Sunday, November 30, 2008

Another Kindle Mystery Solved

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

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

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

Review: The Buried Pyramid

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Review: Adiamante

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

My signed Krugman book

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

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

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

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

Review: Talent is Over-Rated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review: Valiant

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

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

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

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Miyuki Nakajima

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

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

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

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

Snow in Munich

Munich Snow

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

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

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

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


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

Review: The Audacity of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pulp Fiction in trouble

I was reading this article about the state of Pulp Fiction magazine sales, and it does not look good. They've been bleeding subscribers heavily, despite being profitable because they have very low costs. My conversation with the publisher of F&SF, however, indicates that they don't understand electronic media, and are being dragged kicking and screaming there. F&SF, for instance doesn't publish on the Amazon Kindle. Worse than that, both F&SF and Asimov's Science Fiction both charger higher for their subscription prices to the electronic magazine than they do for the print version! Electronic publishing and distribution is even cheaper than the pulp magazines. Charge $1 an issue on the Kindle, and you'll get a large number of subscribers. Fictionwise sells the DRM-free e-magazines for the outrageous price of $4-6 an issue.

I was an Asimov's print subscriber. Obviously, the subscription didn't move with me to Germany. The electronic version has the potential to move all the way to Germany (or all over the world for me), and it annoys the heck out of me that these guys don't understand the potential of electronic subscriptions and devices such as the Kindle. I suppose they'll keep ignoring it as their subscribers age and their magazines fail, since that's the way of the business.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Review: Brain Rules

I bought Brain Rules (kindle edition) after watching John Medina give a talk at Google:

Not only is he a great speaker, he also does a better job of explaining the way the brain works than Welcome to Your Brain, and he even does a better job of explaining sleep than Take a Nap!, a book dedicated to the entire topic of sleep. For instance, he's not afraid to tell you about the difference between the morning people and the night owls:
About 1 in 10 of us is like Dilbert’s Adams. The scientific literature calls such people larks (more palatable than the proper term, “early chronotype”). In general, larks report being most alert around noon and feel most productive at work a few hours before they eat lunch. They don’t need an alarm clock, because they invariably get up before the alarm rings—often before 6 a.m. Larks cheerfully report their favorite mealtime as breakfast and generally consume much less coffee than non-larks. Getting increasingly drowsy in the early evening, most larks go to bed (or want to go to bed) around 9 p.m. Larks are the mortal enemy of the 2 in 10 humans who lie at the other extreme of the sleep spectrum: “late chronotypes,” or owls. In general, owls report being most alert around 6 p.m., experiencing their most productive work times in the late evening. They rarely want to go to bed before 3 a.m. Owls invariably need an alarm clock to get them up in the morning, with extreme owls requiring multiple alarms to ensure arousal. Indeed, if owls had their druthers, most would not wake up much before 10 a.m. Not surprisingly, late chronotypes report their favorite mealtime as dinner, and they would drink gallons of coffee all day long to prop themselves up at work if given the opportunity. If it sounds to you as though owls do not sleep as well as larks in our society, you are right on the money. Indeed, late chronotypes usually accumulate a massive “sleep debt” as they go through life.(Kindle Loc 1801)

Many other books on neuroscience and brain rules look at such data without actually giving you actionable advise. Not so with Brain Rules! For instance, he prescribes what to do for better development of children (it has nothing to do with teachers as far as early development is concerned, but has everything to do with educating parents!). Medina also eschews giving you the simple rules without context --- nearly everything is explained --- either through an exposition and reasoning through evolutionary biology, or with references to extensive research and experiments. In fact, he makes it a rule that he will not consider including the results of an experiment unless it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal and the results have been replicated!

As a result of his understanding of neuroscience, this book is entertaining, never dry, and has immediate, practical use for what you learn. If you have only the time to read one popular book on neuroscience, make it this book. Highly recommended!

Hofer Hike


Lofer Hike

The forecast was supposed to be clear today, with a chance of showers at night, so I decided to join the Wayfarers group from Toytown Germany on a hike. Driving to the trail-head, it looked like it was going to be really foggy, as we could not see the peaks around us. At 9am, the hike started and it was pretty obvious from the start that I was going to be suffering --- these folks were fast!

I had decided that given my general lack of conditioning (this was my first serious hike since July), I should go for something less than the 2500m summit the rest of the folks were doing --- so I opted to visit the 1977m hut (which was closed for the season). After about an hour, we broke out into clear air and got gorgeous views of the surroundings:
From Lofer Hike

We had hiked above the fog. Another half hour later, I had to swap out the running shoes for the hiking boots on account of snow. Not being used to hiking in snow, I went slowly despite having two hiking sticks. At the trail junction, Angus gave me his car keys so I wouldn't have to freeze while waiting for everyone at the car --- the others were expecting to have to hike down in the dark.

