Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Comments Vampirism and the Segregation of Communities

The last few days have been interesting experiments in the nature of social networking and social networking sites. I mostly write my mid-length articles on my blog, which gets syndicated to FriendFeed and Facebook. The problem is, the two communities are mostly disjoint, and each has their own comments mechanism and database, so the two never meet.

Take for instance, my recent blog post on Politics. It has 1 comment on the blog proper, two comments over at friendfeed, and two comments on Facebook. And none of them talk to each other. Might we have had a more interesting discussion if somehow everything went into one comment database? I'll never know, but I know for sure I'm irritated at having comments split between my blog and 2 social networking sites with no ability to consolidate them or having them indexed by Google, unlike the comments on this blog!

What's good about comments on the social networking sites is that I never have to moderate them (or at least, I haven't had to do so yet), since they only get written to by my friends. The blog itself does get semi-frequent bouts of link-spamming, which is why I have moderation turned on, but what I really want is a service that will consolidate all the comments together in one place and allow a true conversation to take place, regardless of whether you're coming through a social network or through a Google search. Let's think a bit about what features such a service would have:

  1. Multiple moderation modes: I'd be happy to leave Facebook comments unmoderated, and moderate Friendfeed entries after the fact, but the blog has to have comments vetted since it frequently gets spam.
  2. Comment mirroring: all the comments from one social network or the blog would get mirrored to all the other social networks. That way, a conversation can happen between folks who aren't signed onto the same social networks, with my blog as the common link. Conversely, if I delete a spam entry, I want all the networks to mirror that deletion as well.
  3. Identification: I would like to be able to see, "Hey, so and so replied to me from Facebook --- he must have a Facebook account, and I forgot to add him to my friend list, so I'll go do it now."

I'm sure there are other nice things to have such as threading, direct messages, etc., but since I don't run a high traffic blog, just those 4 features would make my blog more useful to my friends, and go a long way towards having real conversations on the web be interesting. Of course, with Facebook's policy of running a walled garden, I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for someone to implement this.

Review: Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream - A Day in the Life of Your Body

Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream is Jennifer Ackerman's science book about your body over a 24 hour period. Amongst the many topics, it discusses the circadian rhythm, how brains, stomach, muscles, and sleep works, all in a very general but literate way (you can tell Ackerman was an English major).

The unfortunate side effect of all that literacy is that Ackerman frequently digresses into personal details, so much of the book talks about her family, her memories, and everything else.

As far as the scientific details are concerned, this book reminds me very much of I am Joe's Body, an extremely high level introduction to the biology of the human body, though clearly Ackerman writes for a much higher level of reading skill than Reader's Digest.

Unfortunately, the result of such broad coverage is shallow-ness. You certainly don't get the in-depth study of sleep seen in The Promise of Sleep, and the section on multi-tasking is no better than what I read in Traffic. This is very unfortunate, since every new fact she came up with I feel like I'd read already in some New York Times article (like the one about exercise actually improving your ability to think) or some other book.

I guess if you're not a science junkie like me, this book might give you something new. Otherwise, give it a pass.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hubs

Recently, Pardo and I found a click-click-click noise in my 3.5 year Shimano DuraAce 7700 freehub. While it was well past the warranty period, this wheel had only about 10000 miles on it, and was never ridden in the rain, so while we took it apart, overhauled it, immersed the freehub driver in bio-diesel, and re-lubricated everything, we discussed what other hubs would have lower maintenance but still remain relatively light.

The lowest maintenance hubs out there are probably the Phil Wood FSA hubs. As Pardo says, "Cheap, durable, light, pick any two. Oh wait, the Phils are just durable. They're expensive and heavy." But nothing beats Phils for durability --- I bought a pair in 1993, rode them for 10 years or so, and sold them in 2005 for $10 less than what I paid for them. Yes, there's inflation, etc., involved, but still, that's pretty darn good.

