Sunday, January 30, 2011

Trip Report: Cozumel/Carmen de Playa

Cozumel
Matt Vera's Photos

I just got back from a mostly diving trip in Cozumel/Carmen de Playa. I'm not as avid a diver as I am a sailor, cyclist or backpacking, and would never undertake a diving vacation except that my attempt to organize a sailing trip in the Caribbean completely fell through! Unlike diving, cycling, or backpacking, sailing requires a full crew to make full use of the boat (to split costs), and I'm also not so competent a sailor that I can sail a boat short-handed or single-handed.

Arturo told me about the new Virgin America direct flights to Cancun with the special promotional pricing, and given that he'd already done all the research necessary on the area for a previous trip, I went about organizing a dive trip. Matt Vera, Tracy Ng, and Zaheda Bhorat chose to join me on this outing. Matt and Tracy wanted to complete a dive certification course, while Zaheda wanted to relax.

We signed up for the 5-night/3 days package at Scuba Club Cozumel. At $100/night for 5 nights including food + three 2-tank boat dives, Scuba Club Cozumel is a fantastic deal. The food was wonderful as well, and I consider it money well spent. The diving was very similar to the rest of the Caribbean, so nothing to write home about, except for the Wreck of the Felipe Xicotencatl, which was absolutely the best dive I did at the dive club. As a relatively new wreck, you get to explore all the rooms inside, and experience what it's like to be a wreck diver, wich close quarters maneuvers. This is a technically challenging dive and well worth the effort.

The club is full of avid divers, the kind of people who own their own dive equipment and do 100+ dives a year, so there's not much emphasis on much except diving. The equipment rental is expensive, but since you'll be doing so much diving, things like dive computers are a necessity. Matt and Tracy rented dive computers from the Bay Area, but both of those broke, while the one I rented from the Scuba Club had no problem.

Then we moved to Carmen del Playa to do 2 dives in the cenotes with Pluto Dive. These guys were picked because they were the only folks who ever responded to e-mail in Carmen del Playa. The dives in the cenotes were amazing. You basically jump into a freshwater cave and swim down into the caverns. This is like spelunking but without the scrapes and bruises and squeezing around things. With neutral buoyancy you basically float through the caves shining your flash-light at stalactites and stalagmites, seeing the glorious insides of the caves. At one point, we emerged into an underground cave with just a few air-holes, and could see fossils of tree roots on the ceiling (as well as other fossils), and could see the roots of trees coming through. Unfortunately my camera flooded just before the wreck dive, so you'll have to wait for Tracy and Matt's photos. The water was also the clearest I had ever seen. The transition from freshwater into salt water has to be experienced to be believed! Up until the cenotes dive I didn't think I would return to Cancun, as the diving wasn't any better than what I had seen in the rest of the Caribbean, but having seen the cenotes dive, I could see myself coming for more. These two dives were definitely the best dives I had done. Given that round-trip flights to Cancun are currently $150 or so, I recommend you do something about it before Virgin America's big discounts are gone.

We visited Chichen Itza on our last full day. The long bus ride (5 hours!!) was no fun, and while the ruins were cool (hey, virgin sacrifices... ball games to the death, hearts that get cut out of enemies and then sacrificed to serpent gods --- you just can't make this stuff up!), I thought I could probably get as much out of reading the Wikipedia page. I guess I'm just not cut out for cultural explorations. Worth going to once, but I won't do it again.

Carmen del Playa's beaches are very touristy, and they are nice, but not as nice as what I saw in the Virgin Islands. I definitely think that the Virgin Islands is still the best of the Caribbean, and recommend a trip there instead, especially for those who are sailors. But all in all I had a good time, and will consider returning to do more cenotes diving.

Pengtoh Has Started Blogging

Pengtoh has started blogging, and on a very consistent basis. This is great to see. For those of you who don't know, Pengtoh was the smartest person I knew in college, and being his roommate for one semester must have raised my IQ by at least 10%. Amongst other things, he:
  • Fixed his car's radiator with chewing gum.
  • Modded his Amiga's motherboard to fix a broken chip, and while he was at it, set it up so he could reboot without dropping the modem connection.
  • Bought a Sun 3, and fixed a fuse problem with a penny.
It's also no wonder that when he joined Google he quickly did some pretty amazing things. I was really sad to lose him at Google when he retired (partially due to certain political situations that sadly, are still not fixed at Google today). But now you can get an almost daily dose of smartness from his blog. Read it and learn! Incidentally, the other smart undergrads from my years at Cal (in no particular order) were Steve Yen, Joe Chung, Jon Blow, Insik Rhee, David Lofteness, John Mitchell, Larry Hosken, Jimmy Leftkowitz and Dan Wallach. I'm sure there are many others I'd forgotten, but it's gratifying to see how many of us have done well over the years.