I hung out at the hut for about 15 minutes, admiring the view, and the pristine snow on the terrace. Then I hiked down slowly. The snow was slippery and it took me about as much time to descend as it took to climb. At the snowline, I breathed a sigh of relief, but quickly discovered that things didn't improve --- the thick layer of leaves from the fall was just as slippery!

Nevertheless, I made it back to the cars at 3:30pm with trembling knees, and sat and read until everyone showed up at about 5:30pm. A good hike, and I guess with snow predicted for this weekend I won't be doing much more before I have to leave Germany.
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K.D. Lang is Amazing Live!

Although she's never been my favourite singer or performer, I've always appreciated K.D. Lang because of a few hits she had. Constant Craving, Miss Chateline, mostly stuff from her Ingenue album.

When tickets came up for her show at Oakland, I jumped at the chance and snapped them up. They were good seats too, 20 rows or so from the stage, and its supposedly the hall where the Oakland symphony plays at, so the acoustics must be pretty darn good.

Well, I wasn't disappointed. It was absolutely amazing.

The one thing I didn't realize about K.D. Lang when I listened to her is that her voice is literally an instrument. Its not a quality that's easy to describe or something that you can train, and very few people have it (or else all the American Idols would have gone to a school that made them all have it). Its not quite operatic, but its probably one of the most powerful voices I've ever heard. Her voice will literally move you, like a good bass system does. It touches you somewhere on the inside just like hearing something low and resonant.

I guess for most people, the closest thing would be to listening to Sarah Brightman's Time to Say Goodbye, where you don't really care so much about the words as much as what she displays in voice virtuosity. K.D. Lang is exactly like that as well, just in a different tonal quality!

And this is probably something you only get live.

Most of the time when she was singing, she would sing off the mic, as if she knew that if she sang into the mic, she'll break the sound system or something. Half the times I felt like she probably didn't even need the mic!

Her song set list was incredibly well chosen, somber because of the passing of prop 8, but delightfully hopeful. In case you didn't already know, K.D. has outed herself for a very long time, her audience shows it too with a myraid of marriage proposals (she declines), and love affirmations. =)

Her band is also worth mentioning. I don't know how long they've been touring together, but they're absolutely amazing as well. She had a band of four, one drummer, one guitarist, one zitarist/lead guitar/banjo player/syth guy, and one primarily keyboards person/synth guy.

They would switch out their instruments almost every song and it was a delight to see them be such a great backdrop to show off K.D.'s voice.

In short, if you have a chance to see her life, go! Even at 47, with the way her voice is, she will doubtless amaze you with the power that is her voice!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

My last weekend ride in Germany

Another Stanberg Loop

I had to take care of things in the morning, including shopping for groceries, cleaning the house, and lifting weights. I was amazed by how cold it was in the morning at 11am when I went out to buy stuff! Winter, if it is not quite here yet, is coming!

After lunch, however, the sun came out, so I quickly laid down a route. It had occured to me that I had not done a ride from my house without getting on a train somewhere, or coming back by the train, so I decided to do a short ride --- just 25 miles and see what I could see. I picked Starnberg Lake, since it was surprisingly close, and then proceeded down the bike path.

There's quite a number of hills between my place and Starnberg lake, but nothing really bad (though I did see an 11% grade marker). When I got to Starnberg Lake I rode down to the shores for a few pictures, and then rode along the lake for a while. Then I followed my GPS route back, around rolling hills and ended up through some picturesque little towns near where I lived that I had never visited before.

The movers show up on Thursday to pick up my bike (and all the other stuff that needs to get shipped back to the US), and the weather's going to be iffy between now and there. I guess that's how it ends, with a wimpy little ride.
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Review: Buyology

Buyology (kindle edition) is about the merging of Neuroscience and Marketing. If that sentence doesn't scare you, it should. Basically, the concept is that we'll take MRIs and other tools of neuroscience and use that to figure out what makes you buy certain brands.

Here's an excerpt:
Do you know why most modern supermarkets now have bakeries so close to the store entrance? Not only does the fragrance of just-baked bread signal freshness and evoke powerful feelings of comfort and domesticity, but store managers know that when the aroma of baking bread or doughnuts assails your nose, you'll get hungry --- to the point where you just may discard your shopping list and start picking up food you hadn't planned on buying... Some Northern European supermarkets don't even bother with actual bakeries, they just pump artificial fresh-baked-bread smell straight into the store aisles from ceiling vents.

In other words, we know now exactly how to manipulate you to get the shopping behavior we want. From aroma therapy to product placement, we can get our brands to stick in your mind. There's an interesting section there about American Idol and how Coca Cola uses it and integrates itself so completely into the show that the audience has a 60% recall rate. And most of it is very subtle, from the shape of the studio dressing to the color of the curtains. There's another section about how a Neuroscience technique was used to monitor viewer's reactions to show, and how despite an audience saying they hated the show, their minds were actively engaged, leading to a successful launch of a TV show.