Then we looked at another important factor, which is the rear hub flange spacing. To check out the numbers, download Spocalc, and try playing with wR on the rear hub. Then observe how the difference between left and right spoke tensions change as you increase or decrease the distance the right flange is from the center of the axle. A decrease from 20mm to 16mm (just 4mm) results in the right side tension dropping from about 75% of the left side tension to 50%. That's almost 30% loss in strength, which is directly related to the total tension in the spokes on the wheel. (You have less overall tension in the wheel when you can't tighten up the right side spokes)

So we took a survey of various hubs using information we could find online (these are all 130mm cassette hubs):







Hub wR (mm)
Shimano 7700 21.1
Shimano 780020.55
Phil Wood Touring18
Chris King18.5
White Industries H218
DT Swiss 240s 17
Campy Record 200715.2

Yes, for wheel strength, Shimano rules, and Campagnolo sucks. This is by design --- Campagnolo designed their cassettes to require more space on the right side of the hub, which meant that for any given model of hub, the Campy version of the hub is weaker than the Shimano version. But you can see when it comes to actual hub implementation, nobody can touch Shimano. A wheel built using the Campagnolo hub is weaker than one using the same hub and spokes and built using either of the Shimano hubs listed here. (Note that there's quite a bit of variation among Shimano hubs, so it's not enough to just use a Shimano hub, you have to use a good one)

No, this doesn't mean that non-Shimano hubs completely suck. If you build with off-center rims (OC), they help you regain some of that lost strength, which means that it doesn't matter as much that your hubs' right flange isn't optimal (in fact, if you're running Campy wheels, you have to run OC rims to have any wheel strength at all). On the other hand, you can build with a Shimano hub and an OC rim, and that'll be even stronger! In exchange, however, you do have to overhaul Shimano hubs every 5000 miles or so, and until the 7900 debut, you have to deal with cone wrenches and hub pre-load adjustment, which I consider a major pain in the neck! I haven't seen the 7900s yet, so I don't know how much of the "you no longer need cone wrenches" part is marketing.

On the plus side, Shimano hubs do look pretty good, roll nice and smoothly when properly maintained, and have a very quiet ratchet (I'm do like how quiet the freehub is --- you can barely hear it if you're rolling along in a quiet neighborhood).

Obviously, even Shimano hubs can be badly built into wheels, so ultimately good wheel-building technique still trumps all, but given how much time it takes to build a good wheel, you might as well start with the hub that gives you the best results given your effort.

More Right Wing Stupidity

Ben Stein suggests that providing healthcare is the province of charity and the states:
I am bound to say I feel queasy even writing this, because I do sincerely feel it is wrong for the poor not to have good medical care. But maybe this is the province of the states or of charity. Maybe it is something that can be worked out without the federal government dictating terms to the affluent. Maybe as important as health care is, individual freedom and private property are indispensable, too. The whole subject is almost terrifying.

Just as one person, I would give a lot to charity to save my family and the future from this kind of redistribution that could mean eliminating freedom and devastating the financial plans of the most productive among us.

The states are pretty much tapped out. Total charitable contributions in 2007 was $307 billion (and it's gone down since). The Medicare budget for 2007 was $394 billion. And that leaves the 40+ million Americans uninsured!

That's right, you could direct all the charitable contributions into healthcare, and not come close to even being able to sustain Medicare. That's right wing ideology for you --- ignorance of facts, and inability to look at numbers --- jingoism and free-market ideology will get us through!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Review: ProBar High Performance Nutrition Bar

Cynthia Wong recommended this bar to me, despite it being extremely expensive. Since she's almost as much of a cheap-skate as I am, I bought an entire box, figuring that if I didn't like it I could sell it to her. (Plus, I'm a sucker for Banana flavored anything --- I love bananas!)

I tried it yesterday on a short ride with 42 miles and 5300' of climb. The bar is small and compact, which is great if you're trying to carry a lot of calories in a small package (each bar is 380 calories) The first impression you get when you bite and chew is that wow, this thing has great flavor. The next impression is, "wow, it's kinda dry, good thing I'm next to a water fountain." It does have honey in it, so it's not completely dry, but there's enough food that you have to down it with a significant amount of water, so it's not a good choice on a really hot day if water supplies are far and few between. Lisa liked the flavor, but found that she couldn't finish it all in one go during a short hike, because of the amount of chewing required, and the dryness.