Review: Dollhouse Season 2

My complaints about the first season of dollhouse was due to how slow the plot was, and how nobody had ever seemed to have heard of off-site backups. One thing about Joss Whedon, at least he's consistent in his plot holes.

The second season starts out far more promising. The story accelerates, and we get development of the main character, Echo, as well as an understanding of where Rossum's technology is leading. After all, if you did invent a machine that could wipe people clean and then reprogram them to be whatever you wanted to be, the natural thought wouldn't be to start a high class prostitution ring: you'd go after bigger targets.

Unfortunately, after that story point was resolved, we get deep inside Rossum's past, and the entire plot at that point develops holes you can drive an armored 18-wheeler through. The villains were smart enough to discover the neuroscience behind the dollhouse, but stupid enough to come up with a complex series of schemes that required that they put themselves in harm's way to get what they wanted, rather than pursue their goals directly. The net result of this was a plot that required characters to do incredibly unreasonable things. The penultimate episode was really dumb, in the "Oh, we'll blow up entire buildings to remove this dangerous technology" fashion. At least we know that doesn't work (thanks to the ending of Season One). However, we have to suspend our disbelief that the smart, intelligent characters in this show did believe that this would work! The post-apocalyptic section of the story doesn't make sense as well. Wouldn't the masters of the universe rather keep a high tech world intact so they could live in luxury?

The last episode was even more inane. One of the smart characters designed a device to restore the world, but isn't smart enough to put together a timed trigger. Even worse, the "leader" character in the story doesn't think to herself, "If anything goes wrong we need this guy to fix it, we can't let him blow himself up!"

Ok, good things about the series: it's got the best depiction of nerd love I've seen, very sweet and almost believable. Some of the exploitation of the technology seen in the last episode stems directly from the premise. It would be fun to explore that aspect of the world. Unfortunately, I'm afraid I cannot recommend this series to anyone, even fans of Joss Whedon. I'm afraid my opinion of his work dropped dramatically after watching this series. I'm starting to think
that Buffy was a fluke, and he's been coasting on his reputation since. Not Recommended.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review: Writing Fiction for Dummies

Disclaimer: I got my copy of Writing Fiction For Dummies for free as a Kindle e-book giveaway.

I was very pleasantly surprised by this book. While there are other books such as Stephen King's On Writing that can be inspirational, these books tend to focus on what a writer thinks could work for him. Ingermanson and Economy, two published fiction authors, describe a wide range of writing techniques and styles that could work for various writers, and describe how each style could work for a certain kind of writer.

They further describe structure and plot in an easy to grasp fashion, breaking down well-known stories into the 3-act structure and describing books in terms of scenes. Examples are provided and very relevant and cogent. Each scene is then analyzed, and further broken down into different types. Styles of narration, including a description of why you might want to use first person, third person, omniscient, etc. narratives are also covered.

Finally, the art of selling your novel is also described. There's a huge emphasis on going to writing conferences to pitch your novel in person, but there's also lots of detail about how to write a proposal, story summary, and pitch. They describe how to get agents to look at your book, and what to do as a first time author.

I am undecided as to whether I will attempt a novel this year (my next book is almost certainly not a novel), but if I do, I expect to go back to this book and use it extensively while writing. Recommended.

Review: The Party - The Secret World of China

Westerners tend to have a very un-nuanced view of China. For instance, when Burton Malkiel came back from China, he was over-flowing with enthusiasm for China, complete with starting up a new fund, and taking all the signs of economic development that he saw there as a sign that capitalism had taken over China in a big way, and conflating capitalism with democracy in the way that only naive Westerners do. He was not completely wrong, but he was missing all the nuances that those of us who grew up in Asia saw.

When Steve Grimm reviewed: The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers, I checked it out from the library since it promised to be a book that was not about the naive-un-nuanced view of China so often touted breathlessly in newspapers and magazines.

