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Friday, August 31, 2007

Meng gets famous!

Meng's a great guy, and he's from Singapore too. But the most annoying thing about working in the same company as him is getting mistaken for him! That's not too terribly annoying when it's a stranger. But when it's someone who you know somewhat well doing it, it gets very irritating.

A few months ago, apparently, he had the reverse experience. Someone came up to him and started talking about bikes and bike rides. It apparently took Meng a few minutes to realize that someone had mistaken him for me. So here's to Meng. And I now have a great line for anyone who mistakes me for him. I just say, "No, you want the millionaire next door."

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters Movie Review

ust saw King of Kong a week ago, and thought it was a great documentary.

For those who don't know what the documentary is about, here's the official website:

It is a great documentary in the sense that it has compelling characters, a story you'd imagine only exist in fiction, and a very satisfying resolution to the entire film.

And its about video games, albeit, not really the type of games folks play here, but really, classic gaming is one of those things that folks who've been around long enough look back with fond memories of. I hope anyway =).

This is a documentary, so there's very little to basically talks about one man's quest to break the donkey kong world score record and all the difficulties he faced OUTSIDE the game to get his score recognized.

spoilers below, so skip if you want to watch..

The movie starts off talking about the current holder of the record and gives you an interesting perspective on his personality....he's quite a bit of a character and along the way you find out about his philosophy on life, among other things. For those of you who's read]David Sirlin's Playing to Win[/URL]

it then introduces the challenger, and although not a very strong character, is immensely more likeable than the current holder of the record.

The movie then goes on to talk about the challenger's road to getting his record recognized by Twin Galaxies, the official record keepers...of which the record holder is a judge of. Many problems ensue, where the validity of the machine the challenger plays on, the bias towards "their own" that twin galaxies has, and the no-show'ness of the champion to defend his record live.

All in all, its much less of a movie about video games as it is about competitiveness and what people will do to be #1. Some of the interviews come off as disparaging video games and video gamers, but more often than not, its the video gamers themselves that does the most to shoot themselves in the collective foot (they had the most outrageous and...funky quotes).

The documentary ends with the community finally accepting the newcomer into his clique.

Spoilers End

There was a little Q&A with the producer and director of the film later, and when asked why there seemed to be so much bias towards the current record holder, they said it was because he shut himself off from their interviews...he had all sorts of conditions for interviews on him to happen and part of one of those conditions is never mentioning the challenger's name or his feats! They also said as much as possible, they did not put anything they showed on video out of context.

I have to highly recommend this film because I think its a great human story first of all, enjoyable by all, and secondly, because i think its on a topic that all of us on this sub-forum can relate to. =) Great humorous movie too, and when you laugh its because you can relate to whats being said as much as the situations you see.

Go see it if its showing in your hometown!

New-Line's already picked up the movie to be fictionalized (although with the same producer/director, and they already said they're going to stick to the facts as much as possible, recreating stuff that was spoken instead of shown), so it'll soon be mainstream soon enough...a few years maybe!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes - New York Times

We like to read articles like this, about how bad pollution is in China, and think, "At least we're not this bad." But in this inter-dependent world, we're the enablers of China's pollution. Our insistence on cheap ipods, toys for kids, and support of the 2008 Beijing Olympics all together provide support for the kind of regime that insists environmentalists keep quiet for the sake of "social stability."

The best thing that could happen for China's environmental future (and quite possibly the world's) would be for the Olympic athletes to band together and call for the canceling of the 2008 Olympics. But of course, that would never happen. The kind of person who becomes an Olympian is the kind of person who says "Yes" to a question asking "If you could take a drug that would guarantee you an Olympic gold medal but would kill you in five years, would you take it?" Against that kind of competitive instinct, what's a little bit of particulate matter?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Review: Cyclist's Training Bible

Over and over again, this is the book that's mentioned most often by serious looking cyclists. You know the type. The ones who weigh what they eat, shave grams off their bikes, and shave their legs. My heroes all this time though has been folks like Eric House: who's never owned a heart rate monitor. They'd never ride with a power meter, and think of riding daily as "training."

Nevertheless, I wanted to see what the hype was about, and so bought a copy of this book. The thesis of this book is that you must make every ride count, and train with a purpose. At long last I understood where the phrase "junk miles" comes from. It comes from this book. (My bike club refers to "junk miles" as flat riding, but this book refers to "junk miles" as miles that don't add to your fitness)

To this purpose, the cyclist must have a plan to improve their fitness. This means dividing the year up into macro cycles, and treating each week as a micro cycle, with each day of the week working on a different part of the cyclist's weaknesses. What's fascinating to me is the concept of the "build" cycle, where you ramp up the intensity and effort and then drop it way back so recovery can happen.

