Friday, December 27, 2013

Review: The Speed of the Dark

The Speed of the Dark is Elizabeth Moon's science fiction book about autism. The science fiction parts of the book aren't very apparent. It's set in the future where autism can be cured in the womb, and follows Lou Arrendale, one of the last autistic people left. He's a high functioning autistic, and can live on his own, hold down a job doing pattern matching, and goes fencing. The novel is told mostly from his point of view.

The central conflict in the novel describes a new director for Lou's job, Crenshaw, who decides that all the extra amenities and facilities that Lou and his colleagues need to be able to work are perks that should be cut. To that end, he "encourages" Lou's colleagues to try out an experimental treatment for curing autism. Crenshaw is a stereotypical corporate villain, and is never fleshed out, which is the biggest flaw in an otherwise excellent novel. But his attack on Lou brings up several issues: if you could cure a deep psychological problem like autism, would it be desirable to do so. If someone has come to an accommodation with his condition, wouldn't the change be traumatic, and possibly be effectively eliminating that person's former self? The novel explores these issues from Lou's perspective.

The best thing about this novel is it's use of the first person perspective to grant insight into how an autistic individual works. If you're a Silicon Valley engineer, reading this novel will give you a very strong sense in how similar many engineers are to an autistic person, and where the big differences are. Jeff Bezoes is quoted as saying, "I learn more from fiction than from non-fiction books," and this book is illustrative: it's more insightful than even autobiographical books like Born on a Blue Day. The treatment is extremely sympathetic, and extremely well written.

For some novelists, the central conflict's resolution would end the novel, but not Moon. She goes on to explore all the deeper issues involved in the novel, and the conversation Lou has with himself is a lot of fun. This is an excellent novel, and I can highly recommend it.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review: Tearaway

I'll come right out and say it: I dislike mario-style platform games. I don't think I'd ever finished a platform-style game in my life, not even when it was Braid, written by my college friend (now video game illuminary) Jonathan Blow. Part of it is that most of those games are too difficult (and yes, Braid definitely falls into that category), and geared towards hardcore gamers or kids with a lot of time on their hands with which to get good at anything.

Yet the metacritic scores for Tearaway are simply amazing, with review site after review site proclaiming that if you bought a Playstation Vita, you should play this game, as it is not a game that can be played on any other platform. Thus when the Playstation Network had a holiday sale at $18, I jumped on it. As of this writing, Amazon still has this game at $19.99, but it is out of stock and could take a while to ship. It'd be worth the wait though.

The conceit of the game is that you're controlling a paper message with an envelop making it's way through a world made out of paper from kindergarten arts and crafts projects to you, the player. Everything in the world you wander through is made out of papers, from trees to waterfalls. The rendering is very well done, and has a very natural feel to it. I was never any good at those arts and crafts projects when I was small, but I still enjoyed the visual look and graphic design behind this game.

The word most frequently used to describe Tearaway is "Charming." Despite my prejudice against platform games, Tearway certainly charmed me into playing it. For one thing, the game is not too frustratingly hard, segmenting itself so that you can make it as difficult or as easy as you like. By this I don't mean that the game has difficulty settings: it doesn't. The sidequests and optional goals are what let you adjust the difficulty: if it's too hard you can proceed on with the story without much loss. Even though I dislike platformers, I found myself playing some of the levels in a mode of flow, indicating that the game designers did a good job of making you feel competent despite the complexity of some of the inputs: the rear touch pad, motion sensors, shake sensors, joysticks, and buttons all come into play.

The game makes a great effort to include you in it's presentation. This ranges from displaying a photo of you in the sun "teletubbies-style", to breaking the fourth wall, directly talking to you, the player. In fact, the entire game revolves around delivering a message to you, the player. In particular, one of Iota's idle animation sequences is to turn to you and look adoringly. Early on, the game asks you to draw a picture of a crown using the touch screen, and then immediately uses it when displaying characters to you. The game also lets you shoot photographs in game, in addition to using both front and rear facing cameras to capture textures for in game use. This is a game that truly makes use of every facility on the Vita, and uses it with a facility that puts other games to shame.

A lot of the complaints that hardcore gamers have about the game is that it is too linear. I'm definitely not going to complain about that. You never have to guess as to what you have to do next, and the game provides plenty of hints if you get stuck.  The story is fairly shallow, though I still found it exciting enough. Other criticisms are that the game is short, but I'm of the opinion that the game was just right: any longer and I might have the time or patience to play it through, and some of the mechanisms (especially the motion control) would overstay their welcome if they were used more liberally throughout the game.

