Friday, January 27, 2012

Trip Report: Hawaii

I just got back from a family trip to Hawaii (see photos).

I've always thought of Hawaii as the kind of place to visit after I'm too old and decrepit to do tough cycling, sailing, or hiking. In some ways I was right: having a kid is a lot like being old and decrepit, since you have to cater to its needs and can't do massively tough things. On the other hand, we had 6 adults to 1 kid, which meant that he didn't always have us outnumbered.

Family trips aren't as exciting as bike tours or other trips, so I'll abandon my usual day by day posts format and just summarize it all in one long blog post. PicasaWeb recently took away my ability to embed photos inside my blog, so unfortunately, that means I can't embed photos. Thank you for screwing me again, Google+!

Day 1: Arrived in Maui and settled in our beach apartment.
Day 2: Hana Drive. This was a really pretty drive, but the unfortunate part is that tropical islands grow back their trees really quickly, so a lot of the views are obstructed. There's a shortage of even hikes to get to good vantage points, and one of them quickly caused us to get bitten by mosquitoes. Kevin claims that Hana Drive isn't kid friendly. Well, we lucked out and have a pretty good kid who put up with being in a car for long periods of time. Bring food and water though, as places are expensive and the food not very good. The day was honestly a bit too rainy for us to enjoy the 7 sacred pools as a place to swim. Personally, if I had to do this again, I would drive the loop counter-clockwise rather than doing it clockwise. And yes, doing so would violate your rental contract, but seriously? The road is probably better than many streets in San Francisco, despite being unpaved. Recommended.
Day 3: Snorkeling. We tried 3 different snorkel sites, the best one being near the big resort in Kaanapali/Lahaina. One unfortunate thing about being a veteran traveler is that stuff that blows away other people leave you comparing with other experiences. Compared to my lifetime of admittedly very good snorkeling, Hawaii rates a 5 out of 10. The water is murky compared to the Caribbean, and the wildlife is great, but the water is also cool. Nevertheless, even mediocre snorkeling is nice compared to driving.
Day 4: Diving to Moralaki. It was originally going to be a two tank trip to Moralaki and then Turtle Town, but the incoming swells meant that we did both dives at Moralaki. I went with Maui Dive Shop, which is a competent and friendly operation, but ultimately, they could only salvage that much from the conditions, which was murky and relatively low visibility (30-40'). Recommended only if the conditions are clear. My family went to the Coral Gardens instead for snorkeling on a snorkeling-specific boat, and had a great time but didn't take any pictures worth posting.
Day 5: My dad and I took surfing lessons. Surfing is surprisingly fun, but lasts all of 10s each time on the board, so the work to fun ratio is incredibly high. After 2 hours I was exhausted. Then XiaoQin picked us up and we visited a few beaches, including Big Beach for the morning. In the afternoon, we went snorkeling near the Sheraton, which was the best so far, with green sea turtles.
Day 6: Flew to Kauai, and went to our beach house there.
Day 7: I had a scheduled dive trip, but it got canceled because of swells, cancelled all trips. So we rented snorkel gear and drove north to the North coast, which was supposed to get the swells instead, but was very calm (but still murky water). At Anini Beach, XiaoQin spotted a sea turtle and chased it and even got to touch his shell. (I think the turtle allowed her to do so) We then visited the famous lighthouse. On the way home, we spotted a sign for "Ahi", and I pulled over the side of the road to find a man selling Ahi Tuna out of a pickup truck. XiaoQin picked out an 8 pound fish, paid $20 for it, and we had amazingly fresh sashimi for the next two days. Life is full of little opportunities like this, which you have to spot and take action on. We kept looking for the guy the next few times we drove by the spot (he's apparently famous on the island) but never saw him again.
Day 8: Rain day. Didn't get to do much.
Day 9: We tried to go up the Waimea canyon, but got there only to find the fog so thick that nothing could be seen. Went back to Poipu and did some beach surfing. XiaoQin's dad found that one of the neighbors had a coconut tree with ripe coconuts that nobody was picking. So we picked a couple and ate them and found them to be good. Over the next few days, we'd grab 20+ coconuts off that tree.

