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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Review: Market Forces

Market Forces (kindle edition) is Richard Morgan's novel about capitalism. It depicts a world in which corporations run foreign policy on behalf of corporations in order to keep labor costs low and sweat shops running.

The protagonist, Chris Faulkner, grew up in the cordoned zones after his father was killed for not having money to pay bills at he supermarket cashier. The result: the son grows up to become a corporate warrior in a world where promotions are determined by the results of duels on the streets where men and women fight it out in battle-wagons.

The novel starts with Faulkner joining Shorn Associates as a new executive. His boss hates him, and schemes against him at every opportunity. His new partner who becomes a friend is a blood thirsty maniac who shoots four car-jackers in "self-defense." Faulkner becomes successful despite their machinations, but at the cost of becoming a cold blooded killer in the model of Shorn Associates. His wife then begins a battle for his soul...

Maybe I've become inured to Morgan's novels, but the sex and violence don't seem all that explicit at this point. There is definitely something odd about Morgan writing about corporate-style capitalism, since the man has apparently never had a corporate job in his life. As it is, the corporate cut-throat behavior of executives does ring true (I've seen enough of it in my time), but the concept of executives ever bloodying their hands when they can have minions do it for them doesn't strike me as something true. In any case, like all of other Morgan's novels, it's a great read, just not as great as the Takeshi Kovacs series. Recommended at the Kindle price.
“I’d say a practicing free market economist has blood on his hands, or he isn’t doing his job properly. It comes with the market, and the decisions it demands. Hard decisions, decisions of life and death. We have to make those decisions, and we have to get them right. We have to be determined to get them right. The blood on our hands today is the blood of our less determined colleagues, and that says something. To you, Liz, to our audience, and most of all to our Cambodian clients, that blood says that when the hard decisions come, we will not flinch from them.”

Tips on using the Garmin 76CSx

Now that I've got more experience with the Garmin 76CSx, I can provide a few tricks:

  1. Garmin Mapsource is a piece of crap. It crashes frequently, so when working with it, save early and save often. I'm unhappy that no one else has provided a reasonably good program.
  2. The site for uploading maps data is motion-based. They're owned by Garmin, but don't seem to suck too badly. There's a very cool feature, which is after you've uploaded the data, you can download the Google Earth KML file and run the tour as a fly-by view. I tried Bikely, but because it's tied to Google Maps, it doesn't know what to do with routes that might not be on a known road.
  3. Speaking of roads --- Mapsource includes most dirt roads in its database. This is very useful for planning routes, since every possible route is included, but be prepared to turn back if you don't want to ride dirt (usually, any dirt road on Mapsource is easily rideable by me).
  4. There's a battery options menu deep inside the Setup menu. Setting it correctly can grant lots of additional battery life for NiMH batteries. I don't think it actually changes power consumption profile (how could it), but the reporting gets a lot more accurate (NiMH batteries start at a lower voltage than alkaline batteries), which means that the unit runs longer before nagging you about low power. The unit is extremely good about batteries, I am extremely happy with the battery life.
  5. When routing, your best choice is to use MapSource --- it lets you pick exactly the roads you want to ride on. One thing to watch out for, however, is that the GPS unit proper can't deal with routes needing more than 50 waypoints (that's clicks on the map to you). So if you need that much, you have to split the route into multiple pieces. One alternative is to use auto-routing as much as possible (plug in the start and end points), and then insert way points to morph the route into what you want. This is very effective because the Garmin unit routes like MapSource. In fact, the few times I thought the unit didn't do so it was because of user-error --- I really did enter in a different route than what I ultimately rode.
  6. For dynamic routing, push the "Find" button, then select "Cities". The menu will fill out with cities/villages within the next 10km. Now, this option is only useful if you already have a map with you. What you want is to find the city that's on the way to a destination. The trick here is to not use big cities, as much as possible --- in fact, when you need to navigate through a big city, what you should do is to select the city in the direction of travel just after the big city --- this ensures that the GPS unit will route you through the city as efficiently as possible. (This is assuming you want to avoid the city, which is my usual mode --- obviously if you actually want to visit the city, selecting the city will take you to the city center, which is exactly what you want) One interesting divergence between road signs and the GPS is that German road signs usually count distance to the outskirts of a city, while the GPS unit will compute distance to the city center, so don't get too happy when the road signs give you a smaller number than the GPS)

All in all, I have been very pleased with the data and output I've gotten out of the unit. As always, if you want all the features of the GPS, make sure you have a Windows machine. There's now a version of Mapsource for the Mac, but given Garmin's lack of software expertise, I am not at all confident that the Mac version will provide reasonable data, or even be compatible with routes designed by the windows version. I once told Pardo that he shouldn't buy a unit because he hates both Macs and Windows, but now that I've figured out the dynamic routing trick, I think I can withdraw this recommendation --- you still have to carry paper maps, but I think you should resign yourself to doing that anyway --- the screen is just way too small to rely on to make sure that say, you're heading in the right direction for the pass you want to do. The unit does make navigating cities and big town completely hassle free now --- not that I want to use this option often, but it's there when absolutely necessary.

Is there an Edge 705 in my future? Now that there are reasonable power solutions (the link is to the kindle battery extender, but a $5 mini-usb trip will make it work with the 705), I am finding the Edge 705 less objectionable than before. However, given that the maps lock me into my current unit, I think I'll find the patience to wait to extract full value out of my current unit first.

One more thing: if you use the Garmin unit for cycle touring, try Piaw Routing and let me know what you think.

View of Munich

View from Top of Frauenkirche

Frauenkirche is the big symbol of Munich, and is taller than all the other churches. You climb up a flight of stairs to reach an elevator that takes you nearly 100m to the tallest view of the city (Munich is kinda flat, though on a clear day like this one, you get a view of the Alps!). For my money, Peters Church is probably a better view, because it's not enclosed.

Friday, May 30, 2008

My solution to my banking problems

I'm just going to go to my bank's ATM, use my American bank's ATM, withdraw money, and then go into the bank's branch and deposit the cash right into my bank account. Obviously, this can't be used to transfer huge sums of money, and I can do so only 4 times a month (which is how many times First Internet of Indiana will reimburse me for ATM charges), but at this point, it is the expedient thing to do.

International Banking: not for the faint of heart

Review: How to Rig an Election

How to Rig an Election(kindle edition) is a book by Allen Raymond, the Republican operative who went to jail for jamming democratic phone lines in New Hampshire during the 2002 elections.

This short book is written in a curt, cynical, condescending style. Though Raymond was a Republican operative, it wasn't clear that he didn't look down at the typical Republicans he associated with:
No offense to the true believers, but it’s hard to get any serious business done with someone from the God Squad twisting your ear about the evils of stem cell research while an NRA lifer demands your assurance that the black helicopters won’t be swooping down to deprive him of his twin-mounted .50-caliber Brownings.

More fascinating than the story of what he did to go to jail, was his story of what was perfectly legal and regularly used by the Republican party: using the voice of an angry Black man to call white democrats urging them to vote, for instance. The level of mendacity is quite incredible, and when Raymond helped run Steve Forbes' campaign, and the man refused to fight Bush's lies about him, Raymond concluded that Forbes did not really want to win and didn't deserve to win the election. The list of dirty tricks was quite extensive, and the cynicism accompanying them just so.

Perhaps the most telling was his reference to a study that people picked who they voted for for president based on his appearance. I guess with this level of intelligence in the electorate, perhaps I should be grateful for low turnout in elections. The book is recommended as far as the time spent reading is concerned --- it's quite a short book, and is very entertaining. I wouldn't pay full price, however!

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Perils of International Banking

Lots of people would believe that in this age of globalization, it would be easy for capital to move around. After all, with wire transfers, international networks, IBANs and SWIFT codes, one should be able to get access to his or her monies anywhere in the world, right?

If I had any illusions about that, they have all been shattered now. Over a month ago, I set up a bank account with Deutsche Bank. Now my co-workers had warned me that this was like asking for a permit to transfer nuclear weapons, and just as difficult. The process itself however, went smoothly for me, so I thought I'd skirted that particular bomb. At that time, I wanted to fund my bank account by writing a check. Oh no, said the bank representative. You don't want to do that. It's slow and would take forever. Better to use a wire transfer.

OK, my status with Vanguard was such that wire transfers were free anyway. So I worked through the details, including writing a paper letter, signing it, and getting it air-couriered to Vanguard. (Yes, there's a lot of safeguards in the process, so I wasn't worried about security) A few days later, the money was deducted from my Vanguard account.

2 weeks later, the money still had not showed up, so I asked Vanguard for a wire trace. Just 2 days ago, I got e-mail from Vanguard saying the Deutsche Bank had told them that my account did not exist. And get this --- at the same time I'd communicated with my Deutsche Bank representative, and they never got back to me. Not once! I went to the bank today in person to write a check to fund it. Again, I got that warning about speed. I told the representative: if I had written a check a month ago, I would have the money NOW.

And for all this lack of service, Deutsche Bank, like almost all other banks in Germany, charges 5 Euros a month, for an account that pays no interest. There's no consumer bank in the US that could survive doing business like that. (The bank that charges no fees is the Post Bank, but they don't have an English web-site, and when dealing with money, I want to be able to read every freaking word on the web page)

Now, in case you think I'm being an idiot, and am an out-lier, I checked with the office --- every prior transfer has had massive difficulties with the German financial system. 100%. No exceptions.

All this has taught me one thing: the USA still has the best financial infrastructure on the planet. It's no wonder the Chinese desperately want to give us their money, and it's no wonder everywhere else in the world wants to invest in the US. I take it for granted too often, but thank you Vanguard, Capital One, Wells Fargo, etc., etc. You guys work hard for my business, and I didn't know how good I had it until I had to deal with your foreign counter-parts.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Riding my gloves to destruction


I have a history of riding equipment to destruction, but I also have a similar approach to clothing --- I tend not to throw any clothing away until it's no longer functional, even if it already has holes in it. This isn't due to any kind of innate cheapness, but because old clothing just wears better and is more comfortable.

Well, this is the second pair of Specialized Body Geometry gloves I've worn out. Don't take this as any criticism of their gloves --- it took me about 2 years to wear this pair to destruction. (The symptom was that the hole in the glove would get caught in my bar end shifters) I didn't like my other gloves enough to wear them to destruction (and some get lost, etc). The problem is that this newer model isn't as comfortable as the old gloves I destroyed a couple of years back. The durability seems poorer as well. However, they are still the most comfortable gloves for long rides, by far. This doesn't mean I can wear them for 10 hours straight --- I sometimes have to take them off and ride bare handed on ultra long days.

I guess I'll just stock up on them when I next return to California.
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Review: Science Fiction, The Best of the Year 2006

I bought this from Fictionwise's 25% off sale (limited time only). Way back when I still bought paper books, my brother and I were consumers of The Year's Best Science Fiction collections produced by Gardner Dozois. Then I noticed how many of those stