Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tour of the Alps 2003 Updated

I've been scanning old photos, and the most recent project was slides from my 2003 Alps Trip. Most of the pictures were taken by Lisa, who was stoking the tandem. The stoker position affords the opportunity to shoot lots of pictures on the move (in some cases down a major mountain pass!), and Lisa did so. My later Alps trips, while they might have similarly good pictures, almost never have photos shot on descents because I'm too busy bombing down the pass with both hands on the handlebars to even think about shooting.

So take a gander, if you haven't already:
Tour of the Alps 2003

Mountain Charlie Loop

 

Lea Kissner, Richard Gooch, and Eddie Kessler showed up at Lexington Dam around 9:30am, and we headed off for a ride up Old Santa Cruz Highway. It was cloudy as we left the house, but by the time the bikes were ready the sun was out. We rode a slow, steady pace up Old Santa Cruz highway and by the time we got to the intersection with summit road the fog bank was in from the coast. A quick stop at the summit store for some water, we then rode down Soquel-San Jose road, which was still as smooth and fast a descent as I remembered before turning off at Laurel Glen. Laurel Glen was a climb in the shady redwoods before descending down to Branciforte.

At the turn off from Branciforte onto Granite Creek road, Lea bunny hopped a bridge joint and ejected the water bottle from her newly purchased Aqua rack. We then rode into Scotts Valley, where soon after the climb into the city proper we spotted Eric Fetch's (AKA the bike doctor) bike repair truck parked in the driveway of his house. I suggested that Lea get her bike fixed right then but she thought it would be rude to drop in without notice, so we proceeded into Scotts Valley.

I don't usually eat lunch on this ride, but Lisa, Lea and Richard ganged up and talked me into a stop at Carlos', a mexican joint just past the Highway 17 overpass. The food was fast and plentiful, but I knew there would be hell to pay on Mt. Charlie Road after that. By the time we were done with lunch it was well past 2:00pm, so we headed on our way to Mt. Charlie Road.

The bottom of Mt. Charlie road is deceptively easy --- it's rutted and has extremely bad pavement but the grade is extremely gentle, which made me wonder if I had misgraded this climb. After the initial easy section that's lulled you into a sense of security, however, Mt. Charlie reveals its true colors in the form of several pitches of 13-18% grade, which is tough going on a tandem even without an enchilada and a taco weighing me down. The temperature which had seemed cool earlier now felt like it was really warm, because at 2mph you just aren't getting a breeze to cool you down.

Half an hour or so of grinding later, we made it to the summit and zoomed down to the stop sign a mile away, where Richard and Eddie were so tired of standing around waiting for us that they had decided to lie down for a nap. We then proceeded over Highway 17 again, descending via Mt. Charlie road and Old Santa Cruz highway back to Lexington dam for a total of 42.89 miles and 4300' of climbing, which meets the Western Wheeler standard of 100' of climb per mile of riding.
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Review: Samsung SBH 500 Stereo Bluetooth Headphones

I recently switched from using a Blackberry Curve as my primary cell phone to my Android G1. The main reason: Bluetooth A2DP Stereo support.

The Blackberry Curve supposedly supports A2DP too, but the native media player didn't expose the feature, and I had to try a 3rd party player. The result was atrocious --- one track would use the headphones, and the next one would use the phone's speakerphone or just cut off completely. I would have given up at that point, but then I tried upgrading my android to cupcake.

The integration is easy: just pair your phone in the Wireless Settings to the SBH 500, and start the music app. That's it. It even does the right thing when a call comes in --- the music player pauses, you take the call, and the music resumes after the call is over. Sound quality is good. No, let me take that back. Sound quality is great! When I'm in the office or at home, I get no dropped notes (unless I strain the G1's processor --- then the music skips, but that's not the headphone's fault). Phone calls sound great --- even my callers comment on that! I'm not usually a fan of listening to music at work, but now I do, because it sounds so great, and I didn't realize how much the fact that my headphones had wires kept me from listening to music until I had these!

As a bonus, the charger for these headphones has the same charger tip as for my Kindle v1. The manual claims 10 hours of talk time and 10 days of standby time, and indeed, I have yet to drain the battery on it, despite only charging the headphones once a week or so.

The only complaint I have about the headphones is that they get a little uncomfortable after a couple of hours of use --- that's not a big deal --- I take them off and 10 minutes later I'm ready to wear them again.