I was not disappointed. All the stories are there. The story behind the poisoned milk fiasco? It's there, and yes, it's tied to the 2008 Olympics in a way you might not expect. I wonder if the IOC ever considers that it has blood on its hands when it agrees to host the Olympics in places where there is not a long history of democracy and human rights. The fact that Baidu offers companies a chance to censor its search results are also covered. The Great Leap Forward and its cover-up? Documented in detail here. Why was reunification with Taiwan so hot a topic in the late 1990s/early 2000s and then now is almost never on the radar? Documented here, with all the subtle details that many Westerners over-look. Corruption and graft? All here. The story behind why Shanghai's skyline was completely rebuilt? Someone I know recently posted that she could not see any buildings in common between 1980 and now in Shanghai from a picture of the Skyline --- she naively attributed that to rapid economic development. The reality is far different and explained here in detail.

I grew up in Singapore, and saw first-hand how capitalism does not automatically lead to democracy, even though it can and does lift people out of poverty, which is in general a good thing. It's always annoyed me that Westerners (ABCs included) conflate economic freedom with liberty, without realizing that there's a second model at work in Asia, where economic freedom comes with strings attached. When Google went to China, I deliberately kept myself out of that effort. When Google left China, many people I know thought that it was a bad move. I personally applauded it as a willingness to stand by principle, with a nuanced understanding of the what's going on there that only Sergey Brin, with his experience growing up in a totalitarian regime, could have made happen.

All in all, I consider this a very important book. If you're a naive Westerner or ABC, you owe it to yourself to read this book carefully before visiting China and taking everything you see at face value. While I agree with Brad Delong that we do not want to go down in history as trying to prevent the lifting of millions out of poverty, especially in Asia/China, I think a good understanding of this book will lead you to realize what a Faustian bargain international trade is, and you will eventually come to agree with Dani Rodrik's view as expressed in One Economics, Many Recipes:
Think of labor and environmental standards, for example. Poor countries argue that they cannot afford to have the same stringent standards in these areas as the advanced countries... Democratic countries such as India and Brazil can legitimately argue that their practices are consistent with the wishes of their own citizens, and that therefore it is inappropriate for labor groups or NGOs in advacned countries to tell them what standard they should have... But non-democratic countries such as China, do not pass the same prima facie test. The assertion that labor rights and the environment are trampled for the benefit of commercial advantage cannot be as easily dismissed in those countries. Consequently, exports of nondemocratic countries deserve greater scrutiny when they entail costly dislocations or adverse distributional consequences in importing questions.

Needless to say, this book is highly recommended. Well worth paying full price for.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review: The Engineer Reconditioned

Neal Asher's Gridlinked was a lot of fun, so I checked outThe Engineer ReConditioned from the library to see if his short stories were up to par.

The opening story, "The Engineer" explores the discovery of a survivor of an extinct civilization. I enjoyed the story quite a bit, even though it was quite predictable what would happen. The clash of causes explored was entertaining, but did not have sufficient time to develop.

Then there came a sequence of "Owner" stories, effectively stories about a super-human intelligence that controls a planet that humans have chosen to settle on. These are much less compelling, as the "Owner" always feels more like a deus ex machina than a proper story hook. These are acceptable. There's also a time travel story that is OK, but not even close to being as good as Palimpsest, still the best time travel story I've read.

Finally, there are two stories about parasites and religion. Asher has a low opinion of religion (as do I), so I'm not sure how well these will go over with anyone who doesn't already agree with those views. Nevertheless, the parasites are at least interesting, though I suspect the source material is more interesting than Asher's stories.

All in all, I can't recommend this book. I think Asher needs novel-length space in order to strut his stuff and ideas. What I particularly dislike is that his ideas are cool but it's also quite clear he's not a scientist and hence can't explain any of the "super-science" he uses and relies on as plot devices, so I would classify him in the "thriller" genre rather than the science fiction genre.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review: Cutting For Stone

I was told to read Cutting for Stone for a good novel about Ethiopia and Surgery. Literary novels are always hard for me to read: many times they seem more about stringing together pretty words, rather than telling a story in straightforward fashion. Fortunately, Abraham Verghese is actually a doctor and professor at Stanford, and the writing is pretty straightforward and doesn't usually attempt to be lyrical, though there are allusions to "magical realism", a genre that I dislike.

The story is told from the point of Marion Stone, part of a set of conjoined twins that was born to a nun in a (fictional) hospital in Ethiopia. The nun dies during childbirth. The father, a master surgeon with a deadly horror of personal relations, runs away from both his sons, who are then adopted by the community surrounding the hospital. The rest of the novel is about the twins, both of whom grow up to be surgeons, a woman that Marion loves, and the twins (non-)relationship with their runaway father.