All in all, the bar is not terribly cost effective --- most food bars a $1/200 calories, and this one is more like $1/165 calories. On the other hand, it tastes pretty good and is nice and compact (3oz/bar) for high calorie density, so I expect that I'll be using it on tours when energy density is a prime requirement and water is plentiful.

Politics

I once dated a lady who told me that politics is for young people. "Older people," she said, "have no time for it." Yet I've found for myself that as I get older, I become more concerned about it, and not just because Healthcare and Health Insurance Policy affects me deeply and personally.

A colleague and I were having dinner the other day, and he complained to me that his significant other wasn't taking her impending job loss seriously, either by searching for another job, or starting her own business. My response, "Well, I used to puzzle over that, and then I realized that I went to school working two jobs rather than taking on debt, while others were happy to go to school full time, and I take vacations that are ambitious and difficult. The number of people in the world willing to work as hard or hustle as much as you and I are is very limited, which is why when I meet them I am willing to invest in them."

When Pengtoh and I were roommates in college, he was on a scholarship while I was working my way through school. He and I started doing system administration in Silicon Valley as a side-job --- we would drive down in the evenings around 7pm, and work till 6am setting up workstations for Crescendo Communications, which would pay us $20/hour. I would then stagger into the class I was the TA for (I was an undergraduate TA) at 8am with bloodshot eyes and graded papers, scaring the heck out of my students.

With that kind of background, you would think that I would grow up to be one of those wild-eyed libertarians, and to be honest, I've had one date accuse me of being a Republican during our first date (needless to say, we didn't have a second). But the truth is, what I've noticed is that it's usually the white, over-privileged types that become Libertarians, not those of us who struggled and hustled like mad when we were younger.

The reason is that most of us who were under-privileged were grateful to our lucky breaks. In my case, the Pell grant paid for my first year's tution, and the work-study program paid for my second year's, whereupon I had built up enough credit and reputation (together with a half year's paid internship) to land both the gigs I discussed above, and then a career in Silicon Valley. Without those breaks, my life would have been even tougher.

The federal government and the state of California invested in my brothers and I in terms of our education (Berkeley's tuition is an incredible bargain). At this point, that investment has paid off hundreds of times, maybe even thousands, in terms of taxes we've paid back to the state and to the federal government. That's one reason why when several folks I knew were fleeing for lower-tax regimes, I didn't feel like I had to join them (the other reason was --- if I'm rich enough to retire, I'm going to do it some place where the weather is actually decent --- you're not rich if you can't afford good weather so you can go cycling/sailing/hiking year round).

What amazes me, though, is that the Libertarian party line seems to be that investing in smart, under-privileged people (in other words, people who are under-valued by the market) is considered robbing the deservedly wealthy to giveaway to the undeserving poor, rather than investing in under-valued properties that has potentially high returns (sure, not all such investments make back the money --- but just like with startups, you only need one such good investment per hundred to pay off all the non-performing ones). No wonder Libertarians have given up on Democracy! With that kind of anti-social attitudes, no wonder so many of them dream of building their own country --- they have to, because if they moved to a tax-haven, their own body guards would be tempted to murder them. I'm going to be very entertained to see if such Libertarian paradises work out (I suspect they won't, unless they're simply monarchies owned by the "libertarian").

What amuses me more is that many Libertarians try to hide their anti-social attitudes (which is really more like, "I've made my millions, screw you!") by posing as defenders of freedom. I grew up in Singapore --- I've seen what it's like in a totalitarian society --- the people who defend freedom are the ones going to jail there, not these posers, who're really only out to cut taxes on themselves. They certainly aren't the ones speaking out on behalf of civil liberties, and are in fact, frequently complain that giving women the vote was a bad idea.