With this arsenal of weapons at corporations' disposal, is it any wonder that the average consumer is helpless in the face of the barrage of advertising?
Most of us can’t really say, “I bought that Louis Vuitton bag because it appealed to my sense of vanity, and I want my friends to know I can afford a $500 purse, too,” or “I bought that Ralph Lauren shirt because I want to be perceived as an easygoing prepster who doesn’t have to work, even though all my credit cards are maxed out.” (kindle edition, loc 2512)

The tools in this book are highly sophisticated, so your neighborhood stores won't be able to do it. But corporations and political parties can and will use it. Now, you might think that if you knew about how it worked, you'd be immune, right? The truth is that these techniques probably work so well that they work even when you know what they are doing and how they are doing it. As an example, the warning label on cigarette boxes actually make smoking more attractive. And pictures of lung cancer? Even more so!

I guess this book is worth reading, and is hence recommended, but I definitely fear for the future. Fortunately, as someone who doesn't watch TV, my exposure to this is very limited. Perhaps if geeks got together and ran experiments like this and figured out how to make it work for us, we might be able to rule the world too.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Review: Wild Cards

Wild Cards was one of the first shared-universe story-lines set in a science fiction universe (as opposed to the fantasy Thieves' World. Launched in the 1980s, at that time it was a fresh take on super-heroes, and took a great approach of telling a story that spanned decades starting from 1945 (right after the second world war) to the 1980s.

Furthermore, unlike Thieves' World, where the stories by different authors were largely unrelated (in fact, Marion Zimmer Bradley even took her character out of the shared universe eventually), Wild Cards took the much more ambitious approach of weaving a single story through multiple authors, so that the shared setting felt a lot more real, almost as though a single author plotted them all. There was also no jarring transition between authors, as George R. R. Martin in his role as editor wrote interludes between the segments to bring tie it all together.

A second reading (now more than 20 years after this book was published) demonstrates that it holds up well --- the characters still aren't cliche (Croyd, who changes powers every time he sleeps, Fortunato, a pimp who gets his powers through tantric sex), and the stories themselves are great, except for the one about Puppetman, which feels a bit dated only because the evil politician feels overdone due to the X-men series. (Not too surprising, considering the folks like Roger Zelazny were contributors) It definitely makes me feel like reading the entire series all over again (it's a pity the books themselves have gotten in and out of print sporadically over the years).


Monday, November 10, 2008

Beautiful Moonlight Commute

I just had one of those beautiful moonlight commutes. Full moon, clear skies, and an uncrowded bike path along the Isar river. In fact, it was so clear once I crossed the river and out of tree cover that I turned off my battery powered light and relied on my generator light even though I was on a dirt path.

Yes, it was cold (so cold that I noticed it through my gloves and winter wear), but the haunting image of the moon rising over the river valley and reflected in the ripples of the Isar will be one I treasure forever.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Review: The Farthest Shore

The Farthest Shore is the last book in the original trilogy of Earthsea (I remember the fourth book, Tehanu, being disappointing, so I might very well not go on the review the next two).

Set during the twilight of Ged's career as Archmage of Earthsea, this book is of course, about the youth who accompanies him on this last adventure, Arren. Arren apparently has quite the destiny ahead of him, but he doesn't know what it is. Ged though, having been stuck as the Archmage for years, now leaps at the latest quest as a means of leaving Roke (and his responsibilities).

And what is the danger this time? Magic is fading --- or so it seems. Sorcerers have forgotten the true names of things, and men have started wondering if magic is real. Ged and Arren run around in a wild goose chase until Dragons start asking Ged for help. Now Le Guin (for what she thought was the last book) pulls out all stops, granting us dragons upon dragons, a trip across the Farthest shore, and Ged giving up his magic for one final feat.

The theme of this novel is death and the acceptance thereof. I'm not sure I approve of Ursula Le Guin's philosophical "death is part of life" approach, as I am very much in favor of Dylan Thomas' approach:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Nevertheless, as a young adult novel that still bears up to reading years later as an adult, this is one of the rare ones. I do feel that Le Guin cops out at the end and grants us a less than satisfying ending as a result, but I suspect that many of her readers will disagree, having found the ending to their taste. Recommended, though less so (again) than A Wizard of Earthsea

Radstadt/Salzburg Tour



The weather forecast looked good for Saturday and Sunday, so I found myself in the Euraide office on Friday morning talking to Alan Wissenberg about a trip to Radstadt. (Alan by the way was tickled pink when he found this blog ranked highly for a search for Euraide during the summer --- undoubtedly due to a ranking glitch) Why Radstadt? On one of my first bike tours in Germany, I ran into an English lorry driver in Seeham, who when asked to tell me a place that was pretty, said Radstadt. "I'd recommend Radstadt to anyone," he said, holding up his beer. (English lorry drivers, by the way, don't conform to the beer gut stereotypes that American lorry drivers seem to have done) Unlike other tours, I also booked my lodging --- during the late season, it's very likely that most hotels are closed, along with the tourist information office, so I figured I would make the booking in Radstadt, dump my lugguage there, and do a day trip.