We visited spouting horn and took a few pictures of the blowhole. It's very exciting if you've never seen one before, but also very touristy. A look around the garden across the street was also fine.
Day 10: We drove over to Haena at the end of the road to swim in the bay there. The snorkeling here was better than in Anini, about 6 out of 10. It was cool and we saw multiple turtles and had fun. The parking situation was hell, since it was the only nice part of the island today. On the way back we got some nice pictures over some farms. We also booked Napali Coast tours. Since the tour wouldn't take the baby, we split the group in to 6, and each group would take turns.
Day 11: We went up the Weimea Canyon and this time finally got to see stuff. It's a wild and beautiful tropical Canyon, worth a look, but is also one of the rainiest places on the planet, which means the trails are muddy as heck. A fog rolled in as we tried to walk it, so we had to call it a day as it was just not much fun. Nevertheless, worth a drive to visit, just start early in the day. Recommended.
Day 12: Napali Coast Tour. I should have brought my DSLR on this trip, as it was gorgeous. Wild rugged mountains, and you can see why the Napali coast trek is rugged. There's no less than 5-6 valleys in a short span of a few miles, no way to build roads without expensive tunneling, and just pretty. On the other hand, tropical hiking is not my idea of fun, and I could find no charter company willing to drop me off at the far end of the trail so it would only be a one way 11 mile hike, so I bagged it. The diving/snorkeling was pretty crappy, 3 out of 10. Heavy swells, and 10-20' visibility at best. But in these conditions, diving is better than snorkeling because once you're under water: no swells. And I did get to see several turtles sleeping. Recommended.
Day 13: My dad and I took surfing lessons again, to learn that the guy over at Maui taught us wrong so we had to unlearn our previous learnings and learn to do it right. What a pain. My dad got exhausted from all the swimming, coconut tree climbing, and snorkeling that he did, so after an hour and a half we bagged it.

XiaoQin and I went over to the east coast and checked out two beach cruisers and rode them on the bike path. The bike path is pretty, and there's only one bike shop worth renting from Kauai Cycle. Their beach cruisers sucked less than any other beach cruisers I'd ever tried, and so are well worth the premium. They also rent road bikes, mtbs, etc.
Day 14: I went with Seasports Divers and did my first Nitrox dives with them. Everybody else was doing Nitrox, so I did it so I wouldn't abandon early. One highlight was when Sabin the dive master looked at me and said, "You don't have enough insulation. 2 wetsuits for you!" I'm the fattest I've ever been in my life, so I took her words with a grain of salt, but sure enough, I felt a little chilly in the water, so it's a good thing I wore 2 suits. My first breath of Nitrox (32% O2) felt like a drink of coffee: you wake up right away. It feels really good. I'll consider getting Nitrox certification one of these daays. These last two dives were the best of the trip, at least a 7 out of 10 if not 8 out of 10. The water was relatively clear (since we dove away from the runoff), and we got to do a drift dive as our first dive. We saw sharks, turtles, octopus (my first!), and many endemic creatures. The rental gear was also first rate. I highly recommend going with Seasports divers if you find yourself in Kauai. They deserve all the kudos and while they're more expensive than everyone else, I think they're well worth the money, and I'm not the kind of person to use those words lightly.
Day 15: We packed, moved out of the house, and had a local Hawaiian place (Lua Lua), and then went to the airport and flew home.

Conclusions: Hawaii is OK. However, if you're a typical American with very little vacation, you typically have two choices if you want to go somewhere warm over winter: the Caribbean, or Hawaii. There's no question in my mind that the Caribbean, especially the Virgin Islands, wins. The water's clearer, warmer, and it's a lot less humid in the Caribbean. Now, the choices of activities vary very widely between the two places. Sailing is horrible in Hawaii: the distances between islands are great, and there's no real charter business to speak of. Surfing, on the other hand, is better on Hawaii than anywhere else in the world. The BVIs are pretty crappy for cycling, whereas Maui has the famous volcano. The reality, though, is that any cycling in the tropics pales to what you can get in California or in the Alps, so I can't imagine blowing good money on a cycling vacation in Hawaii. In retrospect, I was right to put off Hawaii in favor of other places (the BVI, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and even Cancun have way better diving). Even more impressively, all those places are cheaper than Hawaii! I very much doubt that I will return to Hawaii. For me, it's just not worth the time and money. Obviously, I couldn't have said this with authority without having visited Hawaii, so I don't regret this visit. I am, however, planning a trip to the BVIs in short order.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Review: Lady Lady I Did It

Lady Lady I Did It is one of Ed McBain's (Evan Hunter) 87th Precinct novels. I remember them fondly from my youth, so when Amazon recently ran a $0.99 cent deal on the Kindle editions I picked one up to see how they fare for me, 20 years later.