Given that they're available used on Amazon.com for about $25 shipped, I think these are an incredible bargain. Recommended!

Review: The Steel Remains

I would have written a review of The Steel Remains in January if Del Rey had chosen to price the Kindle edition of the book at $9.99 instead of trying to price it like the hardcover at $14. As it was, since I had plenty to read, I simply placed a hold at my public library. Yes, Del Rey, you lost $14 of revenue because you mis-priced your product.

At this point, we all know what to expect from a Morgan novel: a super soldier, lots of explicit sex, and plenty of philosophy and violence. Well, Morgan throws us a twist this time: the universe is an atypical fantasy universe, the protagonist is a gay warrior, and while there's plenty of explicit sex, the violence is even more explicit, and as bloody as you would expect --- much more so than the usual cleaned up fantasy novel.

I mis-wrote. There were actually 3 protagonists, all relics of the past war with the Lizards 10 years ago. Egar the Dragonbane is now part of the Steppe nomads, a happy clan-master running an unhappy clan. Archeth, a deadly knife-fighter, now works for the emperor as a trouble-shooter, losing herself in drugs. All this ends when Ringil's mom shows up and guilts him into searching for a cousin sold into slavery. (As unorthodox a start to a fantasy story as you can find --- how many brave warriors have moms?)

The plot then multiplies and we dig into one mystery after another until it all comes together in a bloody finale. While it's not radical, it all makes for fun reading --- and Morgan, if nothing else, is a good enough writer to keep you occupied for a few hours. Recommended for those with a strong stomach. For anyone else, take a look at Altered Carbon and see if Morgan's to your taste. That's still his strongest work.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Review: The Lost Fleet, Relentless

The Lost Fleet: Relentless is the fifth book in the Lost Fleet series starting with Dauntless. They are meant to be read in order, so don't buy this book and not have read all the others in the series.

One of my biggest fears with regards to long series is that the series will never end (or Robert Jordan style, the author would die before the series ends --- even his successor is having trouble keeping the final volume of the series in one book). Fortunately, it looks like John G. Hemry/Jack Campbell is very disciplined and the series will end at the sixth book.

Unlike previous books in the series, this one doesn't center around relativistic space battle set-pieces. In any case, if I was impressed by Campbell's set pieces, Alastair Reynolds' Redemption Ark blew me away as far as creativity in space battles is concerned --- it's obvious that Reynolds was an astronomer/physicist while Campbell was a navy man. Instead, what we have is a series of intrigues, one of which centers around a mole/traitor on the flagship.

As usual, Campbell's handling of romance and relationships between men and women is shallow, but as an adventure story the pace is fast, your brain rarely needs to be fully engaged, and nothing is bogged down. Recommended as an airplane novel and not much else.

Working with your hands

The New York Times Magazine ran an interesting excerpt from a book called The Case for Working with Your Hands this past weekend. In it, the author expresses how directly working on a physical object is direct, honest and cleansing in a way that intellectual work (such as the deservedly maligned investment banking) is not.

To some large extent I agree with him, but I've also had exceedingly bad encounters with shadetree mechanics who wouldn't read a book or understand the principles behind them if it killed them. Here's an example: Bicycle Wheels. I started building them for myself after running into several issues with wheels built by bike mechanics.

What really annoyed me was that these mechanics always adopted a holier than thou attitude --- they would insist that what they were doing was correct, despite violating every engineering principle. Myth and lore would take priority over being correct and building solid wheels. For instance, mechanic after mechanic would insist that straight 14 gauge spokes were stronger that swaged spokes. They would insist that not tensioning the wheel up to maximum possible tension was better than doing so (even though wheel durability is directly correlated with spoke tension). I even recently got into an argument with a well-known wheel builder as to whether spoke prep/loctite was necessary for building strong wheels.

It was this kind of attitude that made me realize that no matter the myth/lore/experience of a shade tree mechanic (or even a reputable mechanic) --- someone who's a good engineer (even someone who's not a real engineer, such as a software engineer) who's willing to read up on prior art and apply himself really does make a superior mechanic, if that was what he wanted to do. So there's plenty of learning on both sides.

