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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Saturday's Ride

Trip Report:

Lea, Roberto, Mike Samuel joined me at Foothill and Homestead, followed by Marie-Claire, a cyclist who was meeting up with the WW. Since we all agreed that we were slow, we decided to get a head start on the ride and got going before the D group would swallow us up.

Sure enough, they caught us at the Mt. Eden/Stevens Canyon intersection, and though we took advantage of a rest room stop to get ahead to Redwood Gulch, we were soon enough passed by most of the folks. This was Lea's first time up Redwood Gulch, so she took her time, and we were dropped by the WW group at that point.

The climb up 9 was easy and uneventful, though it threatened to drizzle on us a bit. Along Skyline, the hoped-for view of Monterey Bay was missing, but the descent as fast and beautiful as usual, and we enjoyed the one lane section past Black Road which was very lightly traveled. Summit road was also quite pleasant, giving us lovely views of the fog shrouded Redwoods of Big Basin.

After crossing over 17, we violated traffic law by riding wrong way for 10 meters onto Mt. Charlie Road, which spat us out after a twisty windy descent onto Old Santa Cruz highway. I found this route a couple of years back when I discovered that Summit road between 17 and Soquel San Jose was just a bit too heavily traffic'd for my taste, and the sharp left turn onto Old Santa Cruz highway at the bottom of a 50mph
descent was too frequently done with impatient drivers sitting right on the back of my fender.

Old Santa Cruz highway was quiet and fun on Saturday, with speckled sunlight coming through the trees in the wooded sections. Taking care to stop at the stop sign where I got a traffic ticket last time, we eventually popped out alongside 17 and entered the highway for one block to Alma Bridge road, where thanks to Alex Knowles, we found the entrance to the Los Gatos Creek trail across the street from where the old bike path entrance was. The descent on the West side of the dam was new to me, and while it looked scary, was easily negotiated on a 25mm tire with little use of brakes. Unfortunately, on the flat section of the trail, Roberto had a diversion type fall caused by a protruding rock on the trail. The fall bent his rear dérailleur
hanger, but since we were near Los Gatos anyway, we rode onto main street, and went to Summit cycles where it took only 30 minutes and $25 for them to fix the hanger, easily done while we had lunch at the mediocre sandwich shop next door.

At that point, Lea was walking kinda funny, so she called Chris for a ride home while Robert, Mike and I rode the easy route back. We rode about 76.5km and though the altimeter said 2600m, I discounted that as being ridiculous (probably caused by the changing weather conditions) and will stick to the Western Wheeler estimate of 1200m or 4000'.

Review: Welcome to Your Brain

Welcome to Your Brain is a strange beast: it's basically a neurology coffee table book. Physically, it's large (both wide and tall), filled with illustrations and sidebars.

The authors write in a breezy, easily readable style (for an example, see their article about Exercise and the Brain for the New York Times. Each chapter covers a specific topic (e.g., adolescence, aging, or happiness). Furthermore, there are sidebars either dispelling myths, giving useful tips, or providing some relevant information as an aside.

As I was reading the book, I found lots of useful tips, some more so than others (for instance, how to improve your ability to multi-task by playing video games). As I read along, I found that in many cases, a lot of the information provided by the book I already had read, in some other places, but the book does package them all very nicely in one place. The biggest problem I found was that on a linear read through of the book, the sidebars are very distracting and I find my reading flow interrupted in more than one chapter because the sidebar seemed so interesting.

The book was enjoyable, though I would check it out from a library or wait for the paperback rather than paying full price for it. In any case, you should take a gander at their New York Times article linked to in the second paragraph to see if their writing style suits you.

Review: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

When Jennifer 8 Lee visited Google, she gave her presentation about this book. Interspersed with video, photographs, and appropriate slides, she gave a rapid-fire talk in 40 minutes, covering the main themes of this book, intriguing enough for me to start reading that very afternoon while I was in the doctor's office.

Each chapter of this book is like a column in a newspaper --- it can be read independently of all the others. Topics covered range from the origins of the fortune cookie (which turn out to be Japanese), the nature of General Tso's chicken (which turned out to be a New York innovation), to how fortunes themselves get written.

Injected into all this are notes about the nature of being a Chinese immigrant from the 1800s to the modern age. Like her, I observed many Chinese students studying majors because their parents made them --- luckily for me and my brothers, we were all born engineers.

Most practical of all is an article about the Greatest Chinese restaurant in the non-PRC and ROC world, and her selection both surprises and intrigues me --- a Chinese restaurant in the greater Vancouver area that serves Chinese food Western style but has a first generation Chinese immigrant clientèle.

All in all, an entertaining and easy read (perfect for an airplane), but I would go for the Kindle edition or wait for the paperback --- there are no photographs or pictures in the book, which means that electronic form is the cheapest and best way to get it.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Review: A Feast for Crows

A Feast for Crows is the most recent of George R. R. Martin's as yet incomplete Song of Fire and Ice series.

When I first started reading the series several years ago, it was wonderful. The characters were real and intriguing, and it seemed as though on every page, something was happening. It did irritate me that he made use of the cliff-hanger too often, ending a chapter at a particularly interesting moment and then starting the next chapter from a completely different character's perspective.

This latest book, however, is a disappointment. For one thing, not all that much happens. There is a main thread, which is Queen Cersei managing to make a hash of things as the regent for the Kingdom, but everyone else was more or less treading water. The characters did not get very much development, and the cliff-hanger of the previous book did not get resolved or even moved forward! It took me more than 2 weeks to get through this book, and I'm not sure I got very much for my money (and I did not pay money for this book).

Not recommended. I'm afraid that Mr. Martin is going to go the way of Robert Jordan, who turned what was going to be a 7 novel series into one that was so drawn out (by lots of novels where nothing happened) that he died before finishing the series. I guess I will give his next few novels a pass as well.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Review: Kindle

With the upcoming move to Munich, I realized that my usual habit of checking out books from the Santa Clara County Library or the Mountain View Library wasn't going to be easy to sustain. Yet while it was possible to order English books from Amazon Deutsch, paying for Euros while on a U.S. dollar denominated payroll didn't sound very smart, neither did accumulating lots of paper at a temporary stay. One reason I gave up buying books wasn't because of the cost, but because of the space.

So I ordered a Kindle in February, waited a full month for the delivery, and received it on Tuesday. Lots of people complain about the supposed ugliness of the product, but since I'm not even cool enough to own a Mac, I didn't find the Kindle ugly at all. In fact, if Apple designed it, it wouldn't have a $20 user replaceable battery, so I'm actually somewhat thankful that Apple did not make this product.

The Kindle charges very fast. I plugged it in, went for a workout at the gym, and it reported a full charge by the time I came back. It comes registered to your account, and I was happily downloading book samples over the wireless connection. I dug up a 1GB SD card, and plugged it into the Kindle for additional storage.

The screen is as readable as advertised, though it's gray, not white. JPGs render beautifully as gray scale pictures. What really sold me, however, was Mobibook Creator. One of the problems I've been trying to solve, for instance, is that when I tour, I end up carrying a ton of paper with me, including the OCD travel guides. Well, Mobibook Creator would take an arbitrary HTML file and turn it into a kindle book, including rendering the diagrams quite beautifully (apologies for the blurriness):

I can't tell you how big a deal this is. One of my biggest complaints in the past was not having the entire Jobst Tour of the Alps collection with me for reference when I was touring, and this makes it possible to have the entire portable reference in a search-able form in a 10.3oz package. If you are planning to tour the alps, the $400 purchase of a Kindle will pay for itself in one trip alone, in terms of finding you better lodging and food. For good measure, I also scanned my paper collection of OCD pass guides into PDFs and converted it using Kindle's free conversion service to download it to my Kindle. The results aren't as nice as Mobibook Creator's output, but it was still largely usable.

The first electronic book I bought for my Kindle, ironically, was not at --- it was a subscription to the electronic version of Interzone Science Fiction Magazine on Fictionwise. This British-published award-winning magazine costs $80 a year to subscribe to from the US, but is only $24 in electronic format --- a true bargain in any sense of the word.