There's some evidence  that girls should play more video games for the cognitive benefits thereof. If you're the parent of a girl, Tearway would be an ideal introduction to video games and 3D-style spatial thinking. Not only is the game non violent and without many horror elements, throughout the game when you snap pictures of white objects you gain access to PDFs of constructibles so you can make replicas of game world object out of paper you run through a printer. Any kid that can be trusted with scissors to build these replicas would be a good candidate to play this game.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that this game was worth buying a Vita to play. For my taste, Golden Abyss is still a more fun game: I wanted more Golden Abyss at the end of that game, but I'm not sure I wanted Tearway to last longer. Nevertheless, the game is creative, innovative, and worth your time to play. I hope it succeeds and Media Molecule (the creators) are encouraged to make more games for the Vita. And if they do build more content for Tearway, I'd probably buy it and play it. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Review: The Everything Store

The Everything Store is a history of Amazon from inception to circa 2012. Of all the tech companies that affect our lives, Amazon is the least sexy to the business press. There's nothing more boring than retail, and it's easy to categorize Amazon as a simple retailer. The truth is, there's nothing simple about what Amazon does. I remember first ordering books over the internet from a bookstore that is now defunct. When I called them up to ask about my order, the woman said, "Oh, it's so nice to talk to you! So you're the guy who's been ordering these great books that I wished everyone would read." Further discussions led to my realization that she and her husband were basically doing all the shipping themselves, and were too overwhelmed with orders to do anything interesting with the website like setting up a review system, etc. When Amazon launched I ordered books from them instead (largely because of the large discounts they offered), I was impressed immediately by how complete their review system was.

Fast forward to just a few years ago, and it's astounding to see what Amazon has done with their razor-thing profit margins that Apple, Google, and Netflix would all sniff at. Amazon has dominated cloud services to the point where Google is an also ran with AppEngine and Google Compute Engine. Amazon has effectively outflanked Apple with the Kindle and continues to dominate ebooks even despite Apple's attempt to raise prices for consumers by entering the market. And I'm not a Netflix subscriber, but as an Amazon Prime customer, my son watches Blue's Clues and Curious George in addition to getting his diapers delivered by Amazon. My wife and I once calculated that the savings from buying diapers alone from Amazon as opposed to Babies R Us more than paid for Amazon Prime.

The book does a fantastic job of describing Jeff Bezo's background and how he came to start Amazon. We get interesting insight into several business decisions, including how Amazon negotiated to buy Diapers.com, and what happened back then. There's also some details about the launch of EC2 and S3, and Stone does a great job of debunking the myth that Amazon launched those cloud services because of excess capacity. And here's information I head from a former Amazon employee that's also in this book: that Amazon initially launched it's cloud services at a loss. "Fat Profits only attract competitors," is a classic Bezos quote.

Lest you think the book paints a rosy picture of Amazon, there's a lot of the ugly exposed as well, which is something that I don't see in books about Apple or Google, for instance. Stone does not shy away from the stories of burnout, the executive politics, mis-steps, and ruthless competition that Amazon imposed on others in the industry. It's quite clear that Amazon is willing to take deep losses in order to hurt competition, but that ruthlessness is tempered by one thing: Amazon's never willing to hurt the competition without also helping its customers, and Amazon is willing to work hard to understand its customers in a way that other successful companies don't.

All in all, this book is well balanced, and does not go overboard in worshiping Jeff Bezos or treating Amazon as a company free of blemishes. In a world filled with books written by sycophants such as Steve Levy, that's a rare thing and worth a read. Recommended.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Long Term Care Insurance

Recently, we've had events that made me really glad that I bought long term care insurance for my parents a decade ago. While it's stressful to have any kind of health event at an advanced age, eliminating the financial worries that go with it is a relief no matter what.

This event caused me to look into long term care again, and the landscape is dramatically different from when I first purchased it more than a decade ago. Statistically, 60% of couples who reach age 65 together will need long term care for at least one of them. This makes the actuarial case for long term care insurance grim. When I first shopped for long term care, it was common to be able to buy unlimited benefits insurance. In other words, the insurance would keep paying for long term care indefinitely for as long as the insured needed it.

I modeled the cost of long term care insurance versus the payout at that time, and discovered that even at a high rate of return, if one of the insured needed long term care for more than a few years, the premiums were more than worth it. In addition to a high daily benefit, I also bought an inflation rider, which bumped up the benefit by 5% a year at a compounded rate. My concession to cost was to buy a high elimination period policy, since the point of insurance is to guard against the worst case scenario of needing long term care for years or even decades.