(And I have no doubt that investment bankers would make terrible mechanics)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Review: The Prefect

With Absolution Gap being such a big disappointment, I could not bring myself to dive into The Prefect right away, even though the library had delivered both books at the same time. Nevertheless, by the time I was half way through the novel, I found myself visiting the library's web-site and ordering every book Reynolds has written that the library has.

The Prefect revolves around Tom Dreyfuss, a policeman of sorts during the Yellowstone System's Belle Epoque. What's great about this setting is that from previous novels, we know the fate of the system, but since those stories took place after a major disaster, we never get to know about the Glitter Band before it became the Rust Belt. The setting, then, is both different yet familiar to fans of the series. Even better, Reynolds has to clue you into the setting whether or not you're an old hand or a new reader. Technically, this is brilliantly done, and a clear case of the author in complete command of his universe as well as the stories he wants to tell.

Set in a post-singularity world, the story begins with Tom Dreyfuss investigating a mass-murder --- someone has destroyed an entire space habitat. From there, the story proceeds to increase in scope, as Dreyfuss has to unwind plots both within and without the Panoply (the police force for the Glitter Band) that ultimately determine the fate of the system. All throughout, we get hints and names that are familiar to us from previous novels, yet none of that name dropping is an inside-reference --- Reynolds deftly ties it altogether, and we see that what we thought were side-references in previous novels can be seen as scene-setting for this one.

Amazingly, after my complaints of wooden characters in previous novels, we now see fully-formed characters. Dreyfuss is very much not a cardboard cut-out, and we learn to respect him. There weren't any obviously wooden characters in this one, except perhaps for the villain. The only real criticism of this book is that despite the initial setup as a crime novel, it really turns into a techno thriller in the end, as the author does tell you who the traitor is long before Dreyfuss gets to him.

Nevertheless, this novel is highly recommended, and well worth paying the $10.80 Kindle price for if you're too impatient to wait for the library.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Review: Soon I Will be Invincible

Soon I Will be Invincible is Austin Grossman's superhero novel. It is told from two perspectives: Fatale, who is the Next Generation of Warfare, a rookie superhero joining the New Champions a superhero team roughly analogous to the Justice league of America. The other narrator is Dr. Impossible, The Smartest Man in the World, the supreme villain who has fought with CoreFire, the Superman analogue all through his career. The chapters alternate between the two perspectives.

Being a novel, the book gets into the minds of the characters as they muse about their various predicaments. Unfortunately, Austin Grossman is studying for a PhD in English at Berkeley which means that it's very hard for him to make Dr. Impossible come off as a really smart person --- a novel that tries to get into the mind of a character has to pull off quite a bit more than a comic book that only shows the Villanous dialogue rather than quiet reflection. In fact, Dr. Impossible comes across as a self-pitying person who never quite gets the hang of villainy.

The plot behind the novel was extremely simple Dr. Impossible escaped from jail and a superheroes once again have to stop him before he conquers the world. All the cliches you can find in comic books are here, as Grossman doesn't find that he has anything to add to the genre except some meta-musings: for instance, Dr. Impossible is said to have malign hyper-cognition syndrome --- the politically correct term for evil scientist.

Unfortunately all the plot twists are telegraphed way in advance by the author, as if he was afraid that you weren't smart enough to figure out what was going to happen next. Even the ending isn't at all interesting because Dr. impossible doesn't seem to even know what to do when he has conquered the world. Oh wait, it is only implied that he might have known what to do if he did succeed. The novel isn't even courageous enough to take that step. All in all, although the novel is short and could be a fun read on an airplane or on a bus, I can't really recommend it over going to the source material, and hunting down a copy of Alan Moore's Miracleman (the paper books run on ebay for hundreds of dollars each, but I'm sure you can find electronic copies if you look)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Short Mt. Tam Ride

 

This ride really took it out of me. Despite being short, the day was well over 90 degrees by the time we started riding over towards Fairfax, and the tandem makes all climbs about twice as hard. Mike didn't have much trouble and was quite strong at the end. Definitely needed to eat more ice cream!
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A Quick Tutorial on ND grad. filters

Now that I have sample photos up, I can discuss ND graduated filters, which are my favorite tool for serious landscape photography, so much so that I feel naked without them when I'm on a serious photography trip. As described earlier, the fundamental problem of photography is to be able to render a scene that your eye can see into one that the digital sensor and your monitor (or print) can present.