Another good source of electronic books is the Baen Free Library, which I've actually read from in prior years, but is a perfect match for the Kindle. My second purchase for the Kindle was an Omnibus of Tom Godwin stories at Baen's electronic books site. I would never contemplate dragging along such a volume onto a plane in my backpack, but in electronic format, size is simply not an issue. The other good source for free books is Project Gutenberg, which has many of the classic Jane Austen novels available for easy download.

I then tried a wireless purchase through the bookstore: Conan Original Stories for $0.99. The wireless transfer was fast and painless, but the text was mis-formatted --- an e-mail to Amazon's customer service quickly and easily reversed the charge.

It was a sheer pleasure reading from the Kindle. There's a little bit of glare if you're reading with light coming from a point source, but it is no worse than say, a glossy magazine. This is more than made up for by having a choice of font size, the legibility, and the ease of switching materials just because you're in the mood for a change. In fact, I'm afraid that I might start suffering from Kindle-induced ADD, where I read so many books at once that I end up not finishing a single one. This must be how television viewers felt the first time they held a remote control in their hand --- the Kindle is like having a remote control for your entire library of books.

The Kindle incorporates a web-browser which is surprisingly good --- it renders this blog correctly complete with the ads and pictures, for instance. The speed, however, is nothing to write home about, and this is not the intended use of the Kindle. The MP3 player that's built into the Kindle is also rather limited, allowing no selection of songs, for instance, and should be regarded only a stop gap for short train rides or when you are trying to shave weight to a minimum (e.g., on a bike tour). For an 11-hour plane ride, for instance, you are best off bringing a dedicated MP3 player as well

My Kindle turned out to be defective --- the battery only lasted a 8 hours with the wireless turned on (it's supposed to last 2 days), and about 14 hours with the wireless turned off (it's supposed to last a week). A call to Amazon's customer service resulted in their promising to ship me a replacement one as soon as it became available, but in the mean time I could keep using the one I had and just charge it more frequently. Customer service assured me that I had a rare unit, and most of the Kindles out in the field have more than satisfactory battery life.

Criticisms: The Kindle book cover is terrible. It weighs almost as much as the Kindle (8oz), and does not hold on to the Kindle at all! (It clings through a divot in the back of the Kindle, but the mechanism is incredibly unreliable) I replaced it with a Waterfield slip case for protection, and a Sea To Summit Ultra-Sil 2 liter Dry Bag for waterproofing when I'm riding to work with the Kindle in my saddlebag. The two combined weigh under 4oz and provide more protection than the case.

The unit does need a hold switch for the side buttons. It is definitely easy to accidentally tap the buttons when adjusting your Kindle in the default book cover. However, if you remove the Kindle from the cover and read it in your hands this becomes not an issue at all. I definitely think that the design could be improved quite a bit, though given that I detest the ipod-style of non-user replaceable batteries, I'm quite happy with the compromises.

The charger should have been an industry standard USB charger, given that the Kindle has a mini-USB port. This is one of those things where a consumer electronics company would have gotten it correct --- when traveling (and early adopters of the Kindle will largely be travelers), I simply do not want to carry a separate charger for my cell phone and my Kindle. (Yes, the iPhone has a special charger, but it also doubles as your MP3 player)

The book selection is also not quite there yet. I was very annoyed, for instance, that Iain M. Bank's Matter isn't available in the store. I was also disappointed that none of the Lonely Planet or Rough Guides type of books have made it into electronic form (these are the killer apps for the Kindle --- what would you rather backpack through Europe with? 5 pounds of paper books, or a Kindle?). A letter-writing campaign is in order here.

Despite all that, the last few days have had me happily reading various book samples from the Kindle store, and reading the material I bought and downloaded to it. In fact, it got to the point where I was annoyed at having to put down the Kindle, get out of my chair and grab a paper book to keep reading whatever it was I was reading before the Kindle arrived. This might wear off as the novelty of the Kindle wears off over time, but nevertheless, I am keeping this device, and will happily buy later versions if they incorporate new features.

If you are an outdoors person who loves reading (my brother and I used to go on back-country walks with 14 pounds of books), the weight savings and easy readability of the Kindle alone will sell you --- line up and buy one now! You will love it, and wonder why you ever hesitated when it came down to buying one. If you are a cycle tourist and the area you're planning to tour is covered by web guides, buy one as well. You won't miss the weight or the bulk taken up by paper. The way I see it, I read a lot more often than I listen to music (the ipod sold for $400 each when it was first introduced), and the $400 the Kindle costs is more than justifiable for an avid reader. In case you haven't figured it out yet, the Kindle comes highly recommended.
[Update: After 6 months of living with it, here's my long term Kindle review]

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ayer's Rock II - Part 6

Today was yet another early morning wakeup. 6am. This time, to catch the sunrise at Uluru. Showered, cleaned up, and off in the car. By the time I got to the Sunrise Viewing Area, the area was already packed with about 200+ people, at least 3 tour buses and a few other cars around.

The sunrise was rather...normal. In light that the Rock got simply brigher and brigher, compared to the Kata Tjuta sunset of the day before, it was a bit of a letdown. Perhaps it was because there was so many more people, perhaps it was because I couldn't get the best possible viewing angle..but it felt a bit flat to me.

After the sunrise, my thought was to circuit the 10km road around the rock and see what its like....but when i hit the first parking lot, the Mala parking lot, I saw that the road to climb Uluru was open! I hopped on that opportunity and flew up the hill as quickly as I could. The entire path was about 2.6km, but with a very steep first 1km. It felt like about 1km altitude gain, but that'll be a bit too much. So its probably something like just 2000 feet or so.

In any case, the first climb was very short, only about 500 meters, but very high, so a lot of folks were in the path resting. After you hit the first flat summit, you continue on up for another 50 feet of altitude gain, but the longest part of the climb, distance wise. At the very top, you can see Kata Tjuta and get a nice panaromic view of the desert plains.

The locals consider it bad luck to climb the rock, and they highly discourage non-locals from climbing. The rock has great cultural significane to them.

Well, i guess my run of bad luck started not soon after I descended the mountain. I managed to lock my keys in the car! A 4km hike to the cultural center to make a phone call and 2 hours later, I got my keys back.

With the rest of the day sort of blown due to the heat that's now all over the park, i just went back to the hostel to take it easy. I returned to the park a few hours later to take in the cultural center and see the Uluru sunset. Before I left, I booked another tour, a stars Uluru is in the middle of the desert, with no light pollution, I thought it'll be the best time for me to learn more about the southern skies.

The sunset was quite good, much better than the sunrise, but not quite as good as what it would be in August or September, assured me a local. Apparently you get the colors of the rainbows just above the rock, and its spectcular! I just got the color changing, but thought it was quite nice nonetheless.

I retunred back to thoe hostel, got dinner prepared and eaten, and waited around for the stars tour. At the time the stars tour was supposed to start, a car screeched up to the curb, out hopped a person and he introduced himself to all of us as the astronomer. The show was being cancelled due to the clouds in the skies. I was disappointed as you could still see the southern cross and orion, but he assured us it would get much worse. Still, he pointed us to the southern cross, and I was just a bit bummed.

My luck got worse however...while charging my blackberry in the community room, my charger blew! it could have been worse (could have been the camera charger), but still..I guess summitting Uluru gave me all this bad luck! I had a very low charge on the phone as well and it worried me as i used it as an alarm clock as well...and i have a few more 6am pickups for both my dives and my flights back to sydney.

I'm using it only as an alarm clock no more postings!

I'm posting this entry from an internet cafe...=)

ah well...I'm really sorry i summited uluru! please no more bad luck!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Australia Log Part 5

[Posting for my brother, who's on vacation in Australia]

I know I've been labeling the days all off. But whatever, I will come back to fix it. For now, writing is more important.

So....woke up at 4am....3:30 really since I couldn't sleep anymore due to the room being too hot. We have AC, but the person sharing the room with me didn't want it on. Thinking it was cool enough, I acquiesced. And regretted it when I woke up.

Too many mosquitoes. I was bitten and heavily so. I probably tasted better than the older chap....oh well. Next time I'll stand my ground.

Anyhow. Woke up at 3:30pm and left at 4....the shuttle picked up at 4:20 and it felt like 33c.....I had already showered and was sweating immediately already....gosh, hard to believe people live here!

Soon enough the shuttle on it and zoom! Off i went. The shuttle was nicely air conditioned, and I felt good for it.

