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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Movie Review: Big Fish

This is a movie about two men. One, the father, loves stories, the more elaborate the better. The taller the better. No truth should go unvarnished, and no situation too magical to be told. He's the hero of all his stories, of course, and he's a fabulous guy. The other, the son, has heard all of his father's stories. But all these years later he feels like his father has told him nothing about the truth, so he doesn't know his father. He stops talking to his father until his father is on his deathbed, sick with cancer.

This is a story about stories. What do they mean to us? Why do we, as human beings, insist on fiction, which is really one big lie, piled on top of another? What does it say about our self-image? Do storytellers really reach for immortality --- does the story, told and retold pass down the essence of the story? Do we embellish our stories about ourselves? Why do we do so? Is our reality truly so drab that we have to spice up our stories with embellishments?

I love Tim Burton's style in this movie. It reminds me very much of his fable, Edwards Scissorhands. The fantastic parts of the stories are illustrated in lush bright colors, in a beautiful palette that reminds us that we're in a larger than life world. The framing story is filmed in a semi-documentary fashion. The actors are fantastic, and the editing well-done. My only beef with his work is that I think he left the running time a bit longer than necessary to make his point, and I would have ended the movie with the son picking up the phone --- the funeral wasn't really necessary.

All in all, this is a good movie worth watching. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Review: The Two Income Trap

Note: The first chapter of The Two Income Trap is available online.

The thesis of this book is that the increasing number of bankruptcy in America isn't due to excessive consumption, but because of excessive spending on important things: houses in good school districts, health insurance, college, and pre-school. The authors assert that for women, having a child at all is a bigger predictor of eventual bankruptcy than all other factors combined.

They point out (quite rightly), that middle income households have stretched themselves to the limit by bidding excessive amounts for houses, thereby ensuring financial disaster if one of them lose their job, for instance, or one of their family has a medical emergency. 87% of bankruptcies have their root causes in either:
  1. Job Loss
  2. Medical problems
  3. Divorce or Separation
Yet the financial media (amongst others) insists it is living beyond your means that creates the problems. By building a profile of an average family in the 1950s and an average family in the 2000s, Warren and Tyagi point out that the average family has spent less on discretionary items: clothing, groceries, fancy vacations and big televisions. Spending on transportation has gone up because both parents work, and more is spent on dining out, but that's made up by the savings brought about by Costco.

Their studies show that the big consumer is that of a house. By buying a big house in the suburbs rather than renting, American households participate in a bidding war for the best schools for their children in a safe location. The result is that it takes most of both incomes to provide for the family, and if a financial disaster happens there is no safety net.

Warren & Tyagi then prescribe a bunch of policy decisions: re-regulating the financial industry so that interest rates are capped, forcing banks and financial institutions to return to the 1950s standards for lending money seems to be their favorite prescription. Given how powerful the financial lobby is, I doubt that this policy will make it very far. The new bankruptcy bill passed last year, for instance, was practically written by the credit card companies.

They give no credence to the concept of universal healthcare, something I find a big pity --- 30% of bankruptcies are caused by medical emergencies. They also tepidly promote universal disability insurance as part of social security. (Note that California has already implemented this --- I've used this feature personally, so I know how useful it is) They also promote school vouchers as a means to de-couple schools from property values so parents aren't trapped by a big mortgage if they want good schools. I'm very skeptical of this proposal, since my guess is that the good schools will have their fees bid up to the same level as that of housing, so it'll all balance out.

Around where I live, there's quite a number of folks who buy houses in good school districts and then send their kids to private school, something I don't quite understand, but Asian parents do have a tendency to want to brag about how much they spend on their kids and can be extremely competitive in this regard.