Since slides and monitors can present about an 8:1 contrast ratio between the brightest and dimmest section of an image, while your eye (because it moves constantly and your brain composites all those images with no effort on your part) can see about 1000:1 contrast ratios in the same scene, you have a problem with a typical sunset or sunrise:

From Grand Tetons and Yellowstone

Note how the light (which your eye will render as yellow if you were there) is washed out, and the dark sections of the scene hold no shadow detail. (This is in addition to this film being shot by a point and shoot camera) The solution is to eliminate the dark portions of the scene through careful framing, and then placing an ND grad. filter right where the cloud-line would otherwise blow-out:
From Grand Tetons and Yellowstone

Now the light on the mountain looks closer to what you would see in reality if you were there. In the digital age, you can use Photoshop and Lightroom's HDR facilities to achieve something similar through multiple exposures instead of carrying $100 filters, but if the clouds in the scene were moving at all, for instance, you can forget it! One reason I converted over to Lightroom from my beloved Picasa is that you can apply an ND grad. filter after the fact in Lightroom (you must shoot in RAW mode for this to work --- storage is so cheap nowadays there's no reason not to)! This is huge, since even if you habitually carry ND grad. filters, what this means is that you get effectively 2 more stops of additional filtration after the exposure if that's what you need.

When in doubt as to whether the scene requires the use of an ND grad. filter, what you can do is to switch the camera to spot meter mode, and quickly spot meter the brightest and darkest parts of the scene. If the difference between the two is more than about 2.5 stops, you need an ND grad. filter. To decide how much filtration you need, figure out the difference between the highlights and the shadows, and subtract 2.5 (or 2 stops if the arithmetic is hard) from it --- this is how many stops you need. I usually carry both a two stop and a three stop filter, and can combine the two to create a five stop scene. If you're shooting RAW digital, you can be off in this calculation by about two stops, since Lightroom will give you that much leeway. (If you're shooting slides, you better be exact, or spend more film and bracket)

A really important tip about placement of the line in the view-finder. It is essential that you stop down to shooting aperture before placing the filter! Where the line on the filter is changes depending on your shooting aperture, which is one reason why the SLR is a superior tool for serious landscape work than a TLR or a rangefinder camera. This is why even though you might be able to use a polarizer on a compact point and shoot, it will be difficult to use an ND grad. filter on one --- there's no way to see the shooting aperture.

Another place where ND. grad. filters are useful is in reflections:
From Grand Tetons and Yellowstone

Not all the light hitting the water bounces back in the direction of the camera --- some of it goes into the water as well, and as a result when you try to take a picture of a reflection, the reflection often looks too dark. The solution: an ND grad. filter with the gradation line placed right where the reflection is.

Graduated filters are not a panacea --- used wrong, they can look unnatural, and frequently there's not a good line you can use. But when faced with a high contrast scene (especially those wonderful alpenglow scenes that nature photographers love), they are indispensable, and well worth their weight in the camera bag.
From Grand Tetons and Yellowstone
Recommended Eqiupment:
(In a hurry you can drop the filter holder and adapter ring and just hold the filter in front of the lens) I also have a full review of the Singh-Ray filters and why they're worth $100 each.

From Converted

An example of an unnatural look when an ND grad. filter is used. Notice the blue sky above the clouds but yellow below. Of course, unnatural doesn't always mean that the picture isn't pretty

Grand Tetons and Yellowstone Trip, September 2002

Grand Tetons and Yellowstone


For the longest time I promised myself that when I had time, a fast computer, and a place to host photos, I would go back and scan all the pictures I have on slide film into digital format for display. Part of it is that in this digital age, no one seems to have time to show up for a slide show any more. The other part of it is that I like to have images up for instructional purposes as well, and some of those pictures I had back in the old days were especially good. Slide photography is the most demanding form of photography there is --- unlike with color negative or digital photography, there's no possibility of rescue from a bad picture --- you can't even crop! Everything has to be done before the shutter is pushed. In addition, the very best slide films were slow (Fuji Velvia is ISO 50, Kodak Kodachrome is ISO 25).