I had a conversation with Brad Delong a few years ago when he visited Google. I asked him if he had any hypothesis on the number of libertarian programmers out there. He had what I think was a very plausible theory: "There is a need for a 23-year old to justify his sudden wealth. It's against his ego and self-image to imagine that he had been lucky, somehow he must deserve it." Hence, I call Libertarianism a religion --- it makes you feel good about yourself, gives you justification to consider outsiders worthless, and makes you think that democracy is a terrible idea and theocracy is a better one. Too bad the recent financial crisis has given the lie to the free market ideology.

Review: The Language of Power

The Language of Power is the latest in Rosemary Kirstein's imaginary future Earth. As with the previous books, it advances the overall plot only by a little bit, which seems to be Kirstein's modus operandi. I guess she's hoping to milk this series all the way to retirement age (and maybe beyond, if that's Robert Jordan's is what the trend is with novels).

This time, Rowan, the scientist/adventurer/protagonist heroine of the series settles in a city to do research on who the leader of the wizards is. While doing so, she encounters an old friend, and finally gets exposure to what she thinks of as magic, but the reader realizes is just technology too advanced for a world of fantasy.

What annoys me about this series is that every book reveals more questions than it answers, and the reveals are rather parsimonious with respect to the overall plot. A few more books like this and I'm going to start pining for the days when books weren't trilogies.

Review: After the Software Wars

After the Software Wars is Keith Curtis' book (with free download) about the future of software. In this case, you pretty much get what you pay for.

The first section of the book is interesting --- Curtis believes that the the software field will only progress when software is open-sourced and GPL'd. His argument is that today's software industry is a lot like alchemists in the middle-ages: all sorts of software techniques are considered secrets, and so very little information occurs --- that means improvements don't accumulate from company to company, and one discovery doesn't benefit the next engineer since it's either buried and embedded in a product that you don't have source code to, or it's documented but the source code is not available.

I definitely believe in this theory, since one reason gtags was open sourced was so that I would never have to re-create the code again, if I were ever to work for another company with a huge source base. I don't believe that this means that GPL software is destined to takeover, however --- we've had Linux for well over 15 years, and Linux still isn't something I could give my mom to use, and printing is still a disaster for me in the office.

If he stopped there, I think it would have made a great web article or blog entry. But like many newly converted, he gets carried away with grand visions and soon goes into irrelevancies like Space Elevators and Carbon Nanotubes. He then proceeds to destroy all his credibility by pontificating on his favorite subject, the religion of Libertarianism (which some day I'll write more about).

All in all, this book is not worth paying money for, and I've summarized the most important part of the book so you can skip it. But since the download is free, if you have a Kindle, go ahead and download it and skim the relevant parts. Not recommended.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Review: Virtuality


Virtuality was Ron Moore's post-Battlestar pilot. It provides an interesting view of space travel, and characteristically enough, uses known technology to portray an exploration of the universe --- no obvious laws of physics were broken in the movie, which by itself makes it almost unique!

As with Battlestar Galactica, the use of negative spaces in the movie is prevalent --- reality-tv like filming techniques are used throughout the entire movie, which lends the movie a very immediate experience. What's fascinating to me is that the traditional movie-making approach is only used inside the virtual reality-experiences, heightening the viewer's dislocation and discomfort with distinguishing what is real and what is not --- which is probably one of the points Ron Moore is getting at.

I think this movie's very much worth watching, though it does (like any good TV pilot would) leave you wanting more.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review: The Lost Steersman

The Lost Steersman is Rosemary Kirstein's third book about her fantasy universe which is really set far in the future, after an unknown form of environmental catastrophe has hit the planet.

As with a lot of science fiction, the characters really are wooden. In particular, the protagonist, Rowan, seems all too easily deceived, despite her previous experiences. And after the build up of the past two novels, we're hoping to get some resolution to many of the questions --- what are the wizards, and why did they do what they do? What are the demons? Are they robots? How did the steerswomen get founded.

One of those questions gets answered, but not very well, and and the others --- let's just say that at this point, I feel like Kirstein is dragging this out to be a fifty book series --- the reveals are coming way too slowly for the overall plot to move very fast and for reader satisfaction.