Warren & Tyagi don't do much in terms of telling you what to do personally about this trap. They do advocate renting for a few additional years if you can't afford to buy right away, which is very sound advice, and to carry disability insurance if your state or your company does not provide, which is very sound advice. (Note that disability insurance is very expensive, precisely because you're more likely to need it than almost any other kind --- one in 3 Americans, for instance, will use the disability insurance feature of social security in their lifetimes --- and the elimination period for that insurance is a year!) Other than that, I guess they tell you not to get divorced.

In any case, The Two Income Trap confirms what I've guessed for awhile: buying a house isn't an investment decision in many parts of the country, it's a consumption decision. Recommended.

Review: A Long Way Down

Nick Hornby's last book, How to Be Good was absolutely hilarious, as was his earlier work, High Fidelity. A long way down starts at the top of Toppers House on New Year's Eve, with a quartet of people who intend to end their life by jumping down: a musician who has lost his purpose, a TV show host whose scandalous past overwhelms his present, a mother for whom her comatose son is too much of a burden for her to bear, and a teenager who's just lost her first lover.

This chance encounter causes them to back off from taking the ultimate leap that night, and the foursome agrees to meet over the next few months and find that they were not ready to commit suicide after all.

While there are a number of funny scenes in the book, Hornby does not quite manage to pull off a successful novel here --- the stories do not quite resolves, and the characters never do reach out to one another in a believable fashion. While this is an entertaining read, it is not one of his best.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Landis Case: Waiting for the B sample; Pereiro reluctantly poised to take jersey; Landis takes pass on Leno

The Landis Case: Waiting for the B sample; Pereiro reluctantly poised to take jersey; Landis takes pass on Leno

It's quite possible that Landis did take testosterone to boost his performance on stage 17. Professional cycling has had so many drug scandals in recent years that nothing can disappoint me anymore.

I have to say though, that perhaps it's simply because medical science hasn't done as much for boosting brain performance as it has on performance of the body that drugs aren't a common part of the workplace. Imagine, if you will, a drug that gave you a mental boost equivalent to that of anabolic steriods. One dose, and you could do 200 hour programming projects in 2 hours (Pengtoh and I once turned a 200 hour project into a 20 hour project by doing pair programming, so another order of magnitude isn't inconceivable). Would you, as a good programmer, take it if it meant widespread recognition, promotion, and millions of dollars? What if the drug cost you a year of your life? Or two years?

Imagine this scenario: everyone in your office is taking drugs. You're barely smart enough to hang on to your job, let alone get a promotion. You know the next bright kid who takes this mental enhancement drug (even at horrendous cost to his health) will be so smart that you won't have a prayer of hanging on to your current job. Would you continue to stay drug free? Would you find another career, even if this was the one you loved?

It's questions like this that convince me that perhaps I couldn't be that judgemental about the professionals who do performance enhancing drugs.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Another lameness about the Mac Mini

My brother and I tried to setup skype on my Mac Mini. The software installs fine, but the stupid mike wouldn't work. After swapping microphone headsets we discovered that the Mac Mini doesn't have microphone input, so I have to either get a bluetooth headset or a USB microphone (as though I didn't have enough devices hanging off the USB ports, which are all maxed out now). My brother also complains that his MacBook Pro randomly shuts down.

I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that Apple makes cool looking products with reliability problems that just aren't practical to use. No wonder they have only a 5% market share. Lisa's $900 laptop works better than a MacBook costing $2000!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Morning Ride up Montebello Road and Black Mountain

Mark Logan and John Walker joined Matt Stanton and I at the base of Montebello Road. The climb was in the sun and quite warm, so by the time we reached the top (with me begging John to slow down despite his 39x26 and a backpack with a 6 pound laptop) we had drained most of our water. The view from the top was gorgeous --- a line of clouds (a low marine layer) all the way to the North East (towards Diablo and Hamilton) and the same layer all the way to the West where the ocean was. The fire road gave us glorious views of the panorama and we made it to the pavement on Page Mill where we refilled our water bottles.