So I found myself hustling aboard the 7:26am train to Bischohofen on Saturday morning. The train was late, but fortunately my connection was for 20 minutes, so I had plenty of time. It was cold and overcast while I waited for the train, and I started wondering if I had made a mistake in believing the forecast. My doubts grew when I arrived in Radstadt to find wet roads, though it wasn't raining. Having set my GPS for my hotel, I rode to the hotel and found it without incident, and discovered that I was the only guest! The hotel owner was very nice, however, and let me check in and leave my stuff --- there's even a locked bicycle closet! I immediately set out to ride the loop I had planned so many months ago (this was one of the trips that I had waiting to go but never could find the weather to do so), albeit cut short since I was starting late, and really, didn't want to push it in the winter.

The loop first took me through Radstadt proper, where I bought some fruits for lunch, and then headed West to Eben, and then North and back East through the mountains. The hills rolled around a bit, but soon I was flat smack in the middle of what had to be an access highway for skiiers. It not being skiing season, the traffic was light and I could enjoy the scenery. I could see that the sun was trying to come out, and low and behold around the bend I saw mountains shrouded with clouds. They even had snow on them!

I rode past Ubermoos, which had a shack serving a hot lunch, but decided that I'd rather not bogmyself down with food. Soon, I was riding past the ski resort towns of Hachau. It's a bit spooky riding past a ski resort town during the dead season --- nothing is open, all the ski lifts aren't moving and neither are the cable cars used for moving hikers during the summer. Together with the very light traffic --- I was seeing a car every 15 minutes at most --- I felt like I was riding through a post-holocaust scenario, except it was so pretty. I took a break every so often, not being in shape, but also to eat. Then swept past a minor ridge, and past Schildehen, started my climb up to Vorberg.

Up to now the road had been marked scenic, but really, was nothing to write home about. I had taken a few pictures, but looking at them now, my equipment, technique, and the weather didn't make it worth writing home about. Vorberg changed all that. Now I was on a high ridge looking down across the valley and into the valley. The scenery was spectacular --- I stopped often for pictures, and had great views everywhere I turned. Even the weather started to coperate as the sun started to peek out through the clouds. I rode past gorgeous houses, with men in lederhosen pounding fenceposts down. I rode past horses and horsefields, and a children's playground that had a few cows assigned to mow down the grass. The mood, the lighting, and the scenery all combined to make me feel really glad I did this loop, and sad when it came down to descent into Pichl, where I picked up the Enns bike trail towards Radstadt.

But even the flat bike trail had a consolation prize, for as I rode along it, the sun suddenly came out and lit up a farmhouse and its surrounds with a crisp golden light that this picture barely managed to capture:
From Radstadt

By the time I got back to the hotel I was wondering if I shouldn't have made a longer loop, it being but 3:00pm. This hotel didn't serve dinner, so I quickly unpacked, washed up a bit, and discovered I had no soap either. I rode out to the city to try to find soap and see if there were restaurants within walking distance. Well, soap was not a problem, as I found a drug store open very quickly. But I discovered all the surrounding hotel/restaurants near me were closed, so ended up riding into town, where I bought some emergency snacks in a super market. I looked around town and to my surprise, found a Konditerei that served dinner even though it was only 4pm. I parked my bike outside (unlocked, as I hadn't bothered to bring a lock), went in, and ordered hot tea, the fixed menu (noodle soup and Wiener Schnitzel) and then topped up with a dessert pastry. I was impressed by the entire works. The meal was good, the price was reasonable (14 Euros for the entire thing), and of course, the waitress was pretty.

I then went back and retired for the night.

The next morning, I got up and ate a nice big breakfast before hopping onto my bike and riding down the Ennstall towards Bischofshofen. The bike path led in the wrong direction, so pretty soon I found myself on B99. Fortunately, B99 parallels a freeway, so it had light traffic, though in Huttau there was a parade of some sort involving horses, which I was glad to get past, as the road was quite nasty. It was overcast and I got quite cold on the descents, discovering at this point that I had a hole in my gloves.