Sprinkled all through the novel is witty medical aphorisms. For instance, "What treatment is administered solely through the patient's ear?" "Words of Comfort." There are many details about being a doctor and being a surgeon, but nothing too visceral or discomforting. This is much more tame than the typical Richard K. Morgan novel, for instance. I suppose if you are a careful reader you might come away with a knowledge of Ethiopia. For me, it's all so much background story arranged to fit the story. The medical stuff is the fun part: as Stephen King says, people (myself included) love reading about other people's professions.

My big criticism about most science fiction is that it's all about the ideas, plot, or universe, and the writers are usually terrible at developing believable three dimensional characters. The problem with literary fiction is that it's all about the characters. Strip away the witty medical aphorisms and the details about the process of becoming a surgeon, and you realize that the book's themes and ideas are empty. Now, the surgical stuff is really really good, and for some people, the Ethiopian stuff is worth the price of admission. The characters are good, it's just that the plot is nearly non-existent.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the novel, and it's obviously a great achievement. Given the author's background and the notes, you can be assured that all the medical stuff is up to snuff and you're not getting a simplified view of a surgeon's world. Mildly recommended.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The "Tiger Mom" Parenting Controversy

The blogosphere and quora controversy over Amy Chua's "Tiger Mom" parenting article has reached a fever pitched in the part of the internet where I sit. As a non-parent I normally would try to stay out of this discussion, but since I grew up in Asia and had such a parenting regime, I feel qualified to make a few notes about this.

But first, a note from the author of the article (via Christine Lu):
I did not choose the title of the WSJ excerpt, and I don't believe that there is only one good way of raising children. The actual book is more nuanced, and much of it is about my decision to retreat from the "strict Chinese immigrant" model.
Note that the Quora responses come from people brought up in America under the Asian model. There's a huge amount of negativity about this "hot house" environment for bringing up kids from Asian Americans. I can believe it. If I had been brought up in Asia like this, I would have been comparing myself to the non-Asian kids who had the freedom to do what they like, and then resented my parents for not being as cool as other people's parents. The truth is, many middle class kids in Asia were all brought up like this, and not knowing any different, there's no resentment. Note that this "hot house" environment is not unique to Asia. Plenty of non-Asians have used this method to develop high achievers. The book, Talent is Over-rated, for instance, describes a Hungarian couple which deliberately set out to raise 3 daughters to become grandmasters in Chess, just to prove a point about how education should be handled. They succeeded, and while their kids eventually gave up Chess, they were hardly scarred for life. Similarly, I know plenty of non-Asian parents who obsess about getting their kids into the right daycare, the right Montessori school, or the right prep school. My favorites are the ones who spend gobs of money on an expensive school district for their home, and then decide that even that expensive school district is not good enough and send their kids to private schools. And of course, in the field of sports, non-Asian parents seem to be exactly what Asian parents are as far as academics is concerned. I have no doubt to my mind which emphasis is most likely to lead to a productive member of society.

If the environment was solely responsible for such emotional/psychological scarring, then Asia should have an incredibly high crime rate/suicide rate. I think the real cause in this case is the huge contrast between that "hot house" environment and what the rest of America values. Certainly, myself and my two brothers are emotionally well-adjusted and our family doesn't show any of the psychological scars and resentment between ourselves and our parents that many of those who visit Quora describe.

It all depends on your goals as parents. One of my friends recently told me over lunch about his philosophy behind parenting: "Your kids will turn out fine, so my goal is to enjoy my time with them while they are kids." Many Asian parents would be horrified to hear that, since their goal is to raise high achievers. I remember having a conversation with a Netscape millionaire in the late 1990s. This was a man who'd arrived from Taiwan with just the clothes on his bags and a suitcase of cash, and was now successful by anybody's standards. He said to me, "My kid has a trust fund, so now I have to make sure she has a work ethic." My response to that was, "That's absolutely the wrong goal for her! She doesn't have to work if she doesn't want to, so what's going to make her life miserable is if she is a poor judge of people! If someone cons her out of her trust fund, then all the work ethic you inculcate in her will not keep her from being unhappy." (No, I don't know how to teach you how to be a good judge of character, but the point is: work ethics, etc aren't the most important things in life)

Ultimately, I don't think that the "hothouse environment" is something every parent should strive for, but it's clearly useful for some parents, and it works for some families in some environments. For me, it was more helpful than hurtful, and I'm sure for others the inverse was true, but it certainly doesn't merit the kind of hysteria one way or another that the internet forums appear to approach the subject.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Google Docs Fail

I've been selling digital editions of An Engineer's to Silicon Valley Startups by simply e-mailing the files to customers. The compressed version of the book is only 800KB, so it fits easily as an attachment via e-mail.