The descent on Page Mill was beautiful, and right at the cloud line we saw the temperature drop a whole 10 degrees. We hit every red light from Arastedero to B43, forcing us to do interval sprints the whole way, but we made it for breakfast!

Review: The Hallowed Hunt

If The Paladin of Souls was a disappointment, the Hallowed Hunt make up for it. In contrast to the nervous nellie that Ista was, the lead character in the Hallowed Hunt, Ingrey is a special agent to the Hallowed King, sent to followup on the murder of a Prince of the land. The case of the murder is straightforward, but Ingrey finds himself caught up with the murderess, Iijada, for she bears an animal spirit as a consequence of the murder of the prince.

What are animal spirits, how do they interact with the five Gods of Challion, and what role Ingrey plays (a role which is not made clear to Ingrey for significant periods of time), and how he comes to acknowledge his heritage and his history makes up the subject matter of the book.

Both Ingrey and Iijada are very sympathetic characters, who are intelligent people caught up in an impossible situation. Too much of the book goes into the peculiar theology of Challion, but that's forgivable --- it seems that Bujold has invested way too much in the world building not to let a bit of it peek out.

All in all, a satisfying and fun read.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Mike Samuel tries the recumbent

But it was clearly too small for him. Posted by Picasa

Matt tries a recumbent.

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Lisa tries a recumbent

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Cyclists descend Hwy 84 to La Honda

In the picture: Matt Stanton, Laura Granka, Sy Na, Matt Blain, Mike Samuel, Katelyn Mann on 84 Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Luck plays a major role in success

As I've stated often before, too many people confuse luck with skill or being smart. Hal Varian (link above) and Brad Delong both provide examples where this is the case. In my career, I've seen alot of hardworking, talented people in unsuccessful companies, and untalented lazy people in successful companies. The latter always did better than the former, hence the phrase quoted to me by a stock broker, "I'd rather be lucky than good."

If you believe that luck plays a major part in our success or failure, then you'd want progressive taxation --- let the lucky subsidize the unlucky. And you'll soon learn to respect wealth come about by selling companies during a dotcom boom less than personal success that's achieved by a means less amenable to luck (e.g., finishing a marathon, or completing a long trek). If you think about man in his natural state, the last two are rarely instances of pure luck, which is why we over-emphasize monetary success in the modern world and under-estimate the importance of luck.

Review: Trinity: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman

Matt Wagner was known to me mostly through his autobiographical work, The Hero Discovered. While Wagner is a decent artist and a decent writer, it was his use of symbols and links to the Arthurian Mythos in his autobiography that attracted me to his work. So when I saw this book at the library I had to pick it up to see his interpretation of the classic DC Superheroes.

The plot revolves around Ra's Al Ghul's manipulation of Bizarro and Artemis for an invasion of Paradise Island. Intended to showcase our heroes at the beginning of their careers, this book shows Batman's first encounter with Wonder Woman. Their initial interaction is testy and perhaps overly simplified --- one wonders how Paradise Island held its secret for so long if so many villains and heroes got to visit it (and presumably get GPS coordinates). These conceits get tougher and tougher to accept as the world become more global.

And of couse, Wonder Woman penetrates Bruce Wayne's disguise in a hurry, making you wonder if Gotham City's super-villains were just darn stupid or what. This is a world where Superman putting on glasses and pretending to be late for the train three times a week for appearances is enough to prevent folks from recognizing that Clark Kent is Superman, yet Wonder Woman penetrates Batman's secret identity right away.

I did find the portrayal of Superman's interaction with Bruce Wayne very interesting. He loves his surprises, reflects Superman, as if I couldn't see the submarine following us.

All in all, a good comic, but nothing great, and certainly nothing like Wagner's prior work.