Well, what happened was that in turns out that those policies I bought were not sound: insurance companies lost money on them. It's not a surprise then, that over the last few years we've had offers from the insurance company to switch us to a limited benefit policy in exchange for a lower premium, and it is also impossible to buy similar long term care insurance today. I tried to get quotes, and the costs are in excess of what you would pay at a luxury senior living facility like Vi of Palo Alto.

Needless to say, long term care no longer makes financial sense for most couples: if you are poor, you'll depend on Medi-Cal if you live in California. If you're wealthy enough to cover the costs of say, Vi of San Diego, you might as well self-insure, since the cost of long term care insurance exceeds the cost of even the highest end nursing facility. There's only a narrow range of net-worth and health outcomes where the limited term long term care insurance benefits might make a difference as to whether your heirs get something out of your estate.

In any case, I suspect that given the numbers I'm seeing, it's unlikely that long term care insurance is worth the hassle. And if you have one of the unlimited term benefit policies that have a reasonable premium, you should do everything you can to keep it.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Review: Drake's Deception

After playing Golden Abyss on the Vita, I downloaded Drake's Deception to see how it felt on a big screen. It's a 40GB download (mostly because the download included support for 3D movies), so it took multiple tries before I succeeded but I wasn't in a hurry. If this is the new era of console gaming, there's no question that 500GB HDDs on the next generation of consoles will definitely not be sufficient.

First of all, the game is gorgeous. I don't even mean compared to the Vita. Halfway through the game I liked it so much that I picked up the Uncharted Dual Pack on Amazon. I took a sneak peak and played a couple of chapters from Drake's Fortune, and the differences are immediate, significant, and very obvious. Character expressions are discernible in a way that I never expected to see in a video game. As a computer scientist, this makes me fear the impending death of Moore's law much less. In fact, the way I see it, the lack of continuous improvement to the hardware enables software engineers to pull every trick in the book to get these relatively low powered machines to produce gorgeous graphics. It could be that a few more cycles of stunted performance improvements on Intel's processors could even get Adobe to improve Lightroom's performance. It's ironic that by far the best time to buy a PS3 would be right now, when the game library is biggest and game developers have figured out how best to make use of the hardware.

Drake's Deception is not the most gorgeous game I've seen on the PS3. That title right now would go to the Tomb Raider reboot, which came out 2 years after Drake's Deception. But here's why the Uncharted series has me playing while other games sit on my hard drive: it's relentlessly upbeat, cheerful, and playable. While other games go for the dark, grim and gritty atmosphere, Drake's Deception choose bright, well-lit locations and saturated colors. If this was a movie, I'd say that the movie was shot entirely in Fuji Velvia.

The game play is the same across all the Uncharted games. You have some shooting, some platforming, and some (fairly easy) puzzles. All the puzzles are very fair, and fairly straightforward. I suspect that the puzzles and the platforming which are fairly easy are there so that the game isn't one relentless shoot-fest, which would be extremely monotonous. There two difficulty spikes which I found impossible to overcome in the second half of the game. This was in contrast to Golden Abyss, where the difficulty level didn't change dramatically the way it does. I would understand if the difficulty spikes came at climatic moments of the game's story, but they don't, which left me scratching my head as to why the designers did what they did. My guess is if my son was 6 or 7 instead of 2, that's when I'd just hand the controller to him and just say, "go do this for Daddy."

One of the most fascinating thing about the Uncharted games is that they school you in the visual language of film. The game subtly directs you to move in a certain direction, or jump in a certain way so as to continue the story. In some cases, of course, failure to move as directed results in death and a restart, but after a while you learn the language of the game and where to go becomes intuitive. I thought this part of the game was relatively well considered and well thought out. This is especially fun during the fabulous set piece on an airplane transport. There's a firefight and the plane starts to fall apart in the air, and Drake is not only fighting to stay alive, but is also constantly jostled about the plane and looking for things to hang on to as the plane loses altitude. The "wow" factor while playing this section is very cool, and by this point you are so well-schooled in the visual language of the game that at every point you know what to do and how to do it makes the game flow satisfying. The same could be set in a classic Lawrence of Arabia style chase through a desert canyon with horses, trucks, and motorcycles all mixed in a big climatic scene.

Not all the set pieces are so overtly flashy, however. Early on in the game there's a classic young urchin fleeing from bad guys sequence that's also lovely to play and watch. My wife and son watched me play parts of this and enjoyed it: it's non-violent, exciting, and a lot of fun.