Now that I have a little bit of time and a fast computer, I'll start with my Grand Tetons/Yellowstone Fall 2002 collection. That was one of those photo-trips where everything came together --- the light, the weather, and my gear all operated in peak condition, and I was very pleased with the results. The camera gear was an Olympus Stylus Epic 35mm point and shoot, and I had both my Canon bodies with me: EOS-3 and Elan IIe, as well as my entire collection of lenses and filters. I did suffer a mishap though --- as a cheap-skate I was always camping whenever I could, and after a stint in the hot springs with the tripod, the next morning I'd found my tripod legs frozen solid! I had to sit in the car with the heater full on and aimed at the tripod legs to get them to unfreeze so I could use them! All in all, I shot about 30 rolls of film for a 2 week trip, of which 7 days were spent in the back country without the serious equipment.

Scanning was performed on a Canoscan 4000US slide/negative scanner. It works like a champ, but of course, even the comparatively cheap Canoscan 8800F nowadays will be fast and probably just as good. I had to buy Vuescan because Canon does not provide a 64-bit Vista driver for that old scanner, but even if they had, neither Lightroom nor Photoshop support TWAIN scanners any more anyway! It sucks to be obsolete. Fortunately, Vuescan is very good and well worth the $40 --- the scans are so clean that I only have to crop them and post.

In any case, click through on the link, click "slideshow", and enjoy the show!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Review: The Steerswoman

The Steerswoman is such an old book that it is now out of print. You can, however, buy the Steerwoman's Road, which contains the first two volumes of the series.

The novel starts in what you would think is a typical fantasy universe, with mentions of Wizards, no high technology, and long travel on foot, sail, and all the usual inconveniences. The story revolves around Rowan, who's a Steerswoman, a combination of sage and wise-woman who acts as a repository of information for the community.

At the story's start, Rowan stumbles on some interesting jewels at an inn and feels compelled to investigate further. Before long, however, she finds herself under attack, and the story proceeds then to investigate the world she lives in, which turns out not to be the usual straightforward fantasy world after all.

The reveals are well setup and put together intelligently, but the characters are perhaps a little wooden. Nevertheless, I'll be tracking down the rest of the novels.

Review: Absolution Gap

Absolution Gap is the last book in the Revelation Space trilogy of connected novels. The first two volumes were Revelation Space and Redemption Ark. You could read this novel standalone, but the universe would be a lot richer for you if you read those first two volumes before tackling this one.

Unlike the previous two volumes this one is a downer. Reynolds almost immediately wipes the slate clean by getting rid of characters we know from earlier novels. Second, he then provides a bit of misdirection by providing a separate plot on a new system known as Hela. As the two plots converge, we learn more about the nature of the planet, and how dire the fate of humanity is under the threat of the inhibitors.

Unfortunately, as warned by the reviewers on Amazon.com, the book has a bad ending. It's bad not necessarily because the plot is no good, but because after all that build up, the ending has nothing to do with either of the plot strands discussed earlier. It's as though Reynolds decided to pull a massive bait and switch. The science parts of the novel are fun and interesting, but I'm afraid even Reynolds can't hold a novel with just that. I can't recommend this novel as a result, though I think the overall series is still worth reading on the strength of the first two novels alone.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Review: The Science of Fear

The Science of Fear is a great book! It covers why fear seems rampant in this modern age, when life expectancies are longer than ever before, and wars seem less frequent than ever (though the 20th century was still the bloodiest in history, neither nuclear Armageddon nor famine became prevalent). The book covers all the elements of fear, starting from why we remember negative news better than we remember positive ones.

It then goes on to examine who has an incentive to make you fear the world. Product companies (such as security specialists) have an incentive to sell you a product, and by making you afraid (of say a break in), they make money. Politicians such as George H. W. Bush have an incentive to sell fear, because that enables them to stay in office. Finally, the media has an incentive to sell news stories, and the best news stories involve fear, since nothing else sticks in your mind like the latest disease or disaster, no matter how statistically unlikely it is to affect you.

The author also dissects why we are so vulnerable to such institutions and people preying on us: our brains aren't evolved for modern society, from photography to round-the-globe 24-hour news coverage, so while we're capable of driving at 65mph down the freeway, our brains haven't adapted to the idea that perhaps the fact that we spend all our time driving and very little time exercising is much more dangerous to us than that news story about the serial killer or what-have-you.