Monday, July 17, 2006

"Why Conservatives Can't Govern" by Alan Wolfe

"Why Conservatives Can't Govern" by Alan Wolfe: "not much evidence exists in America today that conservatives are prepared to move in such a direction. If anything, they seem to have reinforced and strengthened their determination to govern as incompetently and unfairly as they can. The fact that they will leave behind a public sector in roughly the same condition that strip miners leave hillsides would cause nothing but pain to yesterday's patricians, for whom ideals such as responsibility and soundness were watchwords. But today's conservatives have no problem passing on the costs of their present madness to future generations. Governing well would require them to use the bully-pulpit of office to educate and uplift their base. But since contemporary conservatives get their political energy from angry voices of rage and revenge, they will always blame others for the failures built into their ideology. That is why conservatism so rarely makes for a good governance party. As far as conservatives are concerned, it is always someone else's government, one reason they can be so indifferent to their own mismanagement."

Thanks to David Brin for the pointer.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Movie Review: Who Killed the Electric Car?

This movie succeeds as propaganda. It explores the rise of the zero-emissions mandate in California, followed by its successful dismantling by corporate lobbyists and a compliant California Air Resources Board. The truth is, though, the GM EV1 and its cohorts weren't going to be successful. If you were to buy an only car, you wouldn't buy one with a limit 100 mile range unless there was infrastructure to permit refueling (maybe battery swap stations? but the logistics behind that would have been tough).

Lest I sound like a Republican right-winger, I'll remind readers of this blog that I log about 8000 miles a year on my bicycle, 4000 for commuting alone, so I'm as rabid an environmentalist as they come. But precisely because a range of 100 miles isn't better than what I can do on a bicycle, the only reason I'd ever get in a car was because I needed to go far in a short time.

The gasoline-electric hybrid is a much better idea, and the plug-in hybrid an even better one. But the pure electric car wasn't going to happen unless battery technology got dramatically better (which it hasn't --- battery technology has been getting better linearly, not exponentially), and there was infrastructure to support it.

In any case, this is not a bad movie --- it accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to insinuate a conspiracy theory around the dismantling of the electric car programs. Unfortunately, any amount of deep thinking by a typical consumer would show that the conspiracies it insinuates cannot possibly be true.

Ultimately, our transportation problems would be much better solved by building a robust and comprehensive passenger rail system than by trying to tinker with the private automobile, but I guess that won't happen until gas gets to $200 a barrel and beyond.

Movie Review: Aeon Flux

Beautiful woman kicks ass sums up this forgettable "science fiction" movie. The premise is weak, the characters never developed, not even through the admittedly beautfully choreographed action sequences, and the ending makes a hash out of everything that has come before (i.e., were we really fighting for no reason whatsoever) and leaves many plot points unresolved. Ultimately, beautiful eye candy but an unsatisfying movie.

Larry Summers Visits Google

Interesting titbit: Sheryl Sandberg, Google's VP of International Sales and Operations, used to be Larry Summer's Chief of Staff, when he worked for the Clinton administration.

The talk itself is the usual globalization talk you can get from anyone who's a serious thinker (Robert Reich, Brad Delong, etc). He kept it short and relatively free of long words and jargon, but it was the questions that were interesting.

Interesting quotes:

Q: There is now a shortage of men in higher education compared to women. Do you have any idea what to do about it?
A: I've learned over the years never to take the last question... It is a tribute to Google that maybe here, I shouldn't even take the first. I don't believe the shortage of men is due to social discrimination...

Q: Given the neither parties have historically enacted policies to protect citizens from the negative impact of globalization, how long do you expect there to still be support for free trade among the populance? It seems to me that support is steadily eroding for free trade.
A: Free trade is one of those things that's tough to sell. Here's an example. Let's say you're a mediocre performer in a mediocre company, but because of free trade your company's sales go through the roof and you get a promotion. Do you say, "Thank god for free trade, so I got my promotion!"? But let's say because of foreign competition your company has to shut down and you lose your job. Now you know who to blame! So we internalize our success, and externalize our failures. But the tone of your question is the right one --- in the long term, we're going to have to provide mitigation like wage insurance if there's going to be any hope at all of keeping public support for free trade.