Comapred to all this, however, the end of the game was anti-climatic. You would expect the final villain boss fight to be epic, but instead you're reduced to following on-screen prompt and button mashing. There are also a couple of places where the platforming goes on for just a bit too long. They're not particularly challenging, but I guess they're just there to make the game last the requisite 8-9 hours that hard core gamers demand.

Coming from Vita's Golden Abyss, however, I have to say that I found the PS3's limited controls made for a less satisfying variety of interaction. The Vita has a motion sensor, two touch pads, and a camera in addition to the joystick/button controls, and the result is that the puzzles and reveals have much more of a wow factor. In particular, Golden Abyss's charcoal rubbing was something my toddler loved doing, and of course that's not possible on the PS3. If I had a choice between getting my next Uncharted fix on the PS4 or the Vita, I would definitely pick the Vita, and not just because the PS4 costs $400.

Nevertheless, I can see why the Uncharted series is such a marquee brand for the Playstation, and I certainly would contemplate buying a PS4 just to play the next release of Uncharted. The combination of excellent direction, decent story, and the fact that nobody's actually making movies like this any more makes this a winner, and deservedly so. Recommended. I'm happy I have 2 more Uncharted games to play through before I run out of content.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Review: PS Vita Travel Pouch (and other accessories)

The problem with portable electronics is that you actually have to do something to protect them. The PS Vita is particularly problematic, because the twin joysticks stick out and can snag on other things in a backpack or pocket, and of course the beautiful OLED screen needs to be protected. (Note that the Amazon Walking Dead bundle I previously reviewed has gone up to $190 in price, making it no longer a screaming deal, but it's still cheaper than what you can find elsewhere)

The screen protection is easy. Amazon has the official screen protector available for $2 over the holidays (out of stock, but choose Amazon as the seller). The reason you want the official one is that it uses a very cool technique for lining up your screen protector: there's a template that goes over your joystick/button pad, and then when you peel off the official screen protector your screen is correctly covered. Well worth the $2.

The carrying case is problematic. My hope was that there'd be a good case that could carry the Vita, charger, headphones, and game cards, but it appears there's nothing that will carry all of them. The hard cases look intriguing, but none of them actually have the capacity that the soft cases have. I ended up with the official case. This case is designed to carry the Vita, 4 game cards, and pair of ear bud headphones, and the official extended battery, but won't carry the charger that comes with the Vita.

The section of the case that's meant for the Vita is well designed. The game card pouches work, but aren't suitable for extra memory cards, for instance. The memory cards are too small and there's a risk of losing them if you use the game card slots. I think the model that Sony went with is that you're likely to own only one memory card ever.

My favorite headphones to use with the Vita are the Knivio Bluetooth headset. I can pack both the headset the Vita into the carrying case and that's it. For most local use that'll be no problem. For an airplane, I'm guessing that I'll need some sort of extended battery (the Vita is particularly power hungry and will chew through a full charge in about 3 hours of play --- the machine actually gets warm, so you know that the CPU/GPU you paid for is actually working hard), and probably the etymotics instead. That'll probably fit in the case along with the USB cable.

I'm not sure I want to use the word recommended for the official case. It's workable, and fairly cheap for $10, which is as good as you can find.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Retrospective: How Nintendo lost me as a customer

Golden Abyss got me to start playing Drake's Deception on the PS3, which is pretty remarkable. (I'm certainly enjoying the game and how pretty it is) Looking back at the review of the Nintendo Wii that I wrote in 2007, this is quite a reversal of the turn of events that I expected. The Nintendo Wii is gathering dust, while the PS3 sees almost daily use, if not as a game machine, as a portal for Amazon instant video, blu ray player at times, and YouTube living room, where it serves as a better Google TV than the various Google TV demos I've tried over the years. I haven't even considered a Chromecast because the PS3 has been working so well.

How did this happen? I think the biggest deal was the advent of HDTV. With a big 1080p screen in the living room, the Nintendo Wii's graphics looked old. For a while, it still saw plenty of use as an avenue for Rock Band, but even then, the jaggies started looking more and more glaring compared to the PS3's 720p output for games and 1080p output for movies. For games where a motion controller was preferred, I ended up with a Playstation Move instead.

For the next generation of consoles, the difference is even bigger. Both the XBox One and the Playstation 4 will play Blu-rays and DVDs, while the Wii U, despite having a disc reader, won't even play DVDs. From a performance point of view, the Wii U is so much less powerful than either of the bigger consoles that it's likely to only get games that are coming out for the previous generation of consoles.