No one was at the airport and checkin was a breeze. The flight had another hour to go, so I took a short nap.

The flight was made uneventfully and I got a glimpse of the sunrise....little did I know it was going to be the first of many sunrises for me :)

Arrived at Alice springs some two hours later and I had a shock. Alice springs is a desert....and it was about 15c cooler than Darwin! Near the bloody coast!

It was drier as deserts should be, but the cooler part I didn't get.

I guess Darwin really is at the equatorial point or something.

Thr layover at alice springs is 5 hours and unfortunately there was no shuttles running. And all cars were rented out.

I had to sit in the airport doing postcards and email.... A bit annoying, but what to do right?

I learned a lot about local alice springs history though, but there wasn't much to it....originally just a small colonial the gateway to multiple tourists attractions like kings canyon, the mcdonnel mtn ranges and ayers rock.

The airport consisted of just one small display, that of a rolls royce.
It wasn't much, but I read the whole display. It was used a lot in the beginning to create runways for planes and other heavy duty work....a bit of a waste of a rolls but since it was so well built, it went on for many years. Now fully restored, it sits at the airport. :)

Bought a few more postcards and wrote them and soon enough the flight to ayers rock began.

I didn't really have a plan for ayers rock since it was so simple. A rock. You can climb it or go around it. There were also many guided tours for ayers rock as well, but so many of them looks so expensive that I decided to just rent a car. Even though it costed me 145 + gas, it was still cheaper than everything else I wanted to do!!! I wanted to see 2 sunsets, two sunrises, the cultural center, and all the hikes. To do all that would have run me close to 300 and I would still miss a few hikes!!!

So off at ayers rock airport, and off to ayers rock immediately.

Majestic. Monlithic. Those are two easy words to describe ayers rock.

But I wasn't going there today. I was going to kata tjutu, another smaller set of monolithic rocks much like ayers rock. There was a 7.4 km walk that I wanted to do called The Valley of Winds walk.

I got there at 3:30 and knowing the sunset was at 6:45pm knew I had 3 hours, or the recommended time to do the hike.

With that knowledge and two full 1.5L of water, set off on the hike.

It was beautiful. The afternoon hike made the individual stones look beautiful and they're incredibly vibrant in color and liveliness in their shapes and light.

The walk itself is divided into two rather distinctive portions. There are two lookouts and a lot of tours simply hit the second lookout and turn around.

To me, I would have been ashamed as the second half is gorgeous. The first half is mostly mountainous terrain, and the second half relatively flat plains.

From the mountains you get to see the rocks up close and personal, from the plains you get to see the rocks in its majestic glory. While I loved the up close and personalness of the rocks, the real view is in the full views.....still close, but far enough to appreciate its full glory.

I finished the hike in 2 hours....took a quick bio break and then went off to the sunset site.

There I saw the rocks change colors about 3 times, going from red, to orange, to a blazing yellow, back to dull red in the fading sun.

It was gorgeous and beautiful and made me more hungry for the days to come.

Off to my hostel!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Touring Configuration

Here's the Strong Frame in its touring configuration. Mavic 631 cranks (with self-extracting bolts) with triple-izer and 24/39/49 chainrings, Rivendell Silver bar-end shifters, Brooks saddle, and Phil Wood rear hub with Shimano 8-speed 11-34 megarange cassette. The funny looking contraption up on the handlebars is the FSA Control Center with a Garmin GPS Bike mount. The front wheel is the Shimano generator hub with the Lumotec light. The entire bike as seen here weighs 10.82kg. The Shimano generator hub by itself weighs 680 grams, so an easy weight loss there would be to switch the front wheel and rely on a battery light. I will probably tweak it again when my Bagman and Ciclo bag attachments show up, which will enable me to use the Thomson seatpost and the Flite saddle. That will also save another pound or two.

All in all, the bike is now ready for Germany!
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Australia Log Part 4

[Posted for my brother, who is on vacation in Australia]
Last day with kakadu and in darwin. Flight tomorrow is 6am. We get back in town at 6pm.

Ouch. Next time, I must plan a little better, but its tough.....more time spent leisurely means less time spent looking. But the alternative is a crazy packed schedule. Yucks.

Anyway!!!! Woke up at 6:30am......spent a few minutes mucking around and then woke up proper. Checked my camera, hey! It worked!

Splotch on the lcd, doubt it affects PQ, but will worry about that later.

We had breakfast after the usual morning duties....found out brinny had to sleep in the tenthouse due to someone stealing her bed! Grrrrr!

Still, she was in good spirits. We went off after breakfast to see the rock arts. As one of the more accessible spots, it was filled with tourists and even had a tour bus.

The last few days felt more like a regular camping trip with lots of leisure times spent around swims and was the cultural and enrichment days....(Link to rock art stuff) for those interested.

The rock arts were interesting....some of them were 10k years old, some as recent as 40 or 50 years ago.......far more interesting was that most aboriginie arts is now on other mediums as they don't really have an attachment to the medium, but just the arts.

After an hour or so, we went to jajidu airport where jules caught a plane to see the jimjim falls. One hour of sightseeing by air, I thought about it but decided I'd rather save my money for other stuff.

She looked tired after her flight but said the flight was worth it. :)

We lunched in the meantime (same as yesterdays, sandwiches + leftovers)....and watched the videos they had in the visitors center.

Our next stop was at the bowali national park HQ. Another touristy stop and I picked up a ton of fliers and sent off my first postcards....heehee

Later on, about an hours drive, we stopped at a couple of termite mounds. These giants were really impressive and the biggest one easily stood at 4m tall. We stood around and took some pictures. Des later explained that termite science isn't as popular as other areas of etymology....hence not too much was understood as the other insects (I think its BS....), but did explain that one theory why they build up so high is so that in case of fire or drought, they have a vast food supply.

One of the mounds was also dead from attack of the ants....

And then that was it. One last pit stop and we were off back to darwin.

Last thoughts

1) The trip probably could be done cheaper if you were willing to drive a 4x4 and pre plan a lot. You could probably stay a little bit more comfortably as well with aircon lodges every night. The tour didn't do anything that you really couldn't do yourself.
2) A lot of how much fun you have on tours like these is expectations, group, and guide. We had a good guide, a GREAT group, and lots of good non-raining weather.
3) A bit too much swimming. I'd have liked to visit more sights than to swim as much as we did. That said, the swims were very very relaxing and I enjoyed it extremely so. The falls were beautiful if not majestic, and I really only missed the JimJim falls and the two tower falls (closed due to road conditions).
4) Great group. It really stands to reason, but we got very lucky we weren't in a larger group. With 9 of us and all of us willing to help with every task, all meals became fun, and everyone was in great spirits. In the larger groups that we saw, I saw a lot of splintered groups, and even with two guides, probably didn't get the care and attention that we got from our guides.

Also the seating arrangement of our LandCruiser was great. We sat facing each other and everyone had a view....also lots of conversation and fun was had due to us actually seeing each other. That wouldn't happen in a bus configuration where mostly you'd see the back of the person in front of you.
5) Also, 3 days is about right. Two days would have been rushed, 5 days might feel stretched (plus you'd get sick of your fellow tourists), so for my money, I recommend the 3 day tours.

My recommendation? If traveling in a group of 3 or more, self tour is a good alternative, otherwise for a good time, lots of in-car nap time, and quite a bit of adventure, get on a tour! :)

Also.....dry season, April to October is good as more sights are open. I was constrained by my schedule, but still had a great time. April would be best because the waterfalls are still full, but you get all sights. Temps are still high.....high of 30s and low of 17s in the evening......humidity is also lower, but honestly, you'd be hard pressed to say that's really comfy unless you compare to 33s in the day and 25s at night. :)

Do be prepared to spend about two to three hours on the road no matter what you do though. That's just how far darwin is from kakadu.

That's all for day four. Later in the evening.....brewskis with all my tour mates and some errands (towel!) And chores (laundry!). :)

Tomorrow, 4am wake up. Bleagh.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Australia Log Part 3

[Posting for my brother, who's in Australia on vacation]

I woke up at 6:30am.....and had to debate whether getting up or not into what I imagined was a mosquito deathtrap outside to pee was worth it. :)

While I debated such great matters of life and death, I begun packing and repacking. Yup, forgot towel, forgot swim trunks, its official, I'm an idiot. :)

I saw derek had got up as well and went outside, so the urge not lessening, decided to join him.