Police procedurals are great at documenting a moment in time. You read about a time when police departments depended mostly on cops walking the beat, questioning witnesses, and using type-writers instead of computers. You get exposed to the methods used and the serious amount of work required to follow up on a homicide. You get reminded of a time in the country when abortion was illegal, and doctors got put away for performing them. (The slight anachronism here was that the doctor was a woman, and I seem to recall female doctors being rare in that era)

The police are all men, and their family lives reflect the traditional 1950s families: single breadwinner household, and care-taker women. The large number of stereotypes in this novel would put you off if it was a modern novel, but set as it is in the 1950s, it paints the picture of an era gone by.

The mystery itself is not much of one, as the reveals happen very close to the exposure of the criminals in question. It wasn't hard for me to guess what the one big clue was, but overall the plot didn't make sense, as a personal vendetta wouldn't usually lead to a massive killing spree. Unlike later novels in this genre, there's no psychological profiling, and you never get a glimpse of the villain's thought processes.

All in all, a quick easy read, and something useful to remind us of how quickly technology and society has changed over the last 60 years. Mildly recommended.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Review: The Price of Civilization

I will admit that I approached The Price of Civilization with a lot of skepticism. As an economist, Sachs was famous for being extremely optimistic books such as The End of Poverty---years later, there's still plenty of poverty to go around, thank you very much, Profesor Sachs.

The book itself does admit the large number of problems America faces: corporate corruption of the political system, mass media devoted to selling, a lack of social cohesion leading to inability to agree on even basic life-and-death matters such as healthcare reform, and of course, a failing educational system. All this is covered very well in books such as Republic, Lost, or even Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal. All the evidence point in Sachs favor here, and if you're not a Fox-News conservative, there's enough data that might cause you to rethink your politics.

However, when it comes to prescription, Sachs is overly optimistic. I certainly don't think that the measures he proposes (such as trying to get poor children an education equal in quality to the kids of the rich) could possibly get passed in today's political climate. Not a chance. Zero. Sachs says he's optimistic mostly because of the Millenial generation, but I'm privy to mailing lists dominated by Millenial wealthy (or soon-to-be-wealthy), and I'm sorry, those guys are just as blinkered, over-privileged, and narrowly self-interested as the older wealthy types I've met in my life: the prevailing culture is very much IGMFU.

Ultimately, my thought is that while it's all nice and good that billionaires like Bill Gates are doing their best to eliminate malaria and all that, maybe the best thing they could actually do would be to counter-weight the Koch brothers. Otherwise, those saved from malaria could easily still find themselves stuck in a poor, unhappy world run by Fox News Conservatives.

My biggest problem with this book is that anyone who picks it up probably doesn't already need the persuasion. Unfortunately, there's zero chance that a Fox News Conservative will read the book, or even if he did, agree with any of the "liberal bias evidence." Check it out from the library if you're already evidence-minded, but I can't recommend paying more than $1 for it.

Review: Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

It didn't take very long to realize Boomerang is a reprint of various Michael Lewis articles for Vanity Fair. This in itself is not unfortunate, as the articles are well written and a lot of fun to read.

The book starts with coverage of Greece's financial crisis, and the (by now) well-documented fact that the Greek have a revenue problem in that everyone cheats on taxes. Then he moves on to Iceland, which had turned itself into a financial center by effectively trading equity to each other at insanely high prices. Then he moves on to Ireland, where the housing bubble took off in a big way, but the government came in and guaranteed all the private sector loan, in a major case of major-bone-headedness, damning the Irish public to pay for the sins of the crazy people.

The book rounds off with an examination of the Germans and the Californians, each of whom have yet to dealt with their own crisis. At the end of reading all of these short articles in short order (this is a very short book, and easily read in one day), it's tough not to come to the conclusion that every country treats finances and financial responsibility very differently. Culture explains almost all of it, though it doesn't explain the bone-headed behavior of certain officials (and I don't mean the Californians exclusively) very well.

Unfortunately, the treatment of the financial topics is very shallow. For instance, there's no contrasting of the very different ways Iceland and Ireland chose to handle their crisis. In hind-sight, the very big differences have led to vastly different outcomes. Because Lewis doesn't actually have a framework or theory to hang it all together, the reader is left thinking that there's not a lot that can be done. He doesn't even interview people who think that the problem is soluble.