Another interesting thing here is the emphasis on rest. Apparently, the kind of people Coach Friel trains are so driven that the hard part is to get them to back off so their bodies will recover. (Definitely not a problem for lazy old me!) So rest is built into the schedule so that the ultra-driven types know when to back off.

There are special chapters on women's needs, on nutrition, strength and weight training, as well as stage races. The emphasis on discipline and plan just comes through the book. No wonder racer-types speak of this book reverently. Anyone who can do everything the book says has either quit his job to become a professional racer, or is superhuman (or, as lately been fashionable in professional cycling, on drugs!).

In any case, everything is described in a crystal clear fashion, including the algorithm for designing an annual plan. What's also fascinating are the heuristics that he provides for determining whether you should work out on a particular day. Again, the theme here is that if there's any doubt, you should back off.

As far as whether the book achieves Coach Friel's goals, I think it does an admirable job. It's clear, consistent, and as disciplined as its author seems to be. But it all leaves me with one thought: where is the enjoyment? Where is the part where you ride up a mountain with friends, looking forward to another beautiful day? Where is the place where you hang out with your friends at dinner, reminiscing with your companions? The book has no place for them. You are encouraged to ride alone as much as possible, lest your competitive instincts take over and you work too hard. Or perhaps your companionable instincts take over and you work too little. No wonder the serious cyclists I meet never ask if I want to go for a ride!

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book for the view it gave me into the serious racing cyclist and their approaches to the sport. Again, and again, however, I am reminded of what a friend of mine once said to me: "The problem with you, Piaw, is that you want to enjoy the ride. Don't you realize that unless you're throwing up at the end of the ride, you didn't go hard enough?" Perhaps someone needs to write a version of this book for the touring cyclist who wants to enjoy the ride.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Review: James Tiptree Jr, The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon

I will confess something: even though his stories were widely acclaimed as I was growing up, and I'm positive I've read many of them, I do not remember any of James Tiptree's stories. Perhaps they were too difficult for an adolescent, or perhaps their themes just slipped by me --- I had then, as now, a preference for hard science fiction, not social science speculation.

But Alice Sheldon's life I found completely fascinating. Here was a woman both beautiful and intelligent (how many of her fans were both?), and a high achiever in many ways, yet never happy. Born to adventurous parents who were world travelers, writers, and successful socially, she perhaps felt too much pressure to live up to her mother's and her own expectation. But Julie Philips, in weaving Sheldon's life, tries too hard to turn all those advantages (wealth, upbringing, beauty, intelligence) into disadvantages:

Alice had the bad luck to be extremely pretty. If she hadn't been, she might have given up the popularity contest. She might have studied harder, prepared for a career, and not cared what people thought. She and the other awkward, bright girls might have been friends. Instead she cared about appearances, practiced femininity and flirtation, and got addicted to the rewards for being a pretty girl.

Maybe that could be an excuse when you're 12, 14, 16, or even 25. But when you're in your 60s and still addicted to the rewards for being a pretty girl, I think you have to start taking responsibility for your own life, and I think Philips was being too generous to her subject when she pontificates thus.

But perhaps Philips wasn't generous enough when she glosses over Sheldon's mental illness (she appears to have at least a mild case of manic-depression), addiction to drugs (amphetamines being the main one), and her tragic case of being gay but born in the wrong time, where coming out would not have been either trendy or bearable, especially to a woman with all the "advantages" she had.

Philips spends well over half the pages in this long book on the pre-Tiptree Sheldon, and it definitely takes that much time to understand the remarkable person Alice Sheldon was, independent of her eventual career as a much-celebrated science fiction author. She was in many ways, a woman pioneer who was perhaps not recognized for being one of the first women enlistees in the World War 2 army, early work with the CIA and photoanlysis, one of the first women to get a post-graduate degree of any sort, in short, an extremely gifted individual.

Her ability to write truly shone, however, only while she was using her pseudonym, for which she is most famous. Her biography certainly justified it: the time in the army, the facility with camping and the outdoors, her life in the CIA... It was no wonder she fooled so many other writers into believing that Tiptree existed and was indeed a man. Reading some of the flirtatious exchanges between Tiptree and Ursula Le Guin, for instance, makes me want to dig through all of Sheldon's correspondence. (You have to remember, this was someone who wrote a letter a week to several friends at a time when e-mail didn't exist!) What was surprising was that her writing suffered once she was outed, despite the honors bestowed her by science fiction fandom, a community proud of its tolerance and open-mindedness. A lot of this, ultimately, was laid by Philips on the door of her "advantageous upbringing", which I believe to be bollocks. It was clear by this time that Sheldon shied away from any activity where failure could blow her up, and hence needed the protection of a psuedonym to write with freedom. That her personality was constructed this way was perhaps the result of her mother's continuous achievements that led her to feel pressured to achieve, but perhaps also a result of the all-too-common female situation: most women seem to have so many choices in their lives that they have a hard time picking one thing to do really well (Sheldon's biography definitely demonstrates that), while most men I know (or have read biographies of), seem to pursue the one thing they love or are good at single-mindedly, to the cost of everything else. That difference might account for the failure to adapt to success that Sheldon had --- she always had the choice to retreat to herself and attempt different things, while a man in her situation probably would think he had no choice but to work even harder.