Near Bischofshofen, I picked up the Tauern Radweg, a bike path that would lead all the way to Salzburg. Unlike other bike paths, however, this one was really a bike lane along the highway --- the one time I saw a sign to a separated path, it turned out that the segment of the separated path was close. This was just as well, since while approaching Werfen, I saw the big castle on a hill. On the spur of the moment I decided to visit it, and rode up along the pedestrain path until it got too steep and had to walk. Fortunately, the walking was very limited, and I got to the castle entrance only to find that the place was closed for the season. I had good views though, so it wasn't wasted effort.

I picked the paved cable-car route down to the parking lot, and started heading down the hill when I saw a gorgeous view in front of me:
From Radstadt

Now I wasn't unhappy that I hadn't opted for my 100km original route which would have bypassed this portion. I kept going and the route got prettier, giving me better and better views until I got to Pass Lueg, which was so short a climb I didn't notice it. From there, the scenery changed, giving me more greenery rather than granite mountains. I had a quick lunch at Hallein, and thereafter picked up the Salzach dirt path that led into Salzburg, arriving finally in the Salzburg train station in time to catch the 2:11pm train. As usual, the train was late and it was dark by the time I got home.

Still, it was a good trip with 140km and 1393m of climbing. Considering the restricted daylight I was getting, this worked out as well as I could have hoped for. I'm finding that after about 7 months in Munich, my only regret is not spending more time in Austria. I'll need to explore this country more in the future!
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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Health Insurance, Healthcare, and Policy

Someone recently asked me that if she should pick the PPO, the HMO, or stay with Kaiser. This was someone in great health, so the answer for maximum cost savings would be to go with Kaiser. But health in general isn't that easy, because tragedy can strike at any time, and you won't know when. For instance, if you were diagnosed with Cancer, and the best chance of providing a recovery was to go with this great doctor that an expert pointed you at, and he didn't work for Kaiser, what would you do? Would you say, "Forget it," and stick with Kaiser's doctors? Or would you pony up the several hundred thousand dollars and just do whatever it takes? If you had substantial assets (a good health insurance plan would cover up to about $6 million in life time costs), then you would probably do that, but most of us don't have $6 million sitting around in a bank in case of a health emergency, which is why I've always opted for a PPO when given a choice --- it usually costs quite a bit more, but I don't buy insurance for routine doctor visits, the cold, or even an extensive physical (which can run up to about $600 or so). I buy health insurance because I can't afford $6 million if I need a transplant or whatever, and in those catastrophic instances, I want to be able to see whatever doctor that will give me the best chance of survival.

Someone asked in a mailing list recently what makes health insurance special? I'll try to explain, but I don't really expect to persuade any Libertarians or Republicans. My experience is that those people aren't persuadable by logic or examples from other countries, so if you're one of those, don't bother posting on the comments --- I'll be ruthless in moderating and deleting comments even before they show up on the blog.

The big issue with health insurance is Adverse Selection. The way I like to explain is to imagine that you're the CEO of a health insurance company like Cigna, Blue Shield, or Pacific Care. Your job is to maximize profits. Now, whenever someone applies for health insurance, they have a chance of costing you more than the premium he's likely to pay. Now, if you reject all such candidates and only accept healthy people, then you'll be more profitable. In fact, the best thing you can do is to send such candidates to your competitors, because it makes them less profitable. So now you know why health insurance companies make you fill out all sorts of forms and have their doctors look at you to determine whether you're a good health risk. Note that even if you were a good-hearted CEO and wanted to insure all comers, you couldn't, because if you tried to do so, what would happen is this: all the people with health problems will come to your company to buy insurance because your policies cost less for them. That will drive up your costs, because those people cost more to insure. As a result, your insurance will cost more than your competitors and this will lead to a death spiral as all your healthy customers migrate to all your competitors, which will make your business more and more untenable.

Now, those of you with good middle class jobs will raise their hands and say, but wait, this doesn't happen to me. I have good health insurance through my job, despite my pre-existing conditions. That's because employers (especially large ones) can say to multiple insurance companies: "Hey, I've got a big group here. You either cover all of them, or I'll go to someone else. You can't take just my healthy employees --- you've got to take my unhealthy ones too." So what happens is that within a company, the healthier people subsidize the less healthy ones. This is as it should be, since even if your name is Lance Armstrong, there's no guarantee you won't come down with testicular cancer next year and need expensive treatment while in your 20s. If you're a really big company with large profits, you can go one step further and self-insure, and pay an insurance company only to deal with the paper-work, since that's how the medical industry does this.

The obvious next step then, is to put the entire population of a country into one big group, and have the country as a whole self-insure. This is how most major industrialized countries do it. Now you have a really big insurance pool, and you can insure everyone pretty cheaply! Now, if you've swallowed the Republican/Libertarian line about how the government is naturally wasteful, you'd be skeptical about this working out, and you'd be wrong. The government doesn't have to give its civil servants corporate jets, nor does it have an incentive to spend lots of time in court denying health-care claims to its citizens. So it can spend much more on health-care than on overhead. Note that the private insurance system has a built-in incentive to deny coverage whenever possible --- that savings go straight to the bottom-line of the insurance company. At the very least, politicians who want your vote have to keep you alive in order to get it, so this is definitely one case where the health insurance that covers everyone (through say, payroll taxes) at least does away with one perverse incentive.