This is very easy vacation reading, but unfortunately, not very good for people who want a deeper understanding of the current arguments about what to do about the economy. For that, you might want to read The Big Short instead.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Review: The Kingdom of Gods

Last year, I reviewed The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and praised it as some of the most innovative fiction written. Then I reviewed the sequel, The Broken Kingdoms with faint praise, and opened up the Kingdom of Gods with trepidation: the trendline indicated that it was going to completely suck.

I was pleasantly surprised. The Kingdom of Gods shows us the Jemisin can innovate even when writing sequels. In the past, the story focused on the human or partly human characters. This time, we see the world from the point of view of one of the Godlings, in particular, one of my favorite characters from the first novel, Sieh, the oldest godling, whose domain is that of children and is the pantheon's Trickster's god. If you think that's difficult to pull off, you'd be right, but Jemisin pulls it off. Part of it is she cheats: very early on, Sieh loses his powers and effectively becomes a mortal for a large part of a novel, regaining his powers only on occasion.

Nevertheless, the plot is satisfying as we are presented with one mystery after another. Even better, even though my initial ideas were correct, Jemisin succeeded in making me question whether she was going to take things in that direction. The side plots and exposition of how being a god works in her world is exciting and fun, and we get to see the consequences of events in earlier novels in great detail. Nearly everything gets resolved in the end, though my copy of the book has a short story that also serves to tie up loose ends in the previous novel.

As with previous novels, this one is entirely self-contained and doesn't suffer from sequel-itis. You see references to prior novels and previous novels, but there's no need to read them at all if you don't want to, and this is a good enough novel that it'll have you on the edge of your seat once you start. It's a great novel and I have no hesitation about recommending it to anyone.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Review: Knocking on Heaven's Door

I didn't read the reviews of the book carefully before checking it out of the library, so I had my expectations completely mismanaged when I discovered that Knocking on Heaven's Door, unlike Warped Passages, isn't about string theory, but rather a introduction to science book, mixed in with a discussion of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). I had previously reviewed The Magic of Reality, and this science book is very different. While The Magic of Reality aims to give you beautiful illustrations along with the text, this is very much a non-fiction for adults book.

The introduction to science is interesting and non-technical, focusing mostly on the discovery process, as well as how Quantum Mechanics, for instance, doesn't obviate Relativity or Newtonian Mechanics, and how science doesn't work that way. She describes a fascinating conversation with the producer/director of "What the Bleep do We Know" and extracts a satisfying admission from him that the "science" in that movie was nothing but utter BS. She provides a good layman's description of the traditional conflicts between science and religion, and shows how it's hard to be a scientist and deeply devout if you're going to do any science.

The LHC portion of the book is fascinating, and includes a description of the history and how it got built. There's an indictment of the American government for being extremely short-sighted about science and cancelling the SSC, which would have probed even higher energy physics, resulting in all the scientists going to Europe to do their experiments. Given how gorgeous that area of Geneva/Switzerland is, I'm not sure people are all that disappointed.

Finally, there's a description of what experiments the LHC is expected to run and what results it's expected to produce in the short and long run.

I described Warped Passages as a tough read, but this book's much simpler, and can easily be understood by anyone with a decent high school education (which I'm given to understand is difficult to come by in the USA). I recommend the book for anyone who wants to understand why we spend so much money for "toys for physicists", and those who want to understand how the scientific process works.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Chariot CTS Cougar Followup: Palanquin Mode

I mentioned in my earlier review of the Chariot Cougar that it had 5 modes: stroller, bike trailer, jogger, skier, and hiking mode. Well, today we discovered a 6th mode: Palanquin Mode. The nicest thing about this mode is that you don't actually need to buy anything if you already have a jogger.
From Hawaii

All you need is to remove the front wheel on the jogger, station two people on the fork mount, another person on the rear handlebars, and now the Chariot Cougar doubles as a palanquin. Palanquin mode is very useful, enabling you to negotiate stairs, tree roots, steep climbs, and other obstacles normally considered impossible even for off-road capable trailers. In fact, if you retain the front wheel, you can convert back to a jogger right after the tough section, enabling you to remain on your way.

