thing, which was to tie a bowline around myself and swam out to rocks on shore to tie the boat down. Unfortunately, that did me in as well, since I immediately started coughing and sneezing that night and went to bed with no appetite.

Day 5: Ill, I spent most of the day in bed, glad that I hired a skipper for the trip. We ran out of gas, because of some error by the folks who set up the boat at the start of the trip, necessitating a backtrack, and an anchoring while the charter company sent out a mechanic, along with some gas because they were positive that there was gas on the boat. Well, turned out we were out of Diesel, so we refilled the boat and moved on. That night, my Dad swam for the shore instead.

Day 6: I felt slightly better, and asked Ibrahim to do more sailing and less motoring. Fortunately the weather was good enough and we did go sailing! The wind was nice and beautiful, and we ended up stopping for the night at a nice shelted cove, and with Ibrahim's help, I got to back the boat in to dock for the mediterranean Moor. It wasn't easy to control the boat backwards, and I feel like I need to practice like 10 more times, but I at least understood how it was done.

Day 7: A day trip to Cleopatra Beach, and the surrounding ruins. What a beautiful, gorgeous place Turkey is. Every new Bay took my breath away. The water was clear, and the place was very nice. We then brought the boat back to port at Karacasogut, and had one final dinner on board with Ibrahim.

Day 8: Taxi'd back to Marmaris Park hotel, where I had a deal from Expedia for $100 a night per couple all-inclusive (dinner, lunch, breakfast, all included). We wandered the Bazaar in town, enjoyed a final bit of swimming before the next morning's hectic rush to the airport.

Conclusion: Turkey is worth seeing, especially if you're based out of Europe. Everything's cheap. My prices weren't the best that can be found, I'm sure --- I bet a second or third trip and I could probably manage to arrange a 9 day vacation for $500/person including flights from Munich. On the other hand, it's not as nice as the Virgin Islands Trip, where the swimming and diving is much superior. I had planned to dive but didn't get to it because I got sick. On the flip side, Turkey is the only place where the charter companies care about your skipper's license (every other place doesn't care, and just wants you to do a checkout) --- so if you have your documentation, it's easy to fly in and just pick up the boat without a skipper. Nevertheless, I was glad I hired one this time, for the obvious reasons --- I learnt a lot, and it wouldn't be as cheap to do so anywhere else. Highly recommended
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Accept no substitutes!

I saw this shop window at the Bazaar in Marmaris. I wonder if the shop owners think it means what it means.
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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Review: The Snowball

The Snowball (kindle edition) is the official biography of Warren Buffet's life. It arrives at a timely moment, as the world is embroiled in a financial crisis (in fact, there's a tantalizing description of what Buffet & Co are doing as the crisis unfolded, and the approach they're taking is a major reason to buy some stock in Berkshire Hathaway)

Alice Schroeder provides a surprising opening to the book by starting with Warren Buffett's low point --- the height of the dot-com bubble in 1999, when even his shareholders were losing faith in the value-investing approach. She then back-tracks through the years to Buffett's formative years, his discovery of Benjamin Graham, and his first millions.

What does not come across from the primary sources (e.g., his annual letters to his shareholders) is how hard Buffett worked. This was a man who packed corporate ledgers on his honeymoon, who would later come to regret not having paid attention at all as his kids grew up. Clearly, there's a price to be paid for his success, and I am not at all certain many would have been willing to pay it:

As Buffett liked to put it, “Intensity is the price of excellence.” (Kindle location: 5461-62)

We are reminded that mortgage crises are not at all unusual in history:

Out in the countryside, farmers faced with foreclosure on mortgages backed by nearly worthless farmland rose up in civil disobedience. Five thousand farmers marched on the state capitol in Lincoln until panicked lawmakers hastily passed a mortgage moratorium bill. (Kindle location: 853-56)

We also get a good look at Buffett's relationships with his wife, his family, and his circle of friends. Time after time, Schroeder emphasizes how little Buffett enjoyed interacting with people, though in recent years with the death of his wife, Buffett has appeared to mature beyond that. What also comes through the book is how often Buffett was right, and how he reacted whenever he was wrong --- he did not make excuses, and tried to do the right thing.