Oh yes, I also noticed brinny's tent had disappeared and assumed she's tented elsewhere. Once outside the tent, I realized where she had gone.

Yup, about 30 meters from the main camp :)

I found a convenient bush, given that the outhouse wasn't usable.

Dez was also outside and already awake. We exchanged greetings and he told me he moved outside coz he snores.....and well I had to admit the same.

The morning light was gorgeous.

Back into the tent, we started on breakfast while the rest of the people started waking up.

Breakfast was a simple affair.....cereal, bread (toasted on special toasters over the open flame), juice, and coffee.

Nescafe, mmm, how I miss you not. :)

After that, a quick pack and we were out to the bathroom, I had to shower (as futile as I knew that was, but a habit is hard to break) and got myself a bigger bottle of water (4 dollars).

We then hopped on the jeep, and day two began! We saw two dingos, my first of the trip. :). It tickled my fancy particularly because one of my coworkers for.a year is called dingo. :)

The ride was short, about 20 minutes on a dirt path, but we first stopped for water and toilets. At the ranger station, we saw that jimjim was closed and we had to fly to see it if we wanted to see it.

The next thing was a short hike, less than 3km.....the company got into another good conversation mode and we talked about all things like German hikers, the heat, our sweatiness, and the other people's plans after this trip.

Sven was off to Africa after, jules goes back to work, derek was off to Cambodia, janna was off home to Germany, brinny will be in Darwin a few more days before making her way to cairns.....scott and marlon are also in Darwin before they're off to Victoria.

So our first walk ended in the most spectacular waterfall I've yet to see. It was about 30 feet high and ended into a deep deep plunge pool. The water was cool and refreshing and everyone had a great time swimming, diving, snacking, funning all around.

We spent about 2 hours here, snacking on a cantaloupe and strawberries cream cookie. We later hiked out, and spent five minutes on the road later to our lunch spot. Lunch was sandwiches and leftovers from the night before.

After an hour of eating, we hiked another 20 minutes to yet another watering spot. This one was special in that it was layered like many towers.....there was a lovely overhang over the bottom pool where we started. further up was another layer.....

A minor personal tragedy happened in that while I was carrying my camera up to the second layer, my camera fell into the pool. I was quick enough to recover it and take out the battery and SD card, but still.....I feared for the worst.

Putting it on a high rock to dry on the highest point, I left it to itself and went off exploring the highest pool level. Above loomed a peak and derek and sven went off clambering on it. Taking a few steps but fearing further disaster, I decided to follow the girls and went off to the massage falls. So named because the falls was the most like one :). The others were too hard or too cold or too weak.

After a few more minutes of enjoying the pools, we went back to the lowest pools where janna was waiting (she said her feet weren't really for rocks....neither are mine, hence I wear my sandals everywhere I can :), that's the other thing, I'm very heavy of foot and can barely go over rough terrain with any speed unprotected).

We spent another 20 minutes before we went off to our campsite. Before that though we stoppedto gather firewood.....much fun was had by all gathering, breaking, and storing of firewood on the truck. Then it was off to the camp. We stopped to pay another 10 dollars each and then hit up our bunks....oohhhh air conditioned!!!!

Me and jules decided to wait out our showers till the end of the evening and so helped out des with the chores.

Dinner was lamb chops, potatoes, broccoli, and stir fry. The potatoes were gonna be cooked in a coal oven though as were the brocoli for a portion.

So a fire was started and we fed the fire a bit trying to generate coals. The night was cool, so we started.a nice fire.

The rest of the evening was the same as before. Scott did the meat, the rest helped with the veggies and des directed.

Another kakdu dreams group came in the meantime and we felt very lucky because they were 15 in the group.

Nowhere as fun as our group I'd wager!

Space was an issue because there were only 15 bunks and 9 were already taken up by us. Much grumblings were heard by those in the other group. Poor planning perhaps?

We had a great dinner, this time supplanted with wine as we had a box of it from the general store on the campgrounds. It was a quick affair though as we had a chance to listen to two guides from another tour group....they were demonstrating both the digirubi with guitar accompaniment.......iit sounded great and the story goes as follows (insert story here)

Later on, marshmellows came out for the campfire and soggy as they were, was wonderful over the fire.

I went off for my shower and had a quick time of it as the camp had turned off the lights! Me being an idiot that I am, had also forgotten my flashlight (did not pack).. Fortunately derek was around and loaned me his and I finished my shower with some human decency :).

I then went back, checked my camera and then decided to let it dry a bit more. Derek had his laptop so we could see that my SD card was still alive. :). Happy about that at least!

The it was bid the rest goodnight and off to sleep hoping water would come out of my left ear......:)

This has been a great vacation thus far :)

Australia Log Part 2

[Posting for my brother, who is in Australia on vacation]



That's what 33c (101 f) feels like in 80 percent humidity.

Last night was a short night, got to the hostel at 1am, kakadu dreams picking us up at 7am....woke up at 6:30am.

So it was good I slept on the plane. Its been a while since I stayed at a hostel and it took a while to get used to it. I also realized I forgot my towel....and with all stores closed on good friday, I'm kinda screwed. Time to sacrifice myself a t-shirt :)

So the tour guide came to pick us up at 7am....brought us down the street and I signed for the tour which was paid for already. In the tour is 5 ladies and 4 dudes....marlon(female) from France, scott from ireland, derek from Taiwan, jules the lone local ozzie, brinna from Switzerland, sven from Germany, and yanna, from Germany.

The composition thusly was 3 German speakers, 3 Chinese speakers, and 1 French, two dedicated English speakers ( though jules spoke a bit of Mandarin and French and German :))

Most of them are here on a working holiday and their stories of grape picking and banana lifting and watermelon carrying both made me envious and glad I never had to do that for my holidays.

But then the 3 months of vacation.....sigh.

Our guide was des. A local ozzie who's been guiding for 12 years now, 4 with kakadu dreams.

Our first stop was at the jumping crocs store. we stopped at the center and then got to hang snakes of our bodies for a while before they whipped us all on the boat.

Not more than 5 minutes have passed before the first croc came by and the boaters got it to jump.

It was.....amazing!!! The crocs came all stealthily up against the hanging pieces of buffalo meat and then dove a little bit before it came lunging back up towards the meat.

Rather spectacular (look at pics)

Later on in the boat ride, after four or five crocs, the boaters started attracting birds and they looked like falcons....but probably not. I got some incredible shots :)

A wonderful start to my ozzie vacation thus far!

The rest of the day consisted of.a few hours drive interspersed with a short 6km hike (return) into and out of a swimming hole.

The hike was quite flat with some small pond crossings....the hike ended into a few waterfalls (very small)....unlike most waterfalls iin the sierras where the water is fresh icemelt, the water here is entirely from the rain. Hence the water is not cold....quite warm and nice, but given the 33c temp, we'd rather the water was a few c's cooler.

After our hike and swim, we came out to a resort camp where most of us went for another swim, this time in a 2 million dollar pool. We spent about 15 minutes before showering. I sacrificed my tank top. :)

Then dez (our guide whose real name is boughton) brought us to our sleeping spots....a big covered tent with the sign (safari outpost) posted outside it. Inside the big tent, there was 8 smaller tents, some one person tent, some two person tents.

We prepared dinner, some chopping, some peeling, some the end, we had a veritable feast! Wallaby steak, pork sausage, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, stir fry was sublime.

The path into and out of the camp was only passable via a 4 wheel drive road with some small pond crossings... So bathroom break after the meal was necessary.

Also, sweating began soon after the shower. :)

I went to sleep after the bathroom break and apparently snored loud enough to drive brinna out of the main tent entirely. "I had to move camp twice, she told me in the morning.".