I will probably read the next book in the series, but only by checking it out from the library.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Doubts about Asset Allocation

There's definitely been a recent bunch of articles about the so-called failure of asset allocation. I'm amused and horrified at the same time. My amusement comes from the use of the last 2-3 year's worth of results to argue that the past 70 years or 100 years of studies on asset allocation are invalid. As I've pointed out, financial planning is a multi-decade process! The only reason why equities can perform as well as they do is that once in a while you get a really good buying opportunity, and if you don't rebalanced into that opportunity when the time comes, don't expect your results to be any good!

My horror stems from the idea that this would lead folks to jump off their financial plans. Now this is understandable. It's very easy to say, "I'm willing to tolerate a 50% drop in my equity portfolio" when times are good. It's another to actively rebalance into that same losing portfolio when times are terrible. The last few years have been tests of conviction for those who might have been uncertain about what their risk tolerance is.

In 2007, when William Bernstein visited Google, he made the point that during a financial crisis, all assets correlate to 1. In other words diversification fails you when you need it the most. But that's why you don't put everything in stocks --- even if in a financial crisis, your bond portfolio takes a hit, it's not as big a hit as it is in stocks. And you do want to position yourself for when the correlations are not 1 --- i.e., when the crisis is over. The unfortunate problem is that nobody knows when that is, so the best plan, as always, is to stick to your asset allocation.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bicycle Wheels: Loctite or Not

One topic not covered by our lectures on the bicycle wheel is the loctite issue. Many wheelbuilders swear by loc-tite or spoke-prep when building wheels, and it's a question that comes up on a regular basis on cycling forums.

I don't build using loc-tite. If you pay attention to the lectures, you'll see that at one point, I say, There's no such thing as too much lubrication. I emphasize this especially when building with modern rims such as the Velocity Aerohead, which have no eyelets or sockets whatsoever, but also when it comes to the spoke-thread/nipple interface.

To consider why loctite is unnecessary if your wheel is built to the correct tension, consider why a spoke can unscrew itself. The spoke is effective a very long screw under tension. As long as there's tension in the screw, the screw can't unscrew itself! It can only do so when there's no tension. The loss of tension comes from there being a big load on the wheel, which is absorbed by the spokes loosing tension. If the spokes aren't sufficiently tensioned, then the spokes will unscrew themselves, which will lead to the wheel becoming untrue. When the wheel becomes untrue, then, that's your warning that your spokes were insufficiently tensioned, and you should re-tension your wheel.

What happens when you loc-tite the spokes instead, is that the spokes don't unscrew, but they do flex a bit, usually at the elbow (spokes flex even if they are lubricated and unscrew, so it's not a good idea to under-tension wheels, regardless). Eventually, if the elbow flexes enough times, the spokes break and then your wheel really becomes untrue.

So you have a choice: have your wheels go untrue so you notice the problem, or have the spokes break eventually. Now you know why so many professional wheel builders loctite their wheels --- a wheel becoming untrue happens really quickly, but spoke breakage can take many cycles (and a lot of people just don't ride their bikes enough to do that). In general, then, I consider use of loctite/spoke-prep bad practice, and usually used to cover up sloppy wheel building. There might be reasons to justify it, but if you're building wheels for your own use, just use lots of lubricant and none of those "miracle" preparations.

Review: Pushing Ice

Pushing Ice is Alastair Reynold's novel of alien contact. Janus, the moon of Saturn, turns out to be an alien artifact that starts accelerating out of the solar system at an unusually high speed. A mining ship, The Rockhopper turns out to be the only ship capable of intercepting it, and the crew, led by Bella Lind, votes to pursue it.

The first third of the book introduces the ship as well as the folks on board, including engineer Svetlana, who uncovers something sinister about the company who owns the ship and has sent them on this chase.