The ultimate tragic ending of her life is well known, though not the details. Philips, unfortunately shies away from the fact that ultimately, Sheldon murdered her husband before committing suicide. I was vaguely aware of it, but other narratives had led me to believe that this was a suicide pact, but the Philips' analysis, if correct shows this to be murder. Worse, pre-meditated murder. Philips comes up with all sorts of excuses for Sheldon, but ultimately, this story in the end is one of mental illness mixed amongst brilliance and hard work.

A fascinating life, worth reading even if you're not a feminist, and definitely worth paying paperback prices for if you can't get it out of your local library. (Note: the paperback will not be out for a year)

Building a Custom Frame (Part 1)

As I mentioned before in my recent trip report, I am done with the Heron as a touring bike. The next touring bike had to have long reach caliper brakes, which meant either a production Rambouillet frame, or a custom frame of some sort. (I had previously test-ridden a 650B Kogswell, and found them unacceptably slow and sluggish)

Ramboouilllets new, however, are exceedingly costly: $1400 for a frame and fork, which puts them into the realm of a custom frame from reputable builders for $1200. Furthermore, my desire was for a bike that rode as nicely as my 1993 Bridgestone RB-1, which meant getting as close to its geometry as possible while turning it into a suitable touring bike.

Ironically, I consider the Heron Road geometry to come extremely close to this ideal. The Heron road frame, which Roberto used in our recent alps tour to good effect feels fast and light, and would be ideal, except that once again, for $1200, it's sjust as costly as a custom job and heavy! I've ridden heavy bikes all my life, but the Fuji Team SL taught me that weight matters to a 145 pound rider, no matter what Grant Petersen says.

So it came down to a custom frame made out of Reynolds 953 Stainless Steel, some other lightweight steel, or Titanium. I consulted with Bob Brown and Carl Strong, and found that Bob did not want to talk about the weight of the finished product, while Carl was straightforward about it: he thought a 953 frame would come in around 3 pounds or so, while a Ti frame would come in at less weight with the same cost. A titanium frame would also have thicker walls and be quite a bit more dent resistant.

At this point, it came down to selecting a builder. I immediately ruled out the boutique builders like Seven, Independent Fabrications, Moots, and Merlin Metalworks. While I understood that titanium would be costly, at the prices those manufacturers would offer me a frame I would be paying more for brand name than for performance. (Folks at work were proudly telling me about the deal they got for an independent fabs steel frame at $2000!)

I eventually narrowed it down to Carl Strong and Lynskey Performance. I got turned into them because Stefan had become a big fan of Litespeed and their shaped tubes. Calling a Litespeed dealer at random indicated to me that I didn't want to work through a dealer, but since Lynskey started Litespeed, it was worth talking to them. Lynskey assigned me a salesperson and I walked through the process with them. Ultimately, however, between all the additional upcharges and a salesperson who didn't really understand what I wanted built, Carl Strong seemed like a better choice.

After all the measurements were taken, Carl and I sat down on the phone and discussed what we wanted out of the bike. I presented the geometry that I discussed above, and we talked about the modifications. After a week, I got the first draft of the frame design, and we'll work together some more to finalize what we want out of it. If this bike works out the way I think it would, I think it will be ultimately replace both my touring frame and the Fuji. There's no reason I wouldn't want a bike with this geometry to be the bike I want to ride all the time!
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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Review: Stardust

(Apologies for the link being to the book, not the movie. There's only one version of the movie, and 3 or 4 different editions of the book. It's very important to buy the correct edition, as the mass market paperback eliminates all of Charles Vess' drawings!)

Stardust is one of my favorite Gaiman books. It's a great book for reading out loud, with its lyrical choice of words and beautifully selected themes (and it's short, which is important: if you're going to read a book out loud, long books are a mistake). And when a book becomes a movie, it's natural to be nervous. Is the movie going to be a pale shadow of the book? Is it going to ruin the book? But when Neil Gaiman started posting pictures from the set of the movie to his blog, I knew that visually, at least, they got the book's look and feel down.