Friday, March 21, 2008

Tax Implications of Moving to Germany

A few notes from my consultations with various tax folks (this only applies to my situation, so consult your own people if you're ever in this situation):

  • As U.S. citizen, you owe income tax on world wide income. Taxes you owe to a foreign government might grant you a tax credit.
  • As someone working in Germany, you owe taxes on income you generate while in Germany. Furthermore, you owe taxes on income generate through exercise and selling of stock options that vested while in Germany. However, if you sold after leaving Germany you are not liable for German taxes on those options.
  • For 2008, Germany has no capital gains tax. Germany, however, has realized that this is a problem and from 2009 onwards there will be a capital gains tax.
  • The U.S. taxes dividends at a preferential 15% tax rate. In Germany, they are taxed at your highest marginal tax rate (as high as 42%).
  • Many companies have a Tax-Equalization policy for expatriates. What this means in theory is that the company tries to equalize your taxes in such a way that you have no tax incentive to take or not take a foreign assignment. In practice, however, if there are limitations in the tax equalization clause, this could lead to a heads the company wins, tails you lose situation, as the company could capture all the tax benefits of you working in a foreign country (if there were any), while you reap all the penalties of working in a foreign country (if there were any) that are excluded from such tax equalization policies. If you work for such a company, read the policy with care!

Tax Time

A couple of folks asked me to help with their taxes and/or investments recently. As I helped them, I noticed a few items that came up that are worth mentioning:

  • If you're a fresh graduate funding an IRA (maximum $4000 contribution for 2007), do the no-brainer thing and just buy one of the Vanguard Target Retirement funds. Your portfolio isn't large enough to justify an inordinate amount of time tweaking them. Conversely, if your portfolio is large enough, the Vanguard Target Retirement funds are still OK, but you might get a bit more by breaking out the bits. More on that later.
  • I like to abuse the table fromearly retirement page on safe withdrawal ratesand use that to decide on a broad asset allocation. I realize that the table isn't meant for that purpose, but it's close enough for what I tend to do.
  • It is not generally a good idea to mix the Target Retirement Funds or the Life Strategy Funds with a general asset allocation strategy. Those funds are intended to be one-stop shops for investing with minimal fuss, and owning them will complicate your asset allocation strategy otherwise.
  • If you are holding a taxable account, rather than owning the Total International Stock Index, consider owning the individual components of it, since that will give you foreign tax credits, which will help reduce your taxes. (Taxes swamp even investment expenses in overall costs, so keeping an eye on your taxes is important)
  • Conversely, it is more tax efficient to own the Total Stock Market Index than its components, because as companies grow from Small-Cap to Mid-Cap, you end up buying that company in the larger index and selling it in the smaller index, causing churn which raises your taxes. Note that this argument doesn't apply to the International Fund because companies don't shift from country to country (or region to region) in the case of these index funds. If you wish to tilt towards value or small caps, buy those funds separately as an addendum to your holdings of the Total index.
  • The Tax-Managed funds might not be more tax-efficient than the Total Stock Market Index fund, especially for the U.S. By owning the entire market, you're already reducing portfolio churn. It's hard to do better than that!
  • There's some evidence out there that purely splitting the market down the middle on Growth versus Value might not enable you to capture the value premium. I'm not sure how much of this is DFA marketing literature, but to a large degree, unless you have a large enough portfolio (quarter million or more), it is probably not worth the effort to buy into DFA's expensive funds.

As usual, all the disclaimers apply: I am not a financial adviser (heck, I have a liberal arts degree), and you need to do your own math and numbers before coming up with a strategy that's right for you. I recommended two completely different strategies (maybe even contradictory) for two different people because they were in completely different life situations. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to financial planning.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Review: Planet Bike Super Flash

I installed the Planet Bike Super Flash on my commuter bike late last year, intending to review it fully after a full battery cycle. Despite nearly daily use in rain, cold, and dry, the light has stubbornly refused to drain its battery. So at this point, it's been more than 1/3rd of a year, and I have plenty of experience with the light, except for battery changes.

The light is bright. It's not as bright as the Dinotte, which could paint the road red, but so bright that a driver would have to be certifiably blind to not see you on the road. (I estimate that it's half the brightness). To make up for its slightly reduced illumination, the light is less than 1/6th the retail cost of the Dinotte, without me having to negotiate for a lower price, and, it comes with a mount that enables either seat stay mounting or seat post mounting.

The light has two modes, flashing or steady. Both modes are very bright, and I tend to use the flashing mode in the early evenings, and the steady mode after 8pm. I read somewhere (and I don't remember where) that flashing lights attract drunk drivers so I'm very happy to see that despite using the steady light more than 50% of the time, I am no where close to draining the AAA batteries on the light.

At this point, unless battery changes are impossibly difficult (which I doubt), I can recommend this tail-light without reservation. In fact, it's so highly recommended that I bought several more, to install on my family's bikes. It is rare that I come across a cycling products with so few caveats. This is as perfect as a tail light can get.

Australia log part 1

[Posted for my brother, who's currently in Australia]
Story thus far. Spent 4 days in Sydney and now I regret giving up the chance I had to move here....that was 10 years ago, or close to it.

Its one of the best cities I've been to. Its probably because its one of those (trap the tourist) weeks where the weather is spectacular and everything just goes right.

To recap, I'm here for work from the 17th of Mar to the 20th. I finished my work on the 17th though and as there was no issues from then on, I had the time to explore aside from the times I had to work.

We stayed at the sheraton on the park and it was a great hotel. For 350 a night, I shouldn't expect anything less. Walk in closet, big bathroom, nice bed. Enough talk of the hotel though.

The city of sydney is beautiful. Not classic beautiful like some would liken to european cities, but its very charming much in its own way. The weather is far preferrable to san francisco's for its warmth and nice wind and the only detractable point is that its far more humid than I could really say I like.

Like I said, I was in sydney probably during its best weather period, the temperature rarely peaking above 25c and the wind always providing a nice pleasant breeze. I never needed a jacket at night, and never needed more than shorts in the day.

The sights.....let's start with where our office was, on beautiful darling harbour. The chinese name for it translates to lover's harbour which is close enough I guess. And quite accurate to boot. Its a lovely walkway with gorgeous views on one side and excellent eating on the other. Some tourists attractions such as the wild life park where one could see kangaroos and koalas as well as a smallish but well equipped aquarium rounds up darling harbour.

Then we have the thematic sydney attraction, harbour bridge and the sydney opera house. Its lovely in the day, and even lovelier at night, the two providing close to unlimited amounts of photo oppurtinities, and even more on a moonlit night with an actual darling of yours.

Finally, the city itself. Vibrant, alive, and positively....happening. The downtown area is very busy without being threatening, full of attractions in and of itself, such as the sydney tower, as well as hotels and shopping. Chinatown is quite close and you can get every type of cuisine you desire within a 5 minutes walk. Sydney is fairly incredible in that everything is quite....integrated. You never felt the segregation that one gets in say, SF's chinatown....where its a distinct world from the italian populace in North Beach. Here in Sydney, it all blends and flows and just feels more like a melting pot than anyplace else I've experienced with a big caucasian, asian, and middle eastern populace.

The only downside? Price. Food is expensive with meals for one starting at 6 dollars with that being the cheapest streetside options. We had an ordinary chinese meal for 5 which cost us 150 AUD and would have cost us no more than 50 or 60 in the US!

Smaller portions to boot, but that's a given. But the price just kills.

That's all I have so far for sydney....stay tuned for the rest of Oz. Pictures when I get back.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Pigeon Point LIghthouse Tour 2008

Pigeon Point Lighthouse 2008

The forecast was for 70% chance of rain, but since this was my last chance to test my new bike with a fully loaded setup, I decided to go ahead and brave it anyway. In addition, my doctor had given me a new portable CPAP machine to test, and I wanted to see how much carrying that extra 1.75 pounds would slow me down. Mike Samuel, Stephan Ellner were committed to coming along, and Li Moore joined us as a last minute addition. Li's girlfriend, Catherine, would drive over with his stuff later that afternoon. After mounting fenders, computers, and navigation units, we immediately set out towards Moody road. The bike felt heavy, and I didn't quite have the gearing for Moody road, however, so elected to go up Taeffe and Altamont, meeting up with Page Mill road. The weather was overcast but quite sunny in the valley, and there was very little wind. In my 34x34, I had to stand up frequently on the climb, but it felt fine.

Our climbing went quite well, and at the top of West Alpine road, we took a break to eat and put on clothing. This was the test --- with a fully loaded setup, how would this technical descent feel? The answer came quickly --- the bike handled very well indeed! There was not a hint of shimmy whatsoever, and the long reach caliper brakes felt very capable of stopping the bike. At the bottom of West Alpine road we finally saw some wet pavement, and we were chilled, but with sunlight filtering through the Redwood Forest, it was too beautiful for words and we were glad to have agreed to the ride, no matter the weather further ahead.