As the plot unfolds, we see the collision between Bella and Svetlana, first as friends, then as unyielding enemies, and then finally uneasy allies. Nevertheless, the novel never forgets that it's science fiction, with a big emphasis on science --- there's tech galore, time dilation, relativistic effects, as well as nano-technology.

And yes, Alien contact. Not just one, but multiple alien contacts. Unlike the kind of aliens you run into in Star Trek, these are real aliens, with different politics, and interesting objectives. I was in any case quite impressed by the ending.

While not particularly deep, and obviously an early work, Pushing Ice is still recommended as a good airplane novel.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Paris 1998

Paris 1998

This was a tough trip. First, my boss cut down my vacation from 3 weeks to 1, so I had to put off the cycling part till the fall. Secondly, this was my first trip to continental Europe, and it was very rough. I spoke next to no French, I had yet to learn the Lonely Planet isn't all that reliable, and I could not deal with the jet-lag at all. I also had diarrhea on this trip.

And then, in an attempt to escape Paris, we ended up on the TGV to Lyons, where due to the Soccer World Cup, all the hotels were taken, save one. And that was my very first encounter with that delightful life form, the bed-bug!

All in all, it was a good thing that Christina had patience. Or maybe not --- we haven't done a trip together since. :-)

Crater Lake National Park and the Northern California Coast

Crater Lake National Park and the Northern California Coast


In the summer of 1999, my parents and I took a short trip to visit Crater Lake National Park. This was the most disorganized trip that I had ever arranged --- I packed a tent and forgot the tent poles, for instance, and we were forced to buy a cheap $20 tent at a general store late one evening when we discovered that!

On the way back, we took a short visit to some of my favorite sites in the Northern California coast. I had all but forgotten about this trip when my scanning project dug up these slides!

Paragliding off Big Sur: A Photo Essay

Paragliding in Big Sur

Christmas 1999, my family and I decided to visit Big Sur. While driving and walking around, we saw a para-glider enjoying the day. Since I had film to spare, I decided to try to capture the spirit of gliding with the winds.

He self-identified himself years later on one of my earlier on-line photo albums (hopefully Picasa Web outlasts all the ones that didn't), but I lost his contact information. Nevertheless, he was a great subject! (Most of these were shot with my 200mm/2.8L and my EOS-3)

Sailing in the San Juans

San Juan Sailing


During the summer of 1998, Scarlet, Larry Hosken, Lea Widdice and I set off from Anacortes aboard the sailing vessel The Healer for a week long tour of the San Juan Islands. Larry did a fantastic job of capturing my notes and providing his wry observations, but I never did scan those pictures and get them posted.

Well, I'm scanning all these pictures and putting them up now. Sailing isn't as good for photography as hiking, but hey, at least I brought a camera! I've since learned that I prefer warm water sailing.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Cycling is not good for your bones

It appears that there's been a spate of research showing that cycling is not good for your bones. When someone posted this to a cycling mailing list, someone asserted that since the studies were only done on competitive cyclists, it probably wouldn't matter to recreational cyclists.

What kind of people join cycling mailing lists? Enthusiasts. These are folks who are enthusiastic enough to bike to work every day, go on cycling vacations, and bike on weekends, so unfortunately, if that describes you (and it certainly describes me!), you're at risk.

In 2005, just before the Tour of the Alps, Lisa and I got ourselves tested as a precaution. Sure enough, our bone density was T -1.5, which is osteopenia. Osteopenia is not really a disease --- it just means your bone density is below normal, and you're at risk if you don't change course.

So change course we did. After the Tour of the Alps, I cut back on my cycling by about 50%. This meant that one weekend day was devoted to hiking (we tried running --- it was no fun, so we knew we couldn't keep it up). 2006 was devoted to the Coast to Coast walk, and we didn't do as much cycling as we normally did (note that cutting back 50% still meant I was doing 6000 miles a year from commuting and fun rides). I added weight lifting to my exercise regime, forcing myself to spend time in the gym for the first time in my life. I also added calcium supplements to my diet.