What I love the book is that it's not afraid to name names and debunk myths. The breast implants scare comes up early on, and he follows through with such examples as the primary cause for cancer (I won't spoil it for you, but I guarantee that it's not much of a surprise if you think about it). Even sacred icons such as Rachel Carlson are not spared from Mr. Gardner's research and analysis.

All in all, this book is highly recommended.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Relay, 2009

So two weekends ago, I participated in The Relay.  As part of the third Google Team, we ran 199 miles.

This blog chronicles everything that my team went through, giving pretty much a blow by blow account of the entire race. =)  

Yes, we blogged on the run.  Say yay, to mobile WiFi!

The race was more of a logistics challenge more so than a challenging run.   As a bonus though, I got to run one of my favourite hills to ride up, Redwood Gulch. =)

Ironic, I never thought I would be running up that hill!  My time for that portion fortunately is worse than my ride up it (50 minutes for the 3 mile stretch)

I don't think I'll quite do this again as it didn't turn out to be difficult and was just long stretches of waiting.  It IS quite incredible to do this as part of a team though, and that I'll treasure more than anything else.


Review: Black Diamond Orbit Lantern

I bought the Black Diamond Orbit Lantern during the REI 20% off period. I actually spent some time debating between that and the Apollo, but decided that the lighter weight of the Orbit would soon meet my needs.

Prior to this purchase, I always used a candle or a Coleman gas lantern, but the Stephenson did not come with straps for hanging the candle lantern, and the Coleman always had problems with use inside a tent --- not only is it dangerous, but a topple could burn up your tent!

The Orbit is tiny. It weighs 5 ounces with 4 AAA batteries. Each set of AAAs will go for about 10 hours, which is more than enough for a 5 day backpacking trip during the summer, or 2-3 days in the fall. It is bright!. With it fully lit, the inside of the tent feels very much like daylight. (that's an illusion, since it only has a 1W LED) It's so bright that your see white spots for a bit after you stare at the lantern directly.

As a reading light, it is so bright that I had to turn it down (fortunately it comes with a dimmer switch). I found a great way to use it, which is to lie it down on the side and then read on my back with the book (or Kindle) held up in my hands. For extra battery savings stick a mirror behind it, and use the dimmer.

Needless to say, this light is highly recommended. I'm retiring all my candle and gas lanterns as a result.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Cazedero LDT

From Piaw's Blog

From Piaw's Blog

What a gorgeous weekend it was! Not wanting it to go to waste, I joined the Western Wheelers for the Cazedero Circuit rides, a combination of really gorgeous rides in Northern California, on the Sonoma Coast. I knew I was out of shape, but this ride told me how badly off I was. Two years ago, I did the E ride on Saturday, 85 miles and 8500' of climbing, and was surprised on Sunday by how easy the ride up Coleman Valley road was. This year, I did the C ride, 65 miles and 6500' of climbing and was exhausted, feeling a lot of lower back soreness from the climbing. Then Saturday's climb up Coleman Valley road was a slog, no question about it. I was just too tired to be frisky.

Nevertheless, with wild poppies abound and gorgeous coastal scenery, I can't complain. It's good to be able to enjoy California after spending so much time away.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Kindle DX a massive boon to travelers

I did not bother upgrading to the Kindle 2 because I thought it was an inferior product compared to the Kindle v1. Today's announcement of the Kindle DX, however, will likely have me digging out my wallet to pay for the next time I travel. It's heavier (8 ounces more, so it will now compete with my CPAP machine in weight), and bulkier, but has one major feature, which is PDF support.

For the traveler, that means all the lonely planet PDFs can be stored for searching when you travel. When cycling in Europe or backpacking through Japan, this is a massive weight and space savings over the paper books. I begged Lonely Planet a year ago for a Kindle edition, but now I don't have to wait.

I don't know when the newspapers and magazines will switch over to PDF content, but it's only a matter of time --- now you'll be able to get all those glossies with images, etc. In other words, if you're about to travel somewhere independently (i.e., not part of a guided tour), this will become an essential accessory for you.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Review: My Life as a Quant

My Life as a Quant (kindle edition) is Emanuel Derman's memoir of his journey from being an ambitious Physicist to being a much lauded financial engineer.