At the junction with Pescadero Road we paused once more to adjust my front fender --- this was becoming quite irritating, and I was reminded once again why I didn't usually tour with fenders. The climb up Pescadero Road past Sam McDonald County Park was easy, and the descent was just brilliant. Carving corners quickly with a load is what this bike was designed for, and it did it so very well. As we neared the coast, it became quite overcast, but though it threatened rain, we never felt a drop. Li wanted to pet the goat at the goat farm on North Road, so we took that detour for the petting. Stephan bought a souvenir, and we went on to Pescadero where Norm's market provided sustenance in the form of artichoke garlic bread, meat, cheese, as well as supplies for the night's dinner and the morrow's breakfast.

While having lunch, a Western Wheeler rode up. This was Vicki Pelton, whom I knew quite well. We told her we had reservations for Pigeon Point and were intending to show up as early as possible so we could get the hot tub. When she found out that a few of our compatriots had bailed and we had room for her tonight, she accepted the last bunk in the hostel.

Loading up our saddlebags, we rode on up Bean Hollow Road, a lovely twisty little country lane which gave us views of the coast, juxtaposed with a field of flowers. With the wind behind us, we arrived at the hostel at 3:00pm, in time to get us the sunset position in the hot tub!

The next day, after Stephan's excellent dinner the night before (fortified by a second loaf of that artichoke garlic bread) and a quick pancake breakfast, we gave Catherine most of our baggage and proceeded to start riding South. We were quite capable of climbing with our lugguage, but Stephan had an urgent appointment at 3:00pm and we wanted to move light and fast, having already proved that our bikes were more than up to the task of another tour in the mountains. With a 15-20mph wind behind us, we made Santa Cruz in record time, getting there at 10:30 --- too early for lunch, but not too early to get bagels at the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting company. Then it was up Highway 9, with uncharacteristically light traffic, but also with a tail wind, pedaling up the mountain road lightly with not a care in the world. At Felton we turned off and found East Zyante road, a stair step climb up into the Santa Cruz mountains with fairly steep sections.

Once at the junction with summit road, we decided that a quick descent into Los Gatos would save us time. Bear Creek road was a fast descent as usual, and we lucked out on the traffic again, having only one platoon of cars pass us the way only Italian and American drivers would do. On Alma Bridge road, however, we found that the Los Gatos Creek trail was closed, forcing us to find an alternate dirt road which required about 10m of walking. Once into Los Gatos, all we had to do was to fight the headwind home on my usual roads.

We had no mechanicals, and the weather was amazing. The trip was about 172km and about 2300m of climbing (not accurate because changing weather made my barometric altimeter read numbers I don't believe).

Lessons learned: I'm going to have to put a triple on this bike before I go to Europe. Yes, I can carry a CPAP even on tour, but not without help. The GPS 76CSx can only handle routes with 50 waypoints or less, so when constructing routes, I have to be careful how many times I click. When the forecast says rain, be brave and go riding anyway. The ride is worth the effort!
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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Diver Dan's Beginning Open Water

I just recently finished my first beginning open water class this past weekend. I decided to get certified to dive the moment I was notified that I was going to Australia for business (and thus could take 2 weeks off to explore the great down under and dive the Great Barrier Reef...).

Due to short notice, I had very few choices of classes, but decided to pick one that was certified by PADI and had the 5 star rating.

So I picked Diver Dan's dive shop to go get certified. I also decided to pick the weeknight format as it meant giving up less weekends (ski season beckons!). So instead of two weekends in a row, I got to go to 3 weeks of 2 weeknights each (3 class room sessions, 3 pool sessions, each 3 hours long), and the standard 2 weekend dives (2 dives a day).

It was probably great luck that we ended up with an absolutely great instructor. In our very first class, Todd basically told us that he runs his scuba class very different from other instructors. True to his word, he doesn't.

His methods of classroom instruction is probably one of the best I've seen for subjects involving mostly hands-on learning. Instead of going over the book during the class, he would just give us a ton of anecdotes (he has over 3000 dives under his belt), and each of his anecdotes would relate to the topic that we were supposed to cover in class. As an example, the first class we were in supposedly talks about equipment. Masks, fins, Buoyancy Control Devices (BCDs), etc. He went through most of the non-important equipment...masks, gloves, wetsuits....and then when he got to the BCD, would go off on stories about why most BCDs suck, and why we should get backplates with bladders if we decided to get serious into diving. It was both funny and informative as he would go into quite a number of details about the failures of BCDs and that their one advantage is that they're cheap. And how all divers pay for that cheapness.

His pool sessions were equally as informative as he told us very early on the basics of diving and that he would spend most of our time in the pool teaching us the basics, and making sure we were as fundamentally sound as he could make us in the very short time he had with us. Basically in diving, there's only 3 things that matter, buoyancy control, trim, and kick. He informed us that the only thing we really had time for, and probably the most important to us, was buoyancy. Instead of overweighting us in the pool (and thus making our decents easier, but making us pay to stay buoyant by kicking to maintain some semblance of neutral buoyancy. kicking to stay buoyant is bad, wastes air), he would make sure we were properly weighted and thus have to learn to stay buoyant using breath control. We must have spent about 4 of the 9 hours in the pool doing nothing but breath control to gain control of our buoyancy. The other times were spent doing proper ascent and descents.

Oh we spent some time blazing through the other skills as well, partial flood clear, full mask clear, manual inflation, but as we did each skill, he would tell us the practicality of each (buddy sharing a regulator usually ends up with two dead buddies is one of his favourite stories), and go over them very very quickly, occasionally stopping to tell us why we were blazing through some of the lessons.

His ocean dives was also quite excellent...instead of starting us off at an easy dive spot, he gave us a pretty brutal location....having to haul 40 extra lbs of gear down 20 or so steps of stairs into rocky terrain and then into heavy surf is probably not most people's idea of an easy dive spot.

I've heard many times that learning to dive in Monterey is one of the best places to learn to dive, not only because Monterey is a fairly decent dive spot, but because the cold water trains you to be a better diver (less margin of error, the cold makes your brain work slower, forcing you to think faster), and I can say its pretty true. Even though my first few dives were quite good (water was 52 degrees, quite warm for Monterey!), the last two dives were absolutely frigid (water was probably 42 to 48 degrees), even with 8 millimeter wetsuits, you were never really warm, and having to do the same skills in frigid water is kind of the ultimate final exam. =)

In the end, when Todd handed us our PADI certifications, I really did feel a sense of accomplishment and felt that I could dive confidently AND enjoy my dives (less fear, less brain-dead moments like "uh what do i do now.."). I have to say that Todd has a lot to do with it as SCUBA is pretty much a hands-on skill, and his ability to relate his stories with the class room material was incredibly useful in showing the class how the class room material isn't just mostly fluff.

One thing I have to recommend to people is that if you're not in a huge rush, take the weeknight classes. You have less people (I had 5 in the class, typical weekend class is 8), which means once you're out in the ocean, you get a lot more instructor time...and try to get into a class with Todd. I guarantee you won't regret it. =)

Next up for me! Great Barrier Reef Diving!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

On interviewing

I intended to write a blog entry about interviewing at Google at one point, but Steve Yegge and Paul Tyma beat me to it, and did it better than I ever could. If you're going to interview at Google (or any top tier company), you could do worse than to read both their blog posts and listen to their advice.