Movie Review: American Splendor

I'm not a big fan of Robert Crump, or the underground comic book scene in general, so I came to this movie as a complete outsider. As I watched the movie to figure out what the appeal of Harvey Pekar was, I realized that he was essentially the first person to turn the comic book medium into an expression of himself, i.e., he wrote the first comic book blog. Eternally surly, angry, and not very likeable, he nevertheless manages to say profound things and survive cancer in his own way.

Pekar himself appears in this extremely self-aware movie (Pekar is shown in a movie studio narrating the voice-overs in the movie), which makes Pekar's general unlikeability very palatable --- here is someone who's a prick, but knows he's one, and somehow that makes it OK. This is not the greatest movie I've seen, but I'm glad I gave it a shot --- it surprised me how good it is.

I bet I'll have a hard time reading American Splendor, though.

Book Review: The Paladin of Souls

The sequel to The Curse of Chalion, this book deals with the Dowager Ista, a minor character in that book who was deemed insane by her family and care-takers. Having decided that she'd had enough of being hemmed in, she decides to take off on a pilgrimmage, selecting a motley group of associates and followers. On the way, she encounters demons and an invading body of warriors. She then unravels the mystery of a border keep, finds her true love, and repels the invasion all in the space of days, while recovering her sanity and self confidence.

Ista isn't nearly as interesting a character as Cazaril, and none of the other major characters in the previous novel make an appearance here. The writing is good, but the book isn't nearly as tightly plotted. As a study in a character returning from depression and loss, Ista has too many Deus Ex Machina working in her favor for me to think her a particularly strong person. Nevertheless, the book was compelling and not a complete waste of time. It's not nearly as good as its predecessor, however.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Book Review: The Undercover Economist

This is a great book, and it actually lives up to its subtitle:Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, Why the Poor Are Poor--And Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car! Tim Harford explains a lot of phenomenon through the tools and lenses provided by modern Economics, and covers the main ideas behind the phenomena very well. He has an excellent but brief explanation of adverse selection, for instance, and why it makes it difficult for a fully private health insurance system to work well. Unlike many other authors who leave it at that, he explores a solution (Singapore's) that appears to work well and shows how successful you can be if you are willing to set aside ideology and adopt an engineering approach towards economic problems. (Not that Singapore's solution can be successful in the U.S. politically, but the ideas are worth considering at the very least)

If you don't know much about economics, this is a great book to read. In the process of pondering the phenomena Harford covers (and he covers them much better than any New York Times journalist ever will), you will learn a lot of economics. If you are an economics junkie like me, you're going to enjoy this book, even more so than Freakonomics. It truly is well-written, entertaining, and accurate. I have no fault to find with this book.

Book Review: The Developers

Ellen Spertus came across this book and gave it to me since I was in a slow period, and she claimed that the book was too cynical for her. Since I'm a cynical kind of person, I thought I'd be the perfect target audience for this book.

To my chagrin, I found that the problem wasn't cynicism, but perhaps one of generation gap. I think I must have missed all the cultural references in this book, not being born in this country nor a big watcher of television. But I'm a programmer, right? So the stuff about development should be interesting to me, right?

Unfortunately, the application in question was a city-search type application with lots of UI, and boring bulletin board, chat, and personals application for a small town. It's not even a challenge for undergraduates to build, so it's hard for me to suspend my disbelief and think that an interesting startup could be built around it. The characters themselves were unappealing: most of them seem incredibly obsessed with dating and their sex life. I guess I can believe that in a dot com startup (though I've been at two dot com startups, and it certainly wasn't the case that there was a ton of dating at work) that's staffed mostly with fresh graduates. Then again, the startups I've worked at in Silicon Valley tended to be staffed with experienced people for whom work was their main obsession.