Here's another interesting incentive change: preventive medicine is a lot cheaper than fixing up an illness. It's cheaper to treat hypertension and high blood pressure than to treat a heart attack. The private insurance system does not have an incentive to do preventive medicine in a country where people move around frequently and hence have to switch health insurance companies every so often. Because a government run system has to bear the costs of a heart attack no matter where someone moves to, there's a lot more incentive to do preventive medicine and keep people healthy. This is well documented in the veteran's health administration, where an aggressive approach towards preventive medicine has reduced their costs significantly.

What about all those famous waiting periods that the right-wingers love to talk about? Canada and Britain are especially famous in those examples. Well, take a look at the first table in this paper. In 1997, the UK spent 6% of GDP on healthcare. The Canadians spent 9%. The US, 14%. One system that's well-known for not having a ton of waiting periods is the French system (which is an interesting private/public system). They spent 9.6% of GDP on healthcare. I'm pretty sure that if the US spent 12% (instead of 14%) of GDP on healthcare and made it efficient (which isn't hard, since we already know that medicare/veterans administration can approach the efficiencies we find in other countries), we'll have an excellent system that costs less, and has much fewer waiting periods than the UK system or the Canadian ones.

Now, I don't think this is going to happen by any stretch of the imagination. But Obama's proposal, as far as it goes isn't that bad. It has a few properties:

  1. Community rating. This means that insurance companies have to take all comers. They can't deny coverage to anyone because of pre-existing conditions or health, or they won't be allowed to do business at all. This is huge! (For one thing, it'll mean that I can get health insurance)
  2. Competition from the public sector. If all the health insurance companies in your area suck, it's not a catastrophe. You'll get a chance to buy into the same insurance system Congress-critters voted for themselves. This is a big pool, because it includes all government employees, so it'll be reasonably efficient. In fact, most health policy experts expect that eventually, private companies will find themselves unable to compete with the government system and cease to exist. (After all, CEOs don't like it when they can't have corporate jets)
  3. No mandate. Now this is a problem. It creates a moral hazard, in that if you're healthy, you have no incentive to join the insurance pool and help subsidize all the unhealthy people like me. This is even more true if (as anticipated) you can sign up for health insurance after you got hit by a bus or some other health catastrophe, and still get the same cheap coverage that you could have gotten if you signed up while healthy. This particular feature came up for debate during the primary, and I expect it to be debated if Obama does try to live up to his promise of improving health insurance coverage for American citizens (and if he doesn't, I'll be first in line to vilify him). I expect that some sort of mandate will become necessary, and I'll be happy to have it deducted from payroll --- that's how companies do it nowadays anyway, so I don't anticipate any changes.

At this point, I'm sure the Republicans and Libertarians who've bothered to read this far are shaking their heads, convinced that the country will go to hell in a hand-basket. I'll strongly disagree --- I think Universal Healthcare will actually help the economy a ton. Think of all the startups that could happen because people who would otherwise stick around in a safe job at a big company would suddenly feel free to start their own things since the specter of not being able to get healthcare will no longer be hanging over them. People who've wanted to work for themselves and become consultants would be willing to take the jump and do so. With cheaper healthcare (because of greater efficiencies in covering everyone), even old-line industries like car manufacturers (which have been squeezed because they compete with other countries like Japan where everyone does get into the universal healthcare systems) will benefit. I think this policy, enacted properly (and an Obama administration that was competent could do this) has the potential to make our economy even more dynamic than it is, and that's a good thing, even if all you care about is your bottom line.

Hopefully, if you've read this far, you'll feel like you've learned something about why Paul Krugman, Gene Spurling, and many others are hoping that Obama takes this golden opportunity to really deal with healthcare, and that we'll be extremely disappointed if he fails. I'll take reasonable comments and questions and do my best to answer them, but note that this blog has moderated comments turned on, and if you're going to be abusive or not add value to the discussion your comment won't show up.

Bonds FAQ

Someone with substantial assets recently asked me a bunch of questions about bonds, and they are interesting enough to put them up on this blog.

Q: Are Inflation-Adjusted Bonds a good idea?
Yes. David Swenson considers them a separate asset class from regular bonds, and in the past, I've recommended them as part of a portfolio when diversifying away from a heavily concentrated position. While in the past I've told people to look into I-bonds first, because of recent changes in the program I no longer think they are a good deal, and definitely they are insufficient for a person with substantial assets. Note that Swenson does not consider foreign bonds a separate asset class, unlike inflation adjusted bonds. And corporate bonds are in general not a good bet, since stock holders (who own the company) have a tendency to play games like paying themselves dividends and then declaring bankruptcy so the bond holders get left holding the bag. Very few bond-issuers like Warren Buffett put protections in for their bond holders.