There are a few things I have to add, but they are relatively minor:
  • Apply test taking techniques: in particular, if you suspect that your answer is too complex to fit into the white board, chances are, your entire approach is wrong. It'll take a very cruel interviewer to ask a coding question that cannot be solved in the space provided. And as Steve says, come prepared to write code! If you were hiring a juggler, you would expect a demonstration of his juggling. No excuses!
  • Do not panic if you bomb one interview. I've seen folks do badly on one interview and then fall apart completely when if they pulled themselves together and stayed calm they could have done much better. Panic doesn't help you solve problems.
  • There are really only a limited number of data structures in widespread use: hash-tables, linked lists, binary trees (and balanced versions of such, including skip lists and treaps), heaps, on-disk data structures such as B-trees, and arrays. Learn them all, and learn to apply all of them. If one data structure doesn't fit, try another one. An interesting phenomenon I've seen is that a lot of candidates spontaneously invent tries in an interview, but few even know what it's called. In practice, tries are rarely used.
  • Be honest. If you don't know something, say so. Pretending you know something is a good way to ensure that you get dinged for it! One of my Google interviewers asked me to write some SQL, and I replied that I didn't know any. It didn't hurt me, as she switched to a different question altogether. Any attempt by me to brazen it through, however, would have been cause for concern.
  • If you're sick, reschedule for your interview, and reschedule it far enough later that you will be well by the time you show up. An interview that you care about should not be done with your brain at 50% or even 75% capacity. I know any number of people who tried to tough through their interviews sick, and it showed in their performance.
I will note that it did take me two interviews at Google (separated by about a year) before I got hired. The first interview was for a different job though, and some day I'll write about the circumstances behind that. However, I will say that having interviewed at Microsoft, Yahoo, and any number of Silicon Valley startups, I do not consider Google's technical interviews any harder than that of a top tier Silicon Valley startup. Now the process behind the interviews are much different than any other company's, which means that Google is much less likely to compromise on the results of those interviews (not having hiring managers running the interviews means that the hiring committees are never desperate to just get a warm body), so I think that's really what accounts for the reputation Google has for being tough.

I will close with an amusing interview story: When I applied for a job with Pure Software as a fresh graduate, my interview went like this: the CEO, Reed Hastings (they had only about 10 employees at the time) asked me to meet him at the Software Development Conference. When I arrived there, however, I discovered that contrary to what he had told me, there was no badge to get into the conference for me waiting at the registration. So I hustled a bit and talked the conference registration desk into letting me in as a Pure Software Employee. When I got to Pure's booth, I found Reed and his first interview question was: "How much money would you like to get paid?" It turned out that he had deliberately not provided a badge for me, and had decided that if I could sneak my way into the conference, I was a worthy hire.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

FrankenBike is done!

Two weekends ago, my brother, me, and Pardo got together and built up my "light" bike. Its a bike hobbled together from various parts lying around, and some pieces that I had to buy brand new. As my brother upgraded to a Custom Ti bike, he had his old Fuji Team SL stripped and then gave me the frame.

The parts on this bike:

Frame: Fuji Team SL
Cranks: FSA Carbon Pro Elite Compact Road Crank (50/34)
Pedals: Shimano SPDs
Front Dérailleur: Shimano 105
Rear Dérailleur: Shimano Ultegra
Freewheel: Shimano 5sp freewheel 14/17/20/24/28
Handle Bars: FSA Wing Pro
Seatpost: Thomson Elite Setback Seat Post
Saddle: Selle Italia Flite
Shifters: Rivendell Silver Shifters Bar end

All in all, its a bit of a confused bike. On the one hand its an aluminum frame with carbon forks, and carbon cranks, then you have the FSA wing pro handlebar that's capped by bar end shifters instead of brifters. Then you have the 5 speed freewheel at the rear, coupled with the Shimano 105 front dérailleur...

All in all, the bike cost about 600 bucks (frame not withstanding) to put together, and it weighs in at 20 lbs. About 20 lbs lighter than my commuting bike. I've already put 60 miles on it, and my commute to work was about 10 minutes faster than on my regular commuter bike. This isn't particularly news to me though, as I always noticed my brother on the same frame was 3 miles per hour faster than on his heavy heron.

Its a fast fast sexy bike. =) Just a bit confused though.

And of course, some pictures.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Analysis: Long Leaf Partners

In Unconventional Success, David Swensen wrote a long tirade against what he saw as the corrupt mutual fund industry. However, in that book, he also pointed to an extremely well-managed actively managed mutual fund company, SouthEastern Asset Management's Longleaf Partners Fund. He pointed to several factors that contribute to their success:
  • A clear strategy followed with discipline: Longleaf stayed out of the dot com "boom", even when many investors questioned this strategy and pulled their money out as a result. They therefore had outstanding performance in the bust, when everyone else was crashing.
  • Tax-Managed Approach: The company does not churn stocks.
  • Concentrated Portfolio: Their top-ten holdings constitute more than 50% of the entire portfolio. They have confidence in their bets, and they bet only on their best ideas.
  • Low fees: They don't impose loads or 12b-1 charges, and over the last 15 years, their fees have gone down from 1.5% to 0.89%. Obviously, these fees are still higher than Vanguard's or DFA's, but this is for an actively managed fund, so their expenses are expected to be higher.
  • Substantial Co-Investment: As of 2003, Longleaf trustees, employees, and family owned more than $400 million of Longleaf fund shares (4% of fund assets). Their code of ethics prohibit owning employee investments outside of the firm's mutual funds. This is not common industry practice and sets them apart.
  • Willingness to close funds to new investors: a major problem with active investment is that having too large a portfolio increases the likelihood of under-performance. It's very difficult to figure out what to do with new money constantly, and if you have a great idea but can't deploy a substantial amount of your cash on it because you would otherwise move the stock, then you end up with half-implemented strategies.
In fact, at the beginning of last year when I first read the book, I looked at Longleaf's web-site, and indeed all three of their funds were closed to new investors. So I put them aside for future consideration if the funds were to open again. Last week, I saw a notice in the Wall Street Journal that they were now opening to new investments:

Mason Hawkins and Staley Cates were looking ahead -- and finding numerous stocks fitting their investment criteria. In November, Longleaf appealed to its existing shareholders to send money; in December, it opened Partners to investors in other Longleaf funds. Their cash covered new Partners stakes in UBS AG and Walgreen Co., and boosted an existing stake in Symantec Corp.

It wasn't enough. Partners opened to new accounts in January -- "temporarily," the managers emphasized.

(WSJ Feb 26, 2008)

Thus I examined whether Swensen's evaluation of them was true. First, they do seem to invest in stocks I wouldn't consider: Dell, Level 3, Symantec, and Walgreen. I'm not sure I like those stocks, but that's less important than the fact that they have a strategy. Their fees are definitely lower than other actively managed funds, and the co-investment policy is exciting. The fact that they are likely to close to new investors in short order (as soon as they get enough funds to execute on all their ideas) means that the idea of placing a minimum $10k with them to have a shot at adding to it is appealing.

I wanted to compare them to an indexing approach, however, so I visited Google Finance and plotted out their performance against the Vanguard 500 Index fund and the DFA Tax Managed Market Wide Value U.S. Porfolio (DTMMX). The result was that yes, Longleaf did outperform the S&P 500, but only matched the DFA fund (the DFA fund beat it by less than 1%, which could easily be eaten up by the financial adviser that you have to pay to get access to the DFA fund. The Longleaf International fund did worse --- while it beat the Vanguard International Fund by a good 13% over the last 7 years or so, the DFA equivalent, the DFA Tax Managed International Value Portfolio(DTMIX) trounces it by almost 20%.

It certainly shocked me at first that in international markets, which are notoriously inefficient, that the indexed approach produced by DFA beat a well-regarded active manager. Then I noticed that Longleaf did beat the benchmark Vanguard funds by substantial amounts, despite higher expenses. As such, while the results of my quick analysis confirmed my earlier decision to buy (and stick with) DFA's value funds, this limited window of opportunity (while they are open to new investors) might be a good time to take a look at Longleaf's interesting offerings (which are more interesting to those who do not have access to DFA's funds). If their past actions are any indication, these funds will not stay open for long.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Review: In Defense of Food

When Michael Pollan visited Google to give his talk, he explained the motivation behind this book: folks would come up to him and say, "I read half of The Omnivore's Dilemma and then stopped." When questioned as to why, the answer that came back was: "Every time I read a chapter, I found another thing I couldn't eat. I was afraid that when I was done I'd die of starvation."

In Defense of Food then, was Pollan's attempt to resolve this problem. Well, to begin with, the book is definitely much shorter and faster paced, to match American's lifestyle. Pollan himself sums it up in 7 words: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." There's a hidden subtext though, which is: "Spend more time and money on your food."