Ultimately, I cannot recommend this book unless you're a hip young developer of the sort depicted in the book. Then again, since I've never been one of those either, even if you were a hip young developer of the sort depicted in the book, my guess is that you wouldn't take book recommendations from an old fogey like me.

Book Review: The Curse of Chalion

Lois McMaster Bujold, of course, is the author of the Miles Vorkosigan series, a character-driven science fiction series about a dimunitive but incredibly bright member of the Barraya clan. Her Vorkosigan series are definitely brain candy of the type that you can't possibly put down even if you wanted to.

Here, Bujold ventures into the realm of fantasy writing and her character-driven approach is even more appropriate her than it is for science fiction.

Cazaril is a broken man: a former military general who was betrayed and sold into slavery, he barely escaped with his life and walked back to the province where he was raised to ask for a position, any position. He does not seek revenge for his betrayal; he is just hoping to stay clear of court politics. To his chagrin, he is given the job of tutoring the young princess Iselle, who is hot-headed and righteous. When the princess is recalled to the capital along with her brother the heir apparent, Cazaril is drawn back to the politics he was trying to avoid, and finds himself embroiled in affairs of state that turn out to be far darker and sinister than the mere betrayal of his trust.

The novel is a great page-turner after the first section, as history, theology, and the motivations of all the characters are teased and weaved together tightly. Then as the big reveal (what is the Curse of Chalion) happens, the reader is challenged to see if he can unravel the plot before it becomes obvious. To my satisfaction, the apparent red herring turns out to be an essential clue, and though the ending is somewhat obvious, it was not a giveaway. (There was a gratituous happy ending that was obvious to anyone --- Bujold obviously loves Cazaril, that much is obvious)

The criticisms: the lead character is just a bit too perfect. A tutor who used to be a page, a fighting man, and a military general who now has no ambitions of his own, Cazaril is just a little too self-sacrificing to be truly believable. The classic scene comes when he bargains with the leader of a foreign land --- when offered gifts and bribes, he turns them all away, saying that he's got a tumor in his stomach and is going to die anyway, so the bribes are worth nothing to him.

Nevetheless, a good read, one of the best of the year.

Matt Stanton and Katelyn on the fire road

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View of Almaden Valley from the dirt trail betwen Bohlman & Montevina

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Katelyn approaching the On Orbit intersection

Katelyn bought her bike from Terry Shaw last Saturday, so she had to see how it climbed today. Posted by Picasa

At the Intersection Bohlman Road and On Orbit

This ride was 42 miles and about 4450' of climbing. Brian said, "It's expanded my horizon on what steep means." Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Pharyngula: Noted without comment

Why I no longer read the New York Times. Scarlet probably still thinks I'm arrogant for thinking the Journalism or English majors have no place trying to interpret the complex world we live in for the intelligensia (the others don't read newspapers), but that someone who wrote this gets a promotion makes a mockery out of science:
I don't consider myself a creationist. I don't have any interest in sharing my personal views on how the canyon was carved, mostly because I've spent almost no time pondering my personal views -- it takes all my energy as a reporter and writer to understand and explain my subjects' views fairly and thoroughly.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Mt Tam Hike July 2nd

I returned to Mt. Tam on July 2nd with Matt Stanton to hike Steep Ravine and Matt Davis. We took the descent on Steep Ravine at a slow pace, since I was still feeling the effect of the long ride the day before. The vegetation looked a bit sorry, and the water was definitely at a low. The view to Stintson Beach was gorgeous, though, once we were out of the woods, and the clearing made the beach visible and pretty.

We got to the beach, however, and the temperature dropped 10 degrees, and it was too cold to stay and eat more than a power bar, so we made our way to the Matt Davis trail and started climbing it. Something over took us, and we started cranking up our pace and over-taking everyone we saw. Soon enough, we burst out of the woods into the open space with the clouds below us. We walked along the hillside, ignoring the Coastal trail turn-off, and soon found ourselves on top of the knoll overlooking San Francisco. A group of 4 on a double-date were having lunch there. I pointed out most of the interesting features to Matt, and we headed down the knoll to the West to see the lone tree and to see if we could see Point Bonitas Lighthouse (we couldn't).