But by far the most important reason is the games. While it seems as though I've become an Uncharted addict, I noticed that I never did finish a single Wii game that had a "finish". To be fair, the Wii has many games that don't end. For me, that means that I'd rather pick up a PS 4 when the next Uncharted game comes out rather than getting another Nintendo console that gathers dust.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Wealthfront Client Meeting with Burton Malkiel

This year, Wealthfront hosted a fireside chat with Burton Malkiel at the Stanford faculty club. It was my first chance to talk with Malkiel since 2005, and I got to ask him about his opinion of the stock market. He said that while the US stock market is now historically expensive, but the developed markets and European markets are looking cheap, so "this is a good opportunity to do some rebalancing."

Wealthfront also divulged some interesting information: they currently have $450M in assets under management, compared to $90M around this time last year, so their service has gained a lot of traction. Not only are the number of accounts increasing, the average account size has also been increasing. (The first time you see the tax loss harvesting numbers they post to your account, you'll be motivated to shove more money into the account) They currently have 32 employees with 18 engineers, and they expect to have more than half the company be engineers for the foreseeable future.

Malkiel says they've been splitting up the fixed income segment to do things that make sense under the current environment. For instance, AT&T bonds are paying 4% while AT&T stocks are yielding 5% in dividends. It thus makes much more sense to own AT&T stocks rather than bonds. That's an interesting approach, though I would point out that Swensen thinks that corporate bonds are not worth holding.

Someone pointed out that with the new individual stock based tax loss harvesting, they risk accidentally triggering the wash sale rule if they have accounts elsewhere or vest company stock. The answer to the latter is that they allow you to have a blacklist of stocks that they'll never buy or sell on your behalf, and the wash sale triggering based on another advisor trading on your behalf simply means you don't recognize all the tax losses you could otherwise be entitled to. They note that they plan to provide turbo-tax compatible reports, so turbo-tax should be able to reconcile all the buys and sells that they do on your behalf.

One thing that I was very pleased to see was when someone asked whether the resulting decreased cost basis of your holdings wouldn't wash out in the end when you do withdraw the money. Malkiel's response was that he was so old he didn't expect to pay any capital gains at all on his holdings as they will get stepped up upon inheritance. Andy Rachleff also mentioned that "our tax loss harvesting service is not suitable for short term investments." It's a strong statement of where Wealthfront wants to go, and I applaud them for making such a strong statement up front.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Is Sony making a comeback?

Without noticing it, I somehow ended up being a Sony consumer this year. If you asked me about it a few years ago I would have laughed, since Sony seemed so moribound. For instance, Sony had to buy Minolta to get into the camera business, and Minolta was long considered the weakest of the SLR manufacturers. The PS3 launch was well known for being disastrous, especially when compared to the Nintendo Wii. It still hasn't done anything in the smart phones worth buying, and their tablets are pretty sad.

Then this year, I found myself buying a Sony RX-100, which has a well-deserved reputation for being easily the best point and shoot camera you can buy. Despite being a Canon loyalist for as long as I've been a serious photographer, I ended up buying one. I would have expected Canon to have a better answer to the RX-100 by now, but it seems as though they've been caught flat-footed this time.

Then I found myself buying a Playstation Vita on black friday, and it's re-kindled a love of games that I'd thought I'd lost.

Looking around as I visited Costco and the occasional shopping mall, I can't help notice that the PS 4 is pretty much sold out everywhere, while you can saunter into any Microsoft Store or Costco and buy an XBox One. Sony also did something clever with the PS 4, which is to require all new games be PS Vita compatible, doing the kind of integration that Microsoft was famous for.

If Sony keeps executing the way it has been for the last couple of years, the future will be very bright for it indeed. If I were the kind to buy individual stocks, I'd definitely do more research into its financials.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Review: Unaccountable

Unaccountable is Dr. Marty Makary's book about the lack of transparency in medicine. For me, it's an eye opener about how to approach healthcare, surgeon selection, hospital selection, and potential surgery. Here are a few (by no means exhaustive) interesting titbits from the book:

  • The best hospitals don't pay doctors based on the number of procedures they do, but rather a salary. The incentive based/market based approach breaks down for healthcare because insurance companies pay per procedure, rather than on the basis of patient outcome. As a result of the "Eat What You Kill" model of compensation, many patients get unnecessary and potentially life-threatening procedures rather than minimally invasive surgery.
  • If you're told you need major surgery by an older doctor, get a second opinion from a younger one. The younger surgeon might know about newly invented minimally invasive surgery techniques that the older one does not.
  • If you're told you need surgery on a major body part for a disease, get second opinions from both experts on the disease as well as experts on the body part. For instance, if you have cancer of the liver, you want an expert on the liver, as well as an expert on cancer of the liver. For instance, many transplant experts would recommend a transplant, while a cancer surgeon would suggest eliminating the tumor through surgery.
  • The easiest measure of safety culture is simple. Collect answers from the nurses and doctors of a hospital to the question: "Would you want to be treated at this hospital." This data is actually collected, but isn't published by the government or hospital. Similarly, readmit rates are collected but are not published. This means that it's nearly impossible for a patient to select hospitals on the basis of competency, which is why hospitals compete on the basis of parking lots and advertising.
  • Ask for a video of your procedure if possible. Merely knowing that someone else will watch the video improves quality and increases time spent on the procedure.
  • Children's hospitals frequently have a more people in fundraising than doctors. That's because fundraising for children's hospitals is so effective that it's a better revenue model than actually treating patients.
Fundamentally, there's a culture of secrecy in healthcare today where transparency is not the norm. Nearly everyone at a given hospital, for instance, knows which doctors routinely screws up on his patients or has a higher complication rate. But the culture is such that you'll have a hard time getting anyone to tell you this. For instance, a story told in this book was that a patient asked an intern if his surgeon was good. Since his surgeon was terrible, the intern replied, "He's one of the top 4 surgeons in this specialty at this hospital." (There were only 4 surgeons in that department)

What strikes me over and over again is the importance of culture at hospitals. Makary refers to many prestigious hospitals that nevertheless have poor safety culture (and therefore poor patient outcomes). In keeping with the culture of secrecy in medicine, however, he's not allowed to name them. If you read between the lines, however, you get a good idea of which hospitals he's not recommending. Furthermore, he explains why certain hospitals such as the Mayo clinic are so highly regarded and how they come about having a great safety culture.

At $3.99 at the Kindle store, buy this book and read it. It has the potential to save you and your loved ones a lot of pain. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Reread: The Things They Carried

I first read The Things They Carried right after high school. As a soon to be conscript, the book struck a deep chord in me in a way none of the books that were assigned in school as "literature" ever did. The book was so raw, so filled with reality while acknowledging that some stories cannot be told correctly, no matter how many times the author circles back to his material, that it spoke to me in a way that no mere novel could provide. Over the years, I've given away so many copies of the book that I've lost count, and over several moves, I've never managed to recover any of my personal copies. When the Amazon Matchbook program listed this book for me at $2.99, I jumped on it so that I could have my very own copy, which cannot be given away or lost as long as Amazon stays around.

Many books lose their power over you as you age. The intensity of emotion that I had as a youth has no parallel in me today, but this book brings back those memories in ways that even reading my own writing from 20 years ago cannot. O'Brien brings home the nastiness of being a soldier in South East Asia, where even the weather and climate will bury you despite all the technology at your disposal (though remembering that the war was fought in the 60s, there wasn't actually that much technology).

What strikes me the hardest this time around, however, is the lack of fulfillment you sense in O'Brien throughout the novel. It's palpable in the way he retells the stories over and over again, sometimes from a different angle, sometimes in the same way but in a different context, and other times to make a completely different point. Together, the stories in this book form a mosaic that lets you get at the essence of the truth in O'Brien's past and his trauma, and explains why 20 years later, he is still telling these stories.

One of the big differences between the USA of today and the USA of Vietnam is that since switching to an all-volunteer army, the gulf between the elite and the soldiers who fight on behalf of the country are wider than before. As a result, books like this are more important than ever. I highly recommend this book, but more importantly, if you're a US citizen or green card holder, you need to read this book:
‘’If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.’’

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Review: Uncharted - Golden Abyss

If I had any doubts that my purchase of a Playstation Vita would be a waste, Golden Abyss has dispelled them. Despite my having owned a Playstation 3 for several years, I had somehow avoided playing any of the Uncharted games on that console, and now I regret not having done so, especially since Golden Abyss is frequently cited as the weakest of the series.

The gameplay is basically that of a platform shooting game translated into 3D. Nathan Drake, the protagonist, jumps, climbs and bounces around levels as though he was in a Mario game, but rather than jumping on his enemies to dispel them like the plumber, he acquires and uses a variety of weapons and shoots at enemies via cover. There are also several puzzles, none of which are particularly challenging intellectually, but do break up the flow of the game so that it's not a series of action sequences.

The graphics behind this game is gorgeous. There are many times when I'd be traversing a canyon, a cave, or some set piece, and I'd want to stop just to rotate the view and enjoy the scenery. The colors pop, and the scenery is well put together and real.