And indeed, I enjoyed the choice of actors and actresses, especially Claire Danes as Yvaine. The movie itself isn't a direct translation of the book, so if you've read the book going into the movie, you'll be surprised by several twists and turns where the movie departs. But that's a good thing: the changes were made to make a better movie, and the feel and the changes in direction make you feel like you are visiting the same world and the same characters, but in a parallel universe, a very pleasant and sometimes discomforting thing.

There is one false note in the movie, which is the conversation Yvaine has with Tristan the dormouse. But that's about it. The rest of the movie is pure fantasy goodness. Recommended even at the full price. Watch this in the theaters while you can.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Review: The Privilege of the Sword

In 1987, Ellen Kushner burst upon the fantasy scene with stunning debut novels like Swordspoint and Thomas the Rhymer. With her mastery of language and her delightful characters and prose, I was spellbound with her books and short stories, and waited for further novels.

The wait was long, and somehow, I missed The Fall of Kings a few years ago, but upon reading that The Privilege of the Sword had just come out, I reserved it at the local library.

I'm disappointed to say that for me, at least, the magic is gone. The brilliant language that opened Swordspoint is nowhere in evident in this novel, and the insights into characters so artfully exposed in the 3rd person narrative in that novel is also largely gone, as most of the story is told in the first person by Katherine Talbert, a cousin of Alec Campion who, due to family obligations, is obliged to study the sword to relieve her mother of debt.

The study of martial arts by a neophyte must be the subject of hundreds of novels and movies by now (who can forget Jackie Chan in Drunken Master, or the brilliant Snake in the Eagle's Shadow). But for a Western audience, this is perhaps an unusual topic, and possibly even a first with a female protagonist. Over the next 6 months under various tutors, Katherine becomes a competent swordswoman, and begins developing a new personality, a heroic do-gooder based on the romantic novels she reads while learning swordsmanship.

The novel flips back and forth between Katherine's perspective and a 3rd person narrative expositing the machinations between Lords in the Council of Lords ruling the city of Riverside. Unfortunately, there are too many distractions in too short a space, and the novel never gets past petty rivalries and a few sideshows that are much less interesting than Katherine Talbert. Unfortunately, those who look for a climax as exciting as in the aforementioned Jackie Chan movies will be extremely disappointed. The story ends in a perhaps classic fairy-tale fashion, but feels forced: I definitely hoped for more from the characters than a willingness to settle for status quo.

Naturally, even bad Ellen Kushner is still pretty good, and the book is worth reading, just disappointing if you're used to her previous high standards. Worth your time to check out at the library, but not worth purchasing.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Review: Old Man's War

I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army.

With these words, John Scalzi began his first novel to critical acclaim. I've reviewed the other two books in the series, The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony, and reading them in reverse order did not spoil the first novel at all.

The book is about John Perry, the protagonist of the story who trades in his old life for a new one as a soldier. For reasons too complicated to get into (they will be explained in the book), humankind's defense is staffed by geriatrics who are given a new body, along with an obligation to serve for 10 years. At 75, you get to have the body of a fit 20 year old again. Who wouldn't jump at the chance? You might get shot at, but you'd die of other reasons anyway.

As war stories go, this novel isn't interesting at the level of The Forever War or even Star ship Troopers. It is clear here that Scalzi intends merely to spin a grippingly good yarn, and he succeeds, in droves.

Yet, you can see the hints of what would develop in later novels into a more serious streak, and the irreverence and humor is wonderful. One of my favorite sections is the user's manual provided to new recruits on their new body:

Does My New Body Have a Brand Name?
Yes! Your new body is known as the Defender Series XII, "Hercules" model. Technically, it's known as CG/CDF Model 12, Revision 1.2.11... Additionally, each body has its own model number for maintenance purposes. You can access your own number through your BrainPal(tm). Don't worry, you can still use your given name for every day purposes!

This sense of humor (all too frequently missing in Starship Troopers) shows up often enough to amuse the reader, but disappears during action sequences or serious moments. The pacing of the book is also excellent, dragging you along and keeping you turning pages. The characters aren't very well developed, but the first person narrative works very well, and you learn to like the characters. There's a bit of romance that's a little far-fetched to me, but maybe not to everyone. There isn't a bad ending here, though it's nothing profound.

If I have one complaint about this book, it is that it is far too short. If you brought this book onto a 4 hour plane flight, you'd be finished by the end of it, so you'd have to carry a sequel or two if you're flying somewhere far. But maybe that's not a bad thing: extra moments spent in Scalzi's universe will provide entertainment far beyond what you might expect from words on a page.

Highly recommended!