We then headed back to the car, arriving there at 12:30pm, meaning that we had hiked 7.3 miles in 3 hours, despite a leisurely stop. The walk across England's made me a weaker cyclist, but I can definitely still walk.

Superman Returns

I went to Superman Returns because of Bryan Singer, who proved that he could make comic books into good movies in both X-Men 1 and 2. What I got was a good movie, but disappointing considering what I had expected. The plot was shallow, and the interaction between characters more than a little stiff. There was a lot of homage to the first Superman movie, so much so that I think it hurt the movie quite a bit.

The high point was Kevin Spacey as Luthor, and the lovely special effects that provided lots of beautiful stills for the movie. The look is definitely intriguing and the images linger long after you've seen the movie. Lisa thought Brandon Routh was very cute, maybe even cuter than Christopher Reeve. I thought Kate Bosworth looked better in the publicity stills than in the movies.

Maybe we can get Sam Raimi to make the next Superman movie.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Princeton University - Link between income and happiness is mainly an illusion

Despite the weak relationship between income and global life satisfaction or experienced happiness, many people are highly motivated to increase their income," the study said. "In some cases, this focusing illusion may lead to a misallocation of time, from accepting lengthy commutes (which are among the worst moments of the day) to sacrificing time spent socializing (which are among the best moments of the day).

This study shows what I've always suspected: that Americans have been doped into accepting ridiculous work conditions (60-80 hour weeks) in exchange for a marginally higher income than the rest of the industrialized countries, all of whom get at least 5 weeks a year to spend with their friends and family. Even with the meager vacation time they get, Americans don't usually take them. I've had former colleagues brag that they took their sabbatical and started a job at another company so they got 2 salaries at once for 5 or 6 weeks.

I remember at a gathering of friends who asked me how much I would think I'd need to not worry about work again. I answered with a figure well in excess of what most Americans would see in their lifetime, but my friends expressed amazement that I would be satisfied with so little! Granted these were Google old-timers who would turn out to be incredibly wealthy, but all it showed me was that no matter how much money you have, all that does is to raise your standards and tell you that you don't have enough.

But happiness can't be bought, and this study definitely illustrates that the impact of extra money on happiness is highly exaggerated.

The Lonely American Just Got a Bit Lonelier - New York Times

I find this story simply sad. To a large extent it rings true because American friendships tend to be shallow. It's hard to call someone a friend if they won't reply to your e-mail, or simply don't have time to go cycling, sailing, or even simply shoot the breeze. All of which makes me all the more grateful to the close friends and confidants that I have.

The real problem, however, is in the public realm. People who have no friends or close confidants are much less likely to be willing to invest in public infrastructure, in social security, in public education (why educate other people's kids?) or see the world in a broader realm outside that of their limited social circles. This breakdown of social circles cannot help but become a tragedy.

A recent study by sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona found that, on average, most adults only have two people they can talk to about the most important subjects in their lives — serious health problems, for example, or issues like who will care for their children should they die. And about one-quarter have no close confidants at all.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Mt. Tam Ride

74 miles, 6840' of climb, with Roberto, Marius, Brian Wickman and Dana Levine. Lovely views of the fog on the coast and in the inland valleys, and pleasant temperatures, but no pictures!

We met at 8:30 at the Tamalpais High School Parking lot. Dana asked if I had a first aid kit in the car, since he had crashed into a seagull while riding over to meet us! After he cleaned up and I moved the car so it wouldn't be at risk of being towed, we started off. This was my first ride with Marius Eriksen, and it soon became apparently why other riders held him in awe. He sped away on the flats and up the hills quickly. When we got to Panaromic, we turned left and then descended Panaromic to Highway 1 in the fog.