The book is divided into 3 parts. The first part is an explanation of what he calls nutritionism, the modern tendency to reduce food to its nutrients and try to construct a diet in that fashion. He argues that we know too little about food to try to do this, though he grudgingly admits that this form of research (reductionism) is truly the only hope we have in the future of truly understanding how our bodies work and interact with the food we eat. The second part of the book is a tirade about how the modern Western diet is really responsible for most of the chronic diseases we see today. The last part of the book is prescriptive, where he elaborates on the 7 words presented and explains how to achieve your goal of eating healthy.

Those who know me also know that I'm an unabashed foodie. I love eating, I love food, and I enjoy all of it. I exclude very little from my diet, and will visit multiple cafes to eat what I like. Yet I am skeptical of this book. First of all, to extract the food and diet from a culture without regards to its origins and the environment that culture it came from reeks to me of the same kind of reductionist mistakes that Pollan criticizes in his tirade against the food industry and nutrition science. For instance, he spends a page or two praising the small Parisian portions --- yet when I visited France, that was not where I found the best food --- the best food was to be found outside the big cities, where French farmers will feed you like a farmer, and if you're a hungry cyclist you will be more than satisfied. It seems to me that to extract food as the only source of chronic disease out of a lifestyle is also reductionist, and food can't be the only answer when the real problem is that Americans sit in their cars to go places, refuse to walk or bicycle, and think that the Wii is the solution to exercise. His approach to solving the problem also leaves those of us who aren't great cooks (I'm a reasonably good one, but I would never call myself great) stuck.

So read this book if you must, though I don't think it's nearly as good as The Omnivore's Dilemma. But in the grand scheme of things, I don't believe it provides any more of a solution than its predecessor.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Why reinvestments mess up your taxes

A couple of folks have asked me questions about my earlier post this week about dividends screwing up your taxes when you sell. Reinvesting your dividends accounts for 20 to 60 percent of the return on investments in the stock market, so one would think that you would want to turn it on, right?

It turns out that this is only true for tax-sheltered accounts such as a 401(k) or IRA. In taxable accounts, first of all, you are liable for taxes on the dividends --- so if you turn on dividend reinvestment, the taxes to pay those dividends have to come from somewhere. Even worse, however, is that dividends appear at quarterly or annual intervals not under your control! So when it comes time to sell the stock or fund, you'll end up digging through your records to see when all the reinvestments happen, how much you paid per share, and whether it's a long or short term capital gains tax. If you do this over a long enough period of time (such as 10 years), your brokerage might not have kept track of the reinvestments over that period, and now you're really stuck.

In fact, a friend of mine (a well known economist who occasionally writes for a national newspaper) once admitted that it was so complicated for him that rather than do the computation, he decided to just donate the stock to charity and wash his hands of the whole mess. If only we were all so wealthy that we could give away our capital gains like that!

Furthermore, what you really want to do with dividends is to stash them in some safe security, and use them to help re-balance your portfolio by buying more of the assets that are down. If you're in retirement, you probably want to spend your dividends first (or use some of them to pay taxes!), before selling any equity. So think twice before turning on reinvestment plans for your taxable accounts!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Review: Turbo Tax Premier Federal + State 2007

Before anyone else jumps in with the comment, let me say that I know that Turbo Tax Premier is not necessary if all you have is simple stock sales and so forth. So you can save a few bucks there by buying Turbo Tax Deluxe instead.

I do taxes for myself, my mom, and Lisa. This year, my mom ended up running a home business, and that was too much pain for me to deal with, so I outsourced that to my aunt and Turbo Tax Business.

At this point, I'm quite a bit of a Turbo Tax power user. I no longer use step by step interviews, but for each form, simply jump directly to the section of turbo tax, fill out the form, and get it done. Unlike previous years, this year's turbo tax actually has useful download features --- downloading the W2 has always been painful, but 1099-DIVs and 1099-INTs were always fraught with danger. This year, the 1099-DIVs and 1099-INTs downloaded without a hitch (I checked them manually). 1099-Bs, however are still broken --- too often, the long names get truncated, and you're stuck scratching your head wondering what the heck it is that supposedly got bought and sold.

This year, I decided to try the TaxResources Inc. professional review. I've always bought tax audit protection, mostly so I could sleep easy knowing that I had someone to back me up with regards with IRS dealings. Having had exceptionally good experience with TaxResources through that service, I decided to try their professional review. Note that this review only reviews the resulting 1040 et al, but since I had 2210 filing this year, I decided to have them take a look as well. Note that this review will not catch any of the following:

  • Transcription errors (it does not solve the garbage-in, garbage-out problem)
  • Errors of omission (if you leave out an entire 1099, for instance, they're not going to tell you you forgot it)
  • State taxes. They only do federal taxes.

I submitted my tax forms for a review on Sunday night, and got the review back on Monday afternoon. The review is simply a PDF document, telling you what they've assessed as to your problems are. One thing they caught was that I had taken a short cut while inputting the cost basis for one of my mutual funds, and had forgotten to go back and correct it --- that saved me about $100 in both state and federal taxes, so from that point of view, the professional review paid for itself. (I probably would have caught it anyway eventually, but the reminder was good) In any case, I learned once again that reinvesting dividends is an extremely bad idea, and the increased complexity in accounting and hunting down every reinvestment outweighs any benefits you might gain from keeping your money invested all the time.

Beyond that, it gave me a list of things to watch out for (like a paid off house has property taxes, but no mortgage interest --- that's apparently a flag for auditors, since apparently Americans never pay off their homes). The review reminded me of several things, such as potentially trying to take advantage of the rollover IRA rule in 2010, and so forth. All stuff I knew, but useful if you don't spend as much time dealing with taxes as I do. For $40, it's certainly not going to break the bank, but then again, I got my copy of Turbo Tax through an Intuit employee, so you might feel different if you've already paid full price for your copy of Turbo Tax. What annoys me is that if you want another review after you've made your corrections, you have to pay $40 again. One would think that since the review looks like a generated form, they'd at least give you one revision's worth of checking.

The big bug I found this year so far in Turbo Tax is in the state portion for California, where 1099-B sales were incorrectly imported from the federal return. For some reason one of my 1099-Bs got duplicated, and I had to fix that by hand. This is unusually bad, but fortunately, I have plenty of time to run more updates before I file. This is actually one of the reasons to wait a bit before filing, especially if you owe. Fortunately, I caught this bug, but I wonder how many others are lurking.

All in all, I'm glad I'm not doing this by hand, but I'm disappointed by the bugs I've found so far this year. As for the professional review, I feel that it didn't add anything I didn't already know, but the fact that they caught something that saved me more than the $40 I paid does indicate that it's a useful service. Recommended, but watch out for the bugs, and update your copy or Turbo Tax frequently!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Retire Early on DFA Advisors

The excellent Retire Early Home Page has a great analysis of various DFA advisors, their minimums, and their effect on your portfolio outcome. There's also a link on that page to a paper by Duke University Professor Ed Tower on the issue of DFA versus Vanguard. I came across that paper last year by asking Prof. Tower for it, and it was the primary study that convinced me that DFA funds had certain advantages that Vanguard did not have. (I did not post the paper at that time because it was in draft stage, but now it has apparently been published)

When it came to implementation, however, it turned out to be hard to get access to relatively cheap DFA advisers, despite William Bernstein's statement that I could do it if I asked around. When I started doing my research last year, I talked to one of them, Epiphany Investment. The result was as awful as you might imagine --- they constantly tried to up sell me to their percentage-based business, tried to tell me that I didn't know what I was doing, and came across as being so sleazy that I wanted to go take a shower after talking to them. I almost gave up on getting cheap access to DFA funds after that.

Then someone at work told me that he too, was fed up with his existing DFA advisor, Evanson Asset Management, and had switched to Cardiff Park Advisors and was happy. I shot them an e-mail explaining my needs and by the end of the year in 2007 I had an account, and now own substantial DFA funds. (I am mainly using them for access assets that Vanguard does not provide) I'm not, however using any of Cardiff Park's advise (I'm cheap profits to them, I guess), since I am mostly using DFA just to get a value tilt to my portfolio. People often ask me about financial advisers, but I find it tedious and boring to interview people for that job (especially given the number of sleaze balls in the industry), and so far no one has offered to compensate me for that task. I still firmly believe that by the time you learn enough to interview a financial adviser, you won't need one.

In any case, my research into DFA funds has yielded something I am relatively pleased with, and I intend to continue putting assets into them.