Q: I was wondering how you decided to buy into a bond fund instead of buying bonds directly? Is it simply a matter of convenience?

Yes, it's a matter of convenience. You can buy treasury bonds directly through at no cost, which makes them a lot cheaper than through a fund. But then you have to do your own laddering yourself, and what if you wanted some corporate bonds (which are at a good price right now). Now if you want CA tax-exempt bonds (which are paying very well right now because of California's high indebtedness creating credit rating problems for CA), then things get a bit more complicated, and a bond-fund would be useful there, for diversification reasons (in case a particular municipality pulls off an Orange county-type default).

For TIPS, you also have tax issues as well, since the inflation adjusted bit doesn't get paid out until the bond matures, but gets taxed annually even though it hasn't been paid out yet. That doesn't mean buying TIPS directly is a bad idea, it just means that you want to do it from your IRA (or rollover 401k) if at all possible. If you must hold TIPS in a taxable account, then perhaps a bond-fund's convenience makes the expense worth while.

Q: I'm going to put some cash into bonds. Would you advise doing it gradually over the next few months, for dollar-cost averaging?

To really answer this question well, I'll have to explain the relationship between yield and bond prices. A bond is priced based on two factors: default risk (the chance that the bond issuer won't pay you back the principal), and current interest rate (as set by the "riskless" treasury bond). Obviously a California municipality has to pay a higher tax-adjusted interest rate than a treasury bond to get you to buy its bond, since there's a chance that the municipality might not pay you your principal back.

Now, what happens when the riskless interest rate goes up? Well, that bond you used to own is now worth less, because you can buy newer bonds (risk-adjusted) that pay a higher interest rate, so the price of your old bond drops. Conversely, if the riskless interest rate drops, your old bond is now more valuable, since new bonds pay less interest, so your older, higher interest bond is more valuable. Since interest rates usually change by a quarter percentage point or so every time the Federal Reserve meets, this price/yield relationship makes bonds less volatile, which is why they have a place in a diversified portfolio. Furthermore, interest rates tend to drop in a recession, when stocks tend to drop, so holding a proportion of your assets in bonds tends to provide a bit of a cushion when bad times happen.

Interestingly enough, TIPS don't vary as much with interest rates (though they do pay a real interest rate at times), but rather vary with inflation rates (which have a looser correlation with how well or badly the economy is doing), which is why Swenson thinks they constitute a different asset class. (Note that corporate bonds are directly correlated with how well the economy is doing, which is why Swenson prefers that you own stock directly instead --- if you're going to take the same risk as a stock holder, you might as well also participate in the rewards. As a counterpoint, however, Warren Buffett's recently been buying up corporate bonds, because he thinks they are a good deal right now --- but I don't have his acumen, so my way of playing that is to buy Berkshire Hathaway instead)

OK, so to answer your question, given that we're expecting a recession over the next few months, I don't expect the interest rates to go up, so I would not bother dollar-cost averaging. But if it makes you feel better, then do it. I don't expect any yield changes to be terribly nerve-wrecking, as explained above.

Disclaimer: I'm not a financial adviser, I don't even play one on TV, so don't make investment decisions based on this blog.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Review: The Tombs of Atuan

Book 2 of the Earthsea series is told not from the point of view of Ged, but from the point of view of Tenar, the one priestess of the Tombs of Atuan, who is supposedly the servant of the Nameless Ones, the evil gods who dwell in the Tombs.

We learn of her origin, her service, and her cruelty in sentencing men to their deaths. Interestingly, I picked up her reluctance and her nightmares better as an adult than as a child, showing perhaps, that when I was younger, I just wanted to get to the good parts, when Ged shows up.

Ged does show up, not as a powerful Wizard, but perhaps as a bit of a bungler, not quite knowing what he is in for, and again, my first reading of the novel was that he got rescued by Tenar, but in this second reading I see that the interaction between them is quite a bit more subtle than my impression.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment I felt is that the sense of lyrical beauty that was achieved in the prose of A Wizard of Earthsea is if not altogether missing, rather muted in this second novel. Unlike the sense of activity in the first novel, the feeling in The Tombs of Atuan is that of constraint, of fear. Even when Tenar breaks free of her past she is not exhilarated, but is instead fearful. There is hope at the end of the novel, but it is tentative, almost unable to breathe on its own. Perhaps this was a reflection of the time of the writing (1972), when women's liberation was just starting to stretch its wings.