One thing that came through in this book is Buffett's respect for capital --- he felt that he owed employees a salary, but none of the gains of businesses, and so did not consider profit-sharing plans something worthy of discussion, even in industries as highly talent dependent as the financial industry. The typical stock-option package handed out at Silicon Valley startups would undoubtedly horrify him. I wonder how he would have done as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, but with the heavy people-involvement needed in Silicon Valley, he probably would have shied away from it as being outside his circle of competence.

Yet for someone who's so obsessed with money as Buffett is, he does not fall into the trap that many capitalists have, which is to attempt to short-change society in the long term (by crippling important social programs and providing essential services, as well as serving as a regulator to prevent people who would otherwise take insane risks from jeopardizing the entire system) in the interest of lowering short term rates --- here as in everywhere else, Buffett proves to be much more far-sighted than the typical libertarian:

If it was pointed out that risk did not disappear, those who participated in the market would explain with a sigh that securitization and swap derivatives “spread” the risk to the far corners of the globe, where it would be absorbed by so many people that it could never hurt anyone. (Kindle location: 13853-55)

All in all, The Snowball comes highly recommended as far as providing insight into what went into making the most successful investor of all time, as well as providing historical context for the current financial crisis. If you have substantial financial assets, you owe it to yourself to read this book.

Doyenz exits stealth mode

Earlier this year, I looked at a bunch of startups, including those from Paul Graham's Y-combinator. My policy with startups is that unlike a venture capitalist, I don't have energy (or the money, really), to go spray a ton of cash around a bunch of ideas and hope one sticks. I'm also relatively risk-averse, compared to those whose net worth is much higher.

Most Web 2.0 startups don't impress me, mostly because I don't see a path to revenue and profitability for most of them. Worse of all, most of them are quite cheap to run, so if you put money in them, there's no resolution for many years while they limp along. What's interesting about the Y-combinator startups is that for most of them, it's their first startup, and it shows --- there's no concern for monetization, and there's not enough "Oh yeah, if Microsoft tried to buy us for $40million I'd be thrilled and be happy to sell."

When we spoke with the Doyenz co-founders they were clearly a cut above. The first thing I liked about the business plan was how focused it was --- they aren't doing anything seriously sexy (though there are technical barriers to doing what they are doing), so it's unlikely that the next Y-combinator startup will try to address their space (and goodness knows, big companies aren't likely to do so), and it's got a path to profitability even in a recessionary environment (which is when people are most likely to want to save money, which is what Doyenz's product does). The founders have done a previous startup together, and hadn't been too shy to sell out and make money when the time came.

So a coalition of my friends and I anted up and put in some money, and here they are, several months later, with a product and customers. What's interesting is that we had the reverse of buyer's remorse after this investment round --- as we looked around and interviewed more startups, Roberto and I ended up thinking, "I wish I'd put more money into these guys. They really are different."

My Commute Got Prettier!

Munich Fall Commute

My commute took an extra 15 minutes today, because I had to stop so often to take pictures! That was a problem I never had in Mountain View, and I feel privileged!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Garmisch Fall Hike/Bike Ride

Garmisch Fall

It was a beautiful fall day today, so we got on the train at 7:44 and rode it to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, famous for the Zugspitz. Our first order of business was to explore the Partnach Gorge in Garmisch, which turned into a 2-3 hour hike as we followed the rivers up and got gorgeous views of the mountains around us.

Then it was a cable car ride back to the Olympic stadium and then a short walk back to get our bikes. We intended to ride over to the Zugspitz Bahn to hitch a ride to the tallest mountain in Germany, but between mechanicals and a general tardiness we didn't make it and ended up riding to the Eibsee instead. Nevertheless, what a gorgeous day!
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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Roberto's Tour Across France pictures

Tour of the Pyrenees and Juras, 2008

Funny quote w.r.t. Richard Morgan

From Mike Samuel's lips:

Raymond Chandler said, '...If you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.' I think Richard Morgan's reply would be, 'When in doubt, have a woman come through the door and have sex with the protagonist.'

Yup, that's Richard Morgan alright. But his Takeshi Kovacs books are still great reading.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Review: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom(Free Kindle download) is a short novel (really a novella) about a post-scarcity society known as The Bitchun society, a society where the reputation economy has come about. There's no money, there's only the Whuffle, which you get when people like you, or like the things you do, and you can trade that in for favors or things.