The first half of his book covers his training and education as a physicist. There's not a little bit of the usual physicist's arrogance built into his training. There's the note that in Physics, you frequently run into people so smart that you know you'll never be at that level, and the widely accepted opinion that Physics is so much better than other fields that a poorly paying post-Doc as a physicist is better than almost any other profession. From being a professor at the University of Colorado to finally ending up at Bell Labs where he was essentially trained as one of the early C programmers, Derman's gradual disillusionment with Physics and his lack of material progress in that field shows through.

The second half of the book is much more exciting. It's provides a good layman's introduction to financial engineering (that Derman's currently a professor of financial engineering shows through), as well as Derman's life in Goldman Sachs and Saloman Brothers, firms which were central in the financial collapse last year. Now that he's a successful theorist in financial engineering, Derman's a lot more humble --- he ends with a long treatise on the limits of financial engineering, and emphasizes that ultimately, it's the trader's human intuition that makes the final decision, and that no model in finance can give you the same exactness as the ones in Physics --- in one you're playing a game where the rules do not change, and in the other you play against humans, who learn and always find new exploits.

The book was worth my time, but I wonder what he would say now, given the events in 2008.

Review: Escaflowne

I found this in my archives on my hard drive, and still have fond memories of the TV series, which is now available in all sorts of special collection editions on Amazon, and decided that Escaflowne can't possibly be popular enough, so I'm resurrecting it on my blog.

Vision of Escaflowne is a science fiction adventure. Produced by Shouji Kawamori, who also produced the delectable Macross, Escaflowne is a story that combines fantasy, romance, and adventure in 26 25-minute episodes. Aired in Japan in 1996, this TV series is now available as a complete DVD collection.

The story revolves around Hitomi, who is a first year student in high school. Hitomi has a crush on one of the seniors on the school track team, Amano. When she learns that he is leaving for England, she gathers up her courage, and asks him to clock her on the track. And if she gets in under 13 seconds, would Amano-sempai please give her her first kiss?

Unfortunately, during her run, a boy from one of Hitomi's dreams show up in a flash of light, followed closely by a dragon. In the events that transpire shortly thereafter, Hitomi is transported along with the the boy to his planet, Gaea, with no apparent way back. I'll let other sites do the rest of the plot synopsis. Rest assured that the adventure never lets up, and surprise after surprise will challenge the viewer to keep the story straight.

As a world, Gaea evokes Edgar Rice Burrough's John Carter, Princess of Mars series. There are ape-men, and cat-women, boy princes and dashing swords men, flying ships which levitate using anti-gravity rocks, and powered-armored suits (called Guymelefs in the story) which transform, fly, and draw their energy from a stone called a Dragu-Energist, which can only be found in the remains of a dragon. The title of the series, Escaflowne, is the name of the Guymelef that Van Fanel pilots.

The boy whom Hitomi rescues is Van Fanel, a prince of a small country on Gaea. When Fanelia is destroyed by an invisible army of Guymelefs, Hitomi and Van spend the rest of the story trying to discover who is doing this and why.

The Characters
There are four major characters in the story, along with a large supporting cast. Hitomi is the viewpoint character, a natural choice, since the audience is far more likely to identify with her than with anyone else. Van Fanel, the King of Fanelia starts the story appropriately enough, as a King without a country, and eventually grows to become the warrior that he did not want to be at the start of the story. The third leg of Hitomi's romantic triangle (you knew there was going to be one, didn't you?) is Allen Schezar, a dashing, handsome swordsman of Asturia, the country Van and Hitomi flee to when escaping from Fanel's destroyers. Princess Millerna, who's the third daughter of Asturia, however, is in love with Allen, hence the romance turns out not to be a simple case of who does Hitomi chooses?

The interactions between characters is entertaining and perhaps classically romantic. The characters have histories that come back to haunt them, as well as unresolved pasts that they eventually have to confront. But as with most good stories, the most impressive thing about Escaflowne is that the characters do grow and mature. Hitomi does not return to Earth as the same girl who left for Gaea.

Plot

This is a fast paced series. There are at least one or two plot twists every episode,
so watching it in a collection is much better than trying to pick it up off broadcast TV. Escaflowne was first conceived as a 39 episode series, but the budget was set for 26 episodes, hence the tight pacing. In many ways this is a good thing, since there are no episodes where nothing happens, and even the character development episodes don't leave a viewer feeling cheated.