Any short novel that can achieve all this while telling an unconventional fantasy story (Ged is not a hero, but neither is Tenar a heroine) comes highly recommended.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Wolfrathausen/Stanbergersee/Holzkirchen Ride


I had not expected another beautiful weekend, and now that I was more or less recovered from my cold I took advantage of it! I caught the 9:55 S-Bahn to Wolfrathausen, and there proceeded to ride over to Stanbergersee, where Lisa and I started our first tour of the Alps 5 years ago.

The ride immediately took me across a couple of rivers and then started climbing. I got a few beautiful pictures of the lonely road and then proceeded to descend all the way down to Stanberg, where I found a bike path right next to the lake and proceeded to ride along it. It was gorgeous, and many families were out feeding the birds or just taking a scroll. When it came time for me to leave Starnberger See, I made a left turn and rode up a bike path covered with leaves. As the bike path left a tunnel, I could only trust to scoot my bike along because the leaves were so wet that I had no traction! I immediately left the bike path and got onto the road, but after several hundred meters the GPS signaled a turn where there was no apparent intersection!

A U-turn revealed that there was a gate with a bypass for a bike onto an unpaved forest road. No wonder Garmin Mapsource had balked at routing me this way the night before when I was laying out the route. No matter, I rode along the bike path, passing some equestrains, and then found some thick leaves to ride through. These weren't wet, but riding through deep leaf-fall is an act of faith, since you can't see what's underneath it all. I kept my eyes on the trail looking for big rocks sticking out but had no issues until I came onto the Forest lake that had caused me to route in this fashion.

After that, I returned to the road and tooled along merrily past hill and dale, enjoying the beautiful day. It got so warm that I had to take off my jacket, and I loved swooping through single-track roads surrounded by woods, with the roads still wet from dew even though it was past noon by the time I swept through them. Since I hadn't done any serious riding for a while, I had plotted only a 60km ride today, so I only had to stop one to take in a snack before I got to the Holzkirchen S-Bahn, where I had just narrowly missed my train. Never mind, since the hour wait gave me time to buy and eat lunch and visit the delightful ice-cream shop just 300 meters from the S-Bahn station.

A surprisingly beautiful short ride. Recommended in good weather.
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Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

After reading Le Guin's complaints about the TV adaptation of her works, and reading about the Miyazaki Jr adaptation of Earthsea, I had to go back and re-read this beautiful novel.

For those used to the mega-volume works of today's fantasy, A Wizard of Earthsea comes as a breath of fresh air. It's short but it is so beautifully written --- this is how I want to be able to write when I grow up. Passage after passage delights the mind's ear:
At first all his pleasure in the art-magic was, childlike, the power it gave him over bird and beast, and the knowledge of these. And indeed that pleasure stayed with him all his life. Seeing him in the high pastures often with a bird of prey about him, the other children called him Sparrowhawk, and so he came by the name that he kept in later life as his use-name, when his true-name was not known

Le Guin mentioned that Ged, like all the Gontish in the novel is black, and it amazes me that I missed that completely when I read the novel for the first time --- of course I was but a child when I read it, and reading is all in the head in any case. As an adult and on second reading, I can definitely see that emphasis. Nevertheless, the trappings are that of a European fantasy novel, since bread, wine and cheese seem to be what folks dine on.

The theme of the novel, like all other young-adult novels, is self-discovery and acceptance. We are told up front that Ged will become the most storied of all Wizards, but Le Guin portrays his youthful pride as his downfall without any sentiment whatsoever. What's impressive is that Le Guin manages not to pound you over the head with any overt messages or morals, and her school of wizardry is so deftly sketched with so few words, yet wonderfully imagined, that I wonder how I ever could stand to read Harry Potter.

I guess I now have to read the rest of the series, having remembered how beautiful the first novel was. If you've never read the Earthsea series, you need to. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Review: Sweet Silver Blues

Glen Cook is best known for his Black Company series, a fantasy series that breaks all the usual stereotypes. My brother thought that his Garrett P.I. series was pretty good too, so I got started on the first book of the series.

The premise of the series is that of a Private Investigator in a fantasy universe. Nero Wolfe was the template, but not being familiar with the original, I plowed ahead. The character, Garrett, is an ex-marine turned private investigator. His old friend, Denny, died with a huge sum of money willed to an old lover, and as an executor of the estate he has to track her down.

Running a mystery story is difficult in a fantasy (or science fiction) setting, because if the reader doesn't know what the ground rules are for the story, it's very difficult to make guesses as to who did what. But about halfway through the book, I realized that Glen Cook solved this problem by ignoring the mystery --- events just happen one after another, with the result that the story becomes somewhat of a caper story, complete with tomb-raiding, an adventure involving vampires, and lots of action that reveals that Garrett isn't a nice guy at all.

Unfortunately, not liking the character or the plot (which meanders all over the place), I cannot find myself recommending the book. If you want to read Glen Cook at his best, go read the Black Company series instead.