In 2007, we got tested and we had gone from T -1.5 to T +1.5. Not only were we in the normal range, we now had stronger than normal bones! The lab technician stared at me when she did the bone scan, and stared at her records again, because she had never seen such a radical change in so short a time! Her comment was, "You changed something didn't you?" My doctor looked at the report and said, "Wow, when I told you to take up hiking, I didn't expect you to walk across England. I don't even have to test you for another 5 years. Keep doing whatever you're doing." (The funniest things about doctors is that they always seem genuinely surprised whenever a patient takes their advice --- I certainly don't pay my doctors just so I can ignore them!) We did do a Vitamin D test though, and it seemed that I had low vitamin D --- my skin's too dark even for Northern Californian sun to give me much vitamin D naturally.

Incidentally, after I posted my results to a cycling forum, someone sent me e-mail with calculations showing that I couldn't possibly have made such a big difference so quickly. When I inquired as to why he was skeptical, he responded that he tried lifting weights and hiking but it made no difference to him. Further probing revealed that he was in his late 50s, and more importantly, had not cut back on his cycling --- he was still doing double centuries. It is very important to realize that if you've been diagnosed as having a problem, you cannot just keep going as though nothing has changed --- you have to cut back on the ultra long rides that are doing the damage!

So if you're one of those enthusiastic cyclists, you need to go get yourself checked so you can do something about it. And it is possible to do something about it. I certainly didn't give up cycling --- and I didn't have to. There are sacrifices --- for instance, my trips can no longer be as tough as the one I did in 2005 --- subsequent trips did not feature as much climbing. I might even have to schedule rest days this year as part of the Tour of Hokkaido, but you know, being able to go for a fun hike and not be sore for 2-3 days afterwards is worth something, and as mentioned before, the Coast to Coast turned out to be a great trip.

Coast to Coast Pictures (Consolidated)

Coast to Coast Consolidated

After all these years of traveling, hiking and backpacking, I still think that the best long distance walk I've ever done was the 2006 Coast to Coast. Everything came together on that trip: glorious natural beauty, historic and literary locations out of time, physically challenging walks, intellectually challenging route-finding (the coast to coast is not one route, but an infinite number of routes, and to have done it once is merely to have explored one of many possibilities), contrasted with luxurious (compared to a tent) accomodations, hot showers every night, good home made food, and friendly people who speak English.

Lisa and I extol the virtues of this walk to anyone who would listen --- you can do it in 7 days hiking 20 miles a day, or over 30 days hiking 6 miles a day. You might encounter boggy ground and fog and require a GPS to navigate, or you might encounter glorious sunshine and use your umbrellas as sunshade. We did the trip in 17 days, with 2 rest days, and frankly, I wish we'd spent more time.

As a trip done after we converted our point and shoot to digital, we had pictures posted soon after the trip. But I was at that time still carrying an SLR loaded with Fuji Velvia, and those pictures never made it to the web-site. When I scanned these, I consolidated them with all the digital pictures. If you like you can play "which camera took this picture" while viewing the album.

But really, the album is a poor substitute for being there. If you're physically capable and have the time and money (much easier now that the pound is so low), you owe it to yourself to plan and do this trip. I have to thank Scarlet for the idea.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Why the Buying Frenzy?

After years of being bugged by my allergist to move some place with a hardwood floor, and outgrowing our small apartment, I've finally bought a house. (The close is next Friday) When I was shopping around, however, I noticed that there seemed to be a buying frenzy for houses under $700k in the Bay Area.

A year or two ago, David Ziegler wrote a wonderful post about housing as an investment. In it, he noted that the historic price/rent ratio is about 21. A $700k house would have to rent out for $33,333 a year, or $2777 a month to be at this ratio. Not surprisingly enough, that does appear to be the average going rate for a 3 bed/2 bath home in the area at the moment. In other words, for a change, housing in the Silicon Valley area does not appear to be vastly over-valued by historical standards, which partially explains the current feeding frenzy, which I think is pretty inane --- one colleague told me that she had bought a house with cash, but only so she could rent it out --- I think any rationalization of that approach to housing as investment went out the window (to be fair, she was under undue pressure from her parents, which is hard to resist at any age).