What blew my mind, however, was how well the game used all the features of the Vita. The most compelling section came when the characters came across a blank piece of paper. You're asked to hold up the paper to a light, and sure enough, when you hold the Vita up against a light bulb, letters appeared on the parchment in a slow reveal. This is a cool use of the rear camera, and gave me a feeling of "wow" that none of the other games I've played on real game consoles have provided. When you're asked to do a charcoal drawing, you actually use your fingers to rub against the touch screen. Very sweet. When you're asked to take a photograph, you can hold your Vita just like a real camera, and control how you snap pictures that way. Not all the interfaces were as smooth as that particular piece. For instance, using the touch screen for hand-to-hand combat felt like a miss compared to using the physical buttons. Using the rear touch sensor for holding and rotating an object didn't feel natural, and neither did using the gyroscope to control a sniper rifle. Fortunately, most of the time you could also use the joysticks (which are a delight to use).

The story is well put together, and it's worth reading Bend Studio's post-mortem on the game to see what tweaks and changes they had to make in order to make the female lead likable to most players. Unfortunately, as with all games of this type, the story usually has you feeling like you're on rails. For instance, there's a scene in the game where Drake is hiding behind a pillar watching one of the villains have a conversation with a lackey. There's no PC in D&D history that wouldn't just take a headshot at the villain there and then and save himself a lot of trouble later. But this being a computer game that's on rails, the game takes control away from you for that scene, which might not be frustrating if you're used to the game doing so, but for me, just jarred me out of the immersion mode that the game otherwise worked so hard to put me into.

The game's difficulty setting on Easy (I didn't use "Very Easy") was perfect for an out-of-touch gamer. I died often, but not so often as to become frustrated, and in general I had a lot of fun.

In any case, playing this game made me immediately go out and download Uncharted 3 to my PS 3 (it's a free game this month on Playstation Plus). I doubt if I'll get through that game as quickly as this one, because having something on the Vita makes it so much easier for me to sneak in 15 minutes of gaming here and there when I have time, rather having to be at home and having to power up the TV the console and taking over the living room.

In any case, Golden Abyss is highly recommended and I definitely felt like I got my money's worth from the Vita just based on this game.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Only Reason to Buy Individual Stocks

I recently wrote about why I no longer buy individual stocks. I will now detail my one exception to this rule. If I was working at Google, Facebook, or owned large amounts of those stocks that I couldn't or didn't want to divest myself of (very common in the case of RSUs that aren't vested), then this is what you need to do.

For the rest of your portfolio, when you're buying indices, you can custom construct an index such that those individual stocks are left out. While it only makes sense to do this if your portfolio exceeds a certain amount, the net result is that your overall portfolio is better balanced because you don't have to own Google again, for instance, both in the index and in individual holdings.

What's the portfolio level at which this makes sense? At one point, the only solution was Parametric Portfolio Associates, at a minimum of $5M. However, today, Wealthfront has dramatically lowered the entry level to $500,000. Once you've got such a custom index built, as Wealthfront has detailed, you can now do tax-loss harvesting at an individual level, bringing your tax loss harvesting potential up even further. This is a huge incentive for high networth individuals to use Wealthfront, as their fees are substantially lower than Parametric's, for instance. In fact, once you build a custom index, you no longer have to pay Vanguard's management fee, for instance, so Wealthfront's equivalent portfolio costs come close to Vanguard, and the additional tax-loss harvesting delta will tip the edge in Wealthfront's favor.

In How to Interview a Financial Advisor, I explain why most Googlers who were offered the opportunity turned down Parametric's offer. The problem is that if you fire Parametric, now you're stuck with a portfolio of 499 individuals stocks, and now you have to either manage that portfolio yourself, or find someone willing to do it for you. As you can imagine, unless you're about to write your own software to do this, that effectively makes Parametric/Wealthfront a roach motel, where you can always check in, but you can never leave.

When I spoke with Wealthfront about this latest feature, I proposed a solution to this issue. It's very much technically feasible, and I look forward to seeing if Wealthfront will implement it. The nice thing about being a Silicon Valley startup is that they can move forward far faster than the stodgy banks on Wall Street used to big fat margins.

As for myself? I will continue to move more assets over to Wealthfront as they free up elsewhere. The additional bonuses from what they're doing at higher asset levels is just too much even for this DIYer to pass up.

How to Interview A Financial Advisor now out in paperback

My latest book, How to Interview a Financial Advisor is now out in paperback. For this book, I'm enrolling in the Matchbook program, which means that for $2.99, you can get the digital copy of the book as well as the paperback if you buy the paperback. I loved the Matchbook program, and I was happy to sign up this bookf or it, both as an experiment and also because I feel it's a great way to provide a discount: buy a copy for your friend, and keep a copy for yourself!