What I really like, however, is the fact that for a romance, Hitomi definitely does more than her fair share of rescuing in the series. The female leads are strong characters, and the story is compelling and full of the kind of wonder I started reading science fiction for. Of course, there are a few inconsistencies, such as Hitomi's school uniform remaining intact and immaculate despite the rough treatment she gives it, and the number of adventures she puts it through. (And except for a few episodes, she doesn't wear anything else!)

Is it worth 13 hours?

Yes! If you don't feel like buying the series, rent it, borrow it, or pool money with your friends and buy it, but by all means watch it. This is Japanese animation at its best. Unlike older series such as Macross or Gatchaman, this series is incredibly well-drawn for a TV series. The art is uniformly high quality, and consistent from episode to episode. Sure, there are the usual cases of long still shots and reused footage from episode to episode, but by and large the animation, even on a small screen is as good as anything I have seen. You won't be disappointed.

There is a movie, but as with Macross, the movie has no plot resembling that of the TV series, and in fact, will have some of the characters redrawn so dramatically that you will not recognize them except by name.

For More Information

The Big Escaflowne Website. This is a well-designed site, with lots of production information and notes on the show, as well as episode guides and a good idea of what's going to be in the movie. Spoilers are carefully marked.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

A Consolidated Cycle Touring Page

For years, my cycle touring travelogues and web pages have been all over the place, ranging from my Alma-Mater to this blog to geocities. With recent news that Geocities was to be shut down by the end of the year, I asked on FriendFeed where to host all my soon-to-be-gone content.

The overwhelming vote was for Google's App Engine. I had played with it 2 years ago when it was a Google internal alpha, but I didn't think of using it for hosting static content. It does have a few quirks, but it's cheap, and visitors are unlikely to overwhelm the free quota, which is more than I can say about the Geocities page! I do like that I finally get to use the domain that I registered two years ago.

The runner up was DreamHost, which came with rave reviews by many users, but my experience with their promotion for migrating Geocities was less than ideal, and I have reasonable confidence that Google's free quota will always be more than I can use.

I'd like to say that I rescued everything before bit-rot set in, but unfortunately, I've already lost quite a number of photos, and in many years had to settle for just rescuing the text.

So hop over to my Consolidated Touring Pages and have a look! (I do apologize for the years in which I didn't do write ups of my trip --- I intend to remedy them eventually)

Friday, May 01, 2009

Review: Almost Perfect

One of the best things about owning a Kindle is that items that are too long to read entirely online are easily converted to Kindle format and then are indistinguishable from books. Almost Perfect is one such item.

Almost Perfect was written by W. E. Pete Peterson, one of WordPerfect's early employees and CEO in all but name. For those of you who remember the era of desktop software, there's the usual Microsoft story of the evil empire using its formidable influence to tilt the market to its playing field. I was on the sidelines at the time, and my observation was that most Microsoft competitors didn't need Microsoft's help doing themselves in.

In WordPerfect's case, it was clear that they had an incredibly good product for DOS and character-based interfaces. I was an early Wordstar user, and I remember how MicroPro shot itself in the foot with the introduction of Wordstar 2000, destroying all the backwards compatibility the users had come to expect. Frequently, the lack of backwards compatibility was what killed a lot of software companies. (Microsoft's current woes with Vista driver and application compatibility is only the latest such example)

The book is short and well-written, and unremittingly describes WordPerfect's success (listening to the customer, supporting them well, and learning from their mistakes) and mistakes (supporting platforms and programs that didn't make money, never developing in house management talent that could think the way the founders did, and being too optimistic about the resources required to compete in GUI-oriented word processing programs). In this case, the attempt to diversify across product lines extracted a costly toll on the company that it could not afford, since it did not have a monopoly that Microsoft had to sustain as many disparate development efforts as they did.

Ultimately, however, I consider this book a good example of the importance of building an organization that can function along without key people, rather than an organization composed of superheroes. While Pete Peterson was undoubtedly a talented executive (proving once again that business school is no substitute for hard work and common sense), towards the end he was strained past the breaking point by WordPerfect's growth, and could not keep track of all that was essential for success. He wanted to run a flat organization, but the shortage of management talent in the company (and his flailing attempts to remedy it at the last minute) eventually came to roost, and WordPerfect paid the price.

Recommended for its brief, honest appraisal, and a good look at the inside world of desktop, shrink-wrapped software.