Independent Cycle Touring, however, is a graphics and layout heavy book. The highly compressed version of the book came to 11MB. This exceeded the 10MB attachment limit of gmail and other online services. Furthermore, it would use up my gmail quota in rapid order, not to mention the cumbersome nature of attaching a file to every e-mail sent.

My initial thoughts was to simply upload the file to Google Docs and Spreadsheets as a PDF, and then add users to the access control list with each sale. Not only would this eliminate the need to send e-mail attachments, it would also allow me to update the book online and have all my customers immediately have access to the latest version of the book! What's not to like about that?!

This worked well during the beta-period, and during the initial launch period. However, over the holidays something broke Google Docs and Spreadsheet, and Google stopped allowing me access to my own file! I would get a "This web-site is not available" whenever I tried to click through to my book. OK, maybe I exceeded the access control list limit or some such. I uploaded a new copy. Same thing! Since I had paying customers, I was in a bind.

Fortunately, a startup named Dropbox offers very similar service to what GDrive was originally intended to serve. Unlike Google's product, Dropbox works for my own file and has a bigger free quota than Docs and Spreadsheets. Even better, each customer that installs Dropbox gives myself and him free disk quota. Even better, rather than use the web-interface to upload, I can just drag and drop new versions of the file on disk. I'm pleased as heck.

I've often said that it's a good thing that big companies screw up. Otherwise, startups won't be able to compete. And Google: you might want to consider having a "file a bug" button somewhere on Docs and Spreadsheets. Otherwise, the only way I know how to file a bug is to write it up on my external blog for everyone to see. In the mean time, my guess is I will continue to use Dropbox to distribute the digital version of Independent Cycle Touring.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Independent Cycle Touring has Shipped!

Today, I got 2 big boxes from my postman containing the print edition of Independent Cycle Touring. If you've pre-ordered your copies, the book has gone out and you should receive it in your mailbox in 1-3 days (6-10 days if you're overseas).

Thanks for pre-orders. As of now, the price for the paperback is $39.99 and the price for the paperback + digital edition is $49.99. Those of you who pre-ordered got the digital edition for free!

If you've contributed to the book, rest assured your copy is on its way!

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Review: Gridlinked

If you've read many of my book reviews, you'll note that I complain quite a bit of the characters found in many science fiction novels: I think that they are largely wooden with very little humanity in them, more like puppets driven by a plot. Gridlinked was Neal Asher's first novel, and he solved this problem by having the protagonist, Ian Cormac, be someone who was "gridlinked" for so long that he's become in danger of losing not only his social skills (like most of us geeks), but also his humanity as well. As a result, Asher can portray his protagonist with all the puppet-nature that he demands his characters have to serve his plot without fear of such criticism.

The plot is kinetic, spanning multiple star systems, meeting various non-human entities, with lots of weapons ranging from big guns to intelligent shuriken deployed at one point or another at nearly every form of sapient and/or intelligent being in present. The result reads like a summer blockbuster of a movie: lots of loud explosions, plenty of "wow" moments as horrible beings slam at each other, and a plot that seems almost lifted out of a Western. The world building is provided in dribs and drabs, usually as entries from one encyclopedia or text of one sort or another that head chapter entries. My problem with this world is that I just don't see how it could possibly have room for human heroes --- it seems to me that the kind of trouble-shooter Ian Cormac would have to be would be replaced by the kind of Android ultra-terminator style robots that seem to be all over the book.

What, then, kept me reading? Well, the action never stops. You are kept on the edge of your seat wondering what trick the author will think of next to keep one character or another alive. One scene has a character attempting suicide only to accidentally set off a sequence of events that ensures her survival. The weapons are pretty darn cool, if improbable. In other words, this is exactly the kind of guilty pleasure you can indulge in if you're about to get on a plane on vacation. I have no doubt I'll be loading up the Kindle with more from Asher for my next flight. Nevertheless, if you're looking for a deep read, with the kind of reflection that Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon has, there's none of that here. Read Morgan instead. Asher is Tom Clancy for the pocket-protector crowd, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Mildly recommended.