Personally, I think that house prices have room to drop --- historically, markets don't just correct to a historical level, they over-correct, which means they drop even further than the historical average (which was just an average). While historically, more than half the de-valuation of the housing market comes from inflation rather than nominal price declines, the state of the economy is such that inflation is unlikely in the near future, so all the decline has to reflected in the price. Since house prices are sticky on the down side, this explains the proliferation of houses sitting on the market longer, followed by "price reduced" signs.

Furthermore, rents will also drop in a recessionary environment, which will tend to bring the price/rent ratio back up. I'll refer interested readers to the very competent blog entry by Calculated Risk.

Given that I believe all this, why am I buying? As David Ziegler points out, I don't view the home as an investment --- it's entirely a consumption expense. I'm moving to a bigger home in a neighborhood that's acceptable, in the hopes that the value of the home to me outweighs the price I pay over the long term. Given this, I bought as little house as I could (studies show that you get used to a nice house, but if your commute is hellish, you'll never get used to that!), and used very little leverage. And if you were to ask me, that's what I would advise you to do as well.

Friday, July 03, 2009

When do you need a financial planner?

I haven't written about financial topics in a while. A lot of this is because to some extent, I've written about all that I wanted to about the topic and pretty much stuck to my strategy. When all you do is Asset Allocation, it's really boring stuff and unlike a newspaper columnist, I don't have to repeat myself because I trust that readers know how to search.

I met with Brian recently. If you recall, he collaborated with me on the Concentrated Portfolio Problem way back in 2006. He was lamenting to me that someone he knew well still had done nothing with his highly concentrated portfolio, which obviously was damaging during the recent financial meltdown. He said he's this far from tossing this person to a financial planner, even though it went against his ethos.

At this point I said, Financial Planners basically are a way for you to dis-intermediate your emotions from your investing life. If you're the kind of person who has a hard time investing a large lump sum amount of cash, or if you have a hard time selling company stock, having a financial planner or advisor do it for you is necessary, and it's worth paying someone a fixed fee to do so. (A percentage of assets for someone to baby-sit you and tell you to push the sell button is too much!)

As an example, I knew of folks who could not bring themselves to sell company stock when it was at an all time high, but then also could not bring themselves to hold even when things were at a 4 year low! Folks like that could use a financial advisor. I know other folks who sold at a decent price, but then could not bring themselves to invest over a 4 year period. While cash is king right now, over the long term, inflation eats away an all-cash portfolio. So those people could use a financial advisor to give them a kick in the butt. A friend of mine once could not bring himself to open a Vanguard account without me sitting next to him and telling him what to do, which buttons to push, and what funds to buy. He knew intellectually what to do, but he literally could not do it by himself. This man obviously needed a financial advisor, and I was dumb enough to do it for him for free when I obviously should have charged a percentage of assets (joking!).

Do I have a financial planner? Sort of. I have one that I use to gain access to DFA funds, and I pay him a fixed fee. My condition for using him was that he would just behave like a broker --- take buy and sell orders, and not sell me on anything. Actually, he's been doing a bit more than that, since he's financially sophisticated enough for me to tell him to "sell this fund for tax-loss harvesting, and then buy it back after the wash sale rule no longer applies." Nevertheless, I keep a tight rein on my financial affairs. However, colleagues of mine have used his real financial services and don't seem unhappy.

Nevertheless, I can't endorse him or anyone else, since I haven't really done any serious interviewing of what his capabilities are, and at this point nobody's about to pay my hourly wages to interview anyone that way. (After all, I'm going to pocket the fee regardless of whether or not the guy knows what he's doing or not! And even then there are no guarantees --- there are plenty of smart, knowledgeable crooks --- just visit Wall Street!)

Hence, even if you are intellectually capable of doing your own financial planning (it's no harder than programming C++, I promise!), the last few years have taught me that you might still find a financial planner useful and necessary. Just don't overpay and make sure he's not a crook. How you would go about doing that, I don't know.