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Review: Fables #17 and #18

I was so disappointed with Fables #16 that I didn't bother reading the books at all last year. I finally picked up Inherit the Wind and Cubs in Toyland this year and read them through in a couple of nights. This part of the story involves Snow White and Bigby Wolf's family. They grapple with the loss of the North Wind and the selection of the future god of winds from the young wolflings.

Inherit the Wind is easily one of the weakest volumes in the series thus far. There's a lot of distraction, and the graphic novel tries to set up yet another long-running plotline as part of the side story, leading to the main story suffering from both neglect and no small amount of ennui.

Cubs in Toyland is a much stronger work. We see the fate of two of the Bigby's Scions, as they grapple with being transported to a fantastic new world with a hidden, deadly secret. The problem with the resolution of this story is that while it's shocking, it's impact is mostly on characters we're not invested in, so that dilutes the impact. The story is also a bit derivative, with the newness focused on the world Willingham's created just for this story, and the world is too simple for us to also derive much satisfaction from it.

The volume closes with a final story about Bigby Wolf, which does bring back Willingham's original story telling powers. It's a great short story, and I wish the rest of the work was like it. If not for this last section, I would have said that Willingham should have ended the series with the end of the first arc. Recommended, but only for people who have read the rest of the series. Otherwise, start at the beginning.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Review: Amazon Playstation Vita Holiday Bundle

It's not a secret that in recent years, the iPad and other tablets have become the most ubiquitous video game platform. However, the games for the platform are pretty sad. Much of this has to do with the touch interface: there are precious few games that can do it justice.  So far, Space Station Frontier and Strikefleet Omega are the only two games that I think use the touch interface for maximum effect and fun game play. Most of the other games are either marred by extensive in-app purchasing business models or just absolutely terrible UI. For instance, The Dark Knight Rises uses a touch-based joystick and it's pathetically unplayable. Even Clash of Heroes, which is a port from the Nintendo DS suffers from playability problems due to the touch interface.  One would think that the tower-defense genre would be perfect for the touch interface, but even then, none of the games I've tried come close to Defense Grid.

The net result is that for an immersive experience, I have to play on a PC or game console. Yet both of these are relatively heavyweight operations. For instance, the PS3 lives in the living room, and the gorgeous experience does mean that it takes up everyone's attention while it's on. The PC obviously requires boot up time, and while it provides a nice interface, it's still a little less satisfying than the dedicated game consoles. And the biggest defect is that when on the PC, I feel guilty about doing anything other than working on the next book!

Amazon has an exclusive holiday bundle for the PS Vita bundled with a small memory card and 3 games, so I picked it up. One reason to pick up a PS Vita this year as opposed to waiting for yet another price drop is that next year, the Vita will lose its OLED screen and switch to an LCD screen instead.

After unboxing the unit, I downloaded Uncharted Golden Abyss, and started playing. It's a beautiful experience. The screen disappears from the unit, and the controls are responsive and quick. While not a full-screen movie experience Drake's Deception is on the PS3, it's was for me an incredible hook and motivated me to download Drake's Deception on the living room console after getting started on Golden Abyss. If you're used to tablet games, the games on the PS Vita are a revelation. For one thing, there's no in-app purchasing, in-game advertising, cross-promotions for other products, etc. You paid for the game, you get to play. It's great. And unlike even PS3 games, there's no constant need to download patches, new content, etc. (I was shocked that Drake's Deception after a 40GB download, required another 500MB patch to start) The interface is intuitive, though some are gimmicky (in particular, melee combat using the touch screen is as pathetic as it would be on a tablet).

One of the best deals in gaming is the Playstation Plus membership. If you get in on the holiday deals, this is about $30/year for effectively 2-3 free games every month on all your platforms (PS 3, PS 4 -- currently out of stock online, PS Vita).  During the holiday season, Sony's promising a free game a week. For a  light gamer, this is more games than you'll use, and is an outstanding deal, even if many of the games would not be to your taste.

The PS Vita can also act as a remote gaming console for your PS3. I tried this on Shadow of the Colossus, and it's an impressive piece of work, streaming audio/video to the Vita from the PS3. There aren't that many games that support PS Vita remote play for the PS 3, but if you do upgrade to the PS 4, the story is that Sony has required that all games on that platform support the Vita.

The best way for me to describe the Vita is that it's like a Kindle for video games. Video games are a lot like books in that the time it takes to finish reading one is substantial, and for adults with children, the only way to consume them is in sips rather than binges. In that sense, an instant-on, always available device that lets you get in a few minutes here and there makes it well worth the entry price. Recommended.