The novel revolves around a man who works in Disneyworld for the Haunted Mansion with his girlfriend who gets murdered one day. Since you can back yourself up in this universe and do a restore just as easily, he was soon resurrected, though not without a glitch. As he tries to figure out who killed him, he becomes paranoid and a thoroughly unpleasant fellow, losing his girlfriend, and slowly all his Whuffles.

As with a typical science fiction novel that's really about one idea, that entire plot is an excuse to explain the Bitchun society and the implications thereof. As a novel, complexity is lacking, and the narrator is practically unbelieveable, especially as the plot unwinds towards the end.

As an exploration of a post-scarcity society and the implications of backup/restore, however, the novella does a fine job. And given that it's such a short read, that's enough to recommend it.

Review: Star Guard

Star Guard is the first half of the Andre Norton Ombnibous Star Soldiers (dead tree edition). It's set in a universe where humans as the new species, gets it's inherently violent tendencies channeled into being mercenary warriors for various other species as part of their payment for getting the star drive.

The story revolves around a company of soldiers on a job when they get betrayed, against all galactic conventions to the contrary, and attacked with contraband weapons. The rest of it is one long adventure story, complete with treks across wilderness, alien encounters, negotiations, and all the rest of it. The military aspect is handled quite decently, and the writing workman-like but competent.

All in all, that got me through the first half of this omnibus, but I didn't have the stomach to keep reading to the next book, because the tropes she used are all too common today, so the plot kept feeling predictable. I'm discovering that the Baen library is not quite to my taste.

Review: The Business

The Business is Iain Bank's foray into a novel about corporations and companies. Unlike Richard Morgan's Market Forces (Banks was a banker, while Morgan was an ESL instructor), Banks characteristically builds an Utopian-type company.

The Business is a corporation that's several hundred years old (trust a British SF writer to come up with a centuries old corporation which nobody has ever heard of) that's governed like a democracy --- managers are voted managers by people who have to report to them, and corporate officers are only allowed to buy perks (such as houses, etc) from the company, and on their death, cannot pass such perks on to their descendants.

The story follows Kathryn Telman, an up and coming woman executive in The Business who specializes in technology investments. At the start of the story, she's on sabbatical and spends her free time visiting (where else) corporate locations and investments for fun. We follow her as she flies from one company event to another, spurning suitors, and getting an explanation of how such a business would work, and how she was uplifted from grungy beginnings by a kind Business woman, and various machinations The Business is going through to try to get a seat on the UN.

Mid-way through the book, I realized that I didn't know what Banks was building towards. Then in the last 2 chapters he ties up all the loose ends, even the ones I didn't know were there, and then ends the novel in such a way that I think any feminist would be offended. In any case, I found the ending unsatisfying, so I'm afraid I'll have to lump this in together Song of Stone, though it's far more readable and much more coherent than that turkey was.

Review: The Lion of Farside

The Lion of Farside(Dead Tree Edition) is a cross-world fantasy novel. Like many stereotypes of the mid-west, Curtis Macurdy grows up and marries his uncle's wife, and then discovers that she's from another world (which explains why she stayed 25 all those years she was married to his uncle). Then one day, the other worlders shows up and kidnaps her, and Macurdy crosses over himself, discovers formerly unknown talents he never knew he had in the area of magic and warfare, conquers a country and starts a war to get her back.

There, I've summarized the book in a paragraph, now you don't have to read me. The writing isn't great, the plot is pretty dumb, and this is probably the male equivalent of the bodice ripper I just panned. I guess I really do like the books I actually pay for on the Kindle better than the free ones I find randomly.

Review: Touch of Evil

I'm beginning to think that all the free e-book giveaways that Tor books launched are modern boddice-rippers. What's frustrating, in the case of Touch of Evil is that the authors are actually very readable --- the book flows easily, and there's such seamless collaboration between the authors that I can't see two different authors at work.

The story evolves around Katie, who apparently had her fiance stolen by a vampire woman in the past, tangled with the vampire crowd, and got away with their grudging respect. Katie's a modern woman --- headstrong, stubbornly independent, and unable to rely on anyone (least of all a man), she tries to tackle all her problems by herself, headstrong, so when she comes back from a business trip and is attacked by vampires she goes on a rampage.