I saw Dana fish-tail in front of me, which was a signal to pare back on my descent (not fast by anybody's standards). Brian later told me that he fish-tailed behind me as well, so evidently there was a spot of oil on that section of the road that I was just lucky to miss. Highway 1 curves around Muir Woods, normally providing a lovely ocean view that was enshrouded in fog.

A few climbs later, I was climbing alone, having given up on chasing any of the faster riders. When we stopped at the bottom of Panaromic Highway Roberto asked if I could look at his bike, since he felt like it wasn't as fast as it normally was. I looked at both front and rear wheels, and they were true and in good condition, so I couldn't help him. We tweaked Dana's front deraileur, which had been pushed out of alignment with his crash, and then began climbing Panaromic. I started climbing next to Roberto, and to verify that his bike was truly OK, we pedaled to about the same speed and started coasting, and when we slowed down at the same rate, concluded that his bike was no more broken than mine was.

We climbed through the fog, but after a few switchbacks Roberto concluded that it was in fact, something wrong with the way he felt today, so he announced that he would just ride back to the car and wait. He was indeed uncharacteristically slow on both the climbs and the flats, so when we regrouped at the Pan Toll Ranger Station I gave him my car keys and he rode back. We had burst through the fog while under the shade of the Redwood Trees along Pan Toll, and now rode strongly above the clouds. The temperature had warmed to about 80 degrees once we were above the fog, and below us we could see a spread of cloud cover spreading through the trees all the way to the horizon. It was a magical view, and I regretted not having a camera, mine being on loan to my mom who was travelling through China.

Past Ridgecrest drive, we continued to the summit, where the road wound around the mountain enough to show us that San Francisco and the Bay too, was enshrouded in fog, with only the top of Coit Tower peeking out through the fog. I was again, last up the mountain, and got there to see Mt. Diablo across the Bay, with its massive base in fog.

We made a rapid descent to Ridgecrest and headed North towards Fairfax Bolinas road. This is my favorite part of the ride, where you feel like you're riding on top of the world, clouds below you. Large groups of cyclists were coming at us the other way, so there was a club ride going on, but I did not stop to inquire as to what the ride was.

The descent on Fairfax Bolinas road was rough and bumpy, with just enough traffic to keep us from taking any risks around the blind corners. Once we linked up again with Highway 1, we headed North, over a series of sharp rolling hills, down the back of which we managed 38-40mph into Olema. We pacelined our way into Point Reyes Station, where we shared a pizza at the cafe.

Past Point Reyes Station, we turned right onto Point Reyes Petaluma Road, a long flat road along gentle terrain. I found a good position behind Marius and we all hung on as best as we could and begged him to ease up a bit on the gentle inclines so we could all stay together. Past the reservoir, we turned right onto Nicasio Valley Road, where we stopped at the Old Ranchiera turnoff to relieve ourselves and take a break. Soon after that, Nicasio Valley Road entered a shaded climb whose descent would drop us onto Sir Francis Drake. Ignoring the wide road, we took San Geronimo Valley road to by pass the traffic until the pass into Fairfax. We rode the pass into Fairfax separately, agreeing to meet at the turn off to the bike path.

I survived a rude driver and the fast descent into Fairfax, and then gathered with Dana and Marius to wait for Brian. He showed up a few minutes later, having fallen due to his chain dropping off as he shifted at the top of the hill. Fortunately, the traffic was in front of him, so other than a few scrapes he was OK. We then wound our way through San Anselmo and Larkspur through bike paths and backroads before making it to Mill Valley, where we split up, Marius and I heading back to the car while Dana and Brian riding home to San Francisco. We got back to the car at 3:45pm. Brian would get an excess of 105 miles and 10,000' of climbing by the time he got home.

Roberto was waiting for us when we got to the car (fortunately, he had brought a book with him). We would find out later that he had been dehydrated prior to the ride.