Bowen seemed to enjoy palanquin just fine, only complaining at the end after he got removed from the Cougar's safe mosquito mesh netting only to be immediately bitten by a mosquito.

If you're not an outdoors person, you'll probably be unlikely to be swayed by the existence of palanquin mode. However, if you've considered abandoning a hike because of tree roots and have a fair number of people with you, you might discover it to be a nice bonus "Easter egg" you didn't plan for.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Ride your road bike on unpaved roads

One of the sections in Independent Cycle Touring covers riding on unpaved surfaces with a road bike. Why would you do this when you can just buy a mountain bike? It turns out that there are several reasons.
  1. I don't own a mountain bike.
  2. Many dirt trails are on top of a mountain, and it's easier to climb the mountain on the road bike. The amount of dirt usually is so little that it's more efficient to go faster on pavement and then a little slower off road. For instance, the top of Montebello road is this way, with a short cut to Page Mill road which avoids taking Skyline Blvd, which is a pain on weekends and full of high speed traffic. (This video illustrates how to trigger the gate at the end of the section from Black Mountain summit by leaning your bike over the looped metal detectors as you approach the gate)

  3. Riding dirt gives you bike handling skills that just riding on the road won't give you. For instance, here's Lance Armstrong during the 2003 Tour de France. The rider in front of him crashed but Armstrong who was behind him escaped crashing by riding off pavement into the field.

  4. It's useful to be able to ride little dirt roads on top of passes, since they make what used to be "one way" roads into "through roads."
  5. Unexpected hazards such as slippery leaves, sand, soil, and cow patties can get spilled onto paved roads. Eric House and I once rode down Page Mill road during a frosty spring day, and as we rounded a hairpin turn, we felt our bikes slide a bit as both tires on our bikes slipped on the frosty surface. Neither of us crashed, partly because we were going slower than usual, but also because both of us regularly rode our road bikes off road.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Review: Children of the Sky

Children of the Sky is the direct sequel to Vernor Vinge's Hugo Award winning A Fire Upon The Deep, which was easily the best novel that year. There was a prequel, A Deepness in the Sky which was also very well written, though not as deeply original as A Fire Upon The Deep.

It is not necessary to read A Fire Upon The Deep before picking up Children of the Sky, but given how good A Fire Upon The Deep was, I would strongly encourage reading that book first no matter what. It provides interesting background about the universe and the world, which might mystify or confuse readers who choose to start with Children of the Sky.

Children of the Sky picks up 10 years after the events of A Fire Upon The Deep, on the world where the protagonists and the survivors of the preceding catastrophe were stranded. What's great about starting here is that the world seems much more fleshed out than before. The big alien species that Vinge introduced in A Fire Upon The Deep was the Tines, dog-like creatures that are only intelligent when clustered close together in a pack, with neural connections being made via sound rather than electrically. What's great is that Vinge extrapolates from this alien biology to the rest of the world, and posits what happens when masses of that species lives too close together, as would happen in the warmer tropical regions of the world. This extrapolation and world building is extremely high quality, and every time you run across something that was newly introduced, you'll say to yourself, "of course! That's how it would work."

The big plot point here is that the cryogenically revived children of the Straumli disaster would not believe that the events of the previous books were real, and then start acting as though the protagonists were lying and making things up. Given the existence of Holocaust deniers in our world, history, and timeline, this is very believable, and drives tension and events throughout the book. We also see a recurring villain from the previous book revive and begin to pose a threat.

The story alternates between action/reaction (along with a great introduction to politics) and world building. Events are told from multiple points of view, but it's clear that Ravna from A Fire Upon The Deep is to main protagonist in this story. The characters are strongly developed, and everything is believable.

The weakest part of the novel comes at the climax and ending. We've seen the characters go through hell, and established that certain other characters were truly villains on a grand scale (kidnapping and murder is just the tip of the ice-berg). Yet our protagonists seem happy with the finishing status quo, not agitating for villains who obviously cannot be trusted to be dealt with, and even in some ways helping them undermine the future of their community. This seems unlikely, especially since one of the protagonists has been clearly labeled as a hothead. The ending is also clearly a setup for another sequel. While I would be glad to read more in this universe, this leaves the book hanging in many ways and leaves the reader with a bit of dissatisfaction.

Despite all this, this is an excellent novel, and I would not be surprised to see it win the Hugo award this year, and I would be happy to see it win one. Recommended