Love interest is introduced in the form of a man in distress in this case a fireman who's looking for an apartment to rent in the building that Katie owns. After this, there's a series of reveal after reveal, some action sequences, and an ending that's complete with a count-down and kitschy ending. It's practically a made-for-tv movie.

What I do like about the setting is that it's a world where everyone knows about vampires and werewolves and the like --- there's none of the "No, they don't exist" reactions that you see in many other urban fantasy settings --- the authors truly did create an alternative world and made everything stick. Unfortunately, they didn't take it to its logical conclusion --- after all, in a world where the police knew about vampires and were-wolves, they wouldn't be so woefully unequipped to deal with them.

Logic aside, there's plenty of longing and sighs, and stupidity amongst the characters. This is a trashy novel and doesn't pretend to be otherwise, and I did wish more than once that the authors had decided to tell a better story instead --- there's so much talent here going to waste!

Review: Lord of Light

There's nothing as fulfilling as reading old Roger Zelazny, and Lord of Light is still one of the best science fiction novels written out there. The story starts thus:
His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being wha they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could.

The story is science fiction, though that's revealed in dribs and drabs, bits and pieces throughout the story. We slowly learn of the planet's past, and the history of the colonists and the crew that brought them to this world. Having overcome the obstacles and successfully established a colony, the crew of the ship have set themselves up as gods, claiming for themselves the role of gods in the Hindu pantheon and rigging up life on the world in a Hindu society.

Cast in the role of the rebel is Sam, who adopts the persona real life historical rebel against Hinduism, Buddhism's Siddharta. All the technology is couched in mythological terms, right down to the indigenous intelligent beings of the planet.

In any case, the story starts with Sam's reincarnation, and then flashes back, wheel-of-time fashion to past events, and recounts everything that brought the gods to this point. The final part brings everything to a conclusion, and is surprisingly short and quite anti-climatic. On the other hand, perhaps in the modern age, Zelazny would have been tempted to turn this into a 7-book cycle, and one should be grateful that he wrote in an age where one novel was plenty to tell a complete story.

Highly recommended.

Review: Lamb

Lamb (dead tree edition) is admittedly Christopher Moore's bid to answer the question, What if Jesus knew Kung Fu?

The book reveals that Jesus's best friend in childhood was Levi, also known as Biff. Like a true wing-man, Biff goes through life protecting Jesus from his own holy-ness. If there was any despicable act that needed doing, Biff would do it, up to and including adultery, poison, and so on and so forth.

A lot of the humor is really juvenile (up to and including the toilet humor in one scene) in the Farelly brothers sense, and perhaps it would be fun to think of a movie version of Lamb directed by the two of them.

Nevertheless, at the end of a long day of cycling in the Pyrenees, this was a really fun book to be reading. Recommended. Heck, even Scarlet, a much more refined reader than I am, liked it.

Get Rich Slow

With the recent market collapse, I've been literally getting questions and queries from all over the world about what I'm doing, and what's going on.

I've been relatively sanguine about the whole affair --- not just because I'm in Munich, so I'm quite far away from all the noise. First of all, what's happening is a purely financial matter --- if all the banks went away tomorrow, companies will still get things done. Corporations still run relatively little debt, and a little bit of history will tell you that what we have here isn't even as bad as the 1987 stock market drop. The probability of another Great Depression is quite slight. I'd be much more worried if there was another world war

A review of the sample asset allocation spreadsheet I put together in late July shows a 7% drop. (This over-states the losses, since it ignores dividends and interest, but you get the point) While that wouldn't make you a happy camper, it is certainly not something to panic about. In fact, if you invest for long enough, you will have a year with a 30% drop eventually. You just don't know when. It might be this year, but it might come the day before you retire. That's why financial planning is a multi-decade process, and month-by-month posts and portfolio watching is likely to be counter-productive.

I just observed that one of my watched financial blogs pfblog has stopped updating his monthly portfolio reports since July. This is how survivorship bias works --- at this moment anyone who's been successful will be bragging about his results, while failures like pfblog keep quiet. This is why active investing will never go away --- there's too much in human nature flogging it, while passive investing would be very much like a spam e-mail message telling you about how to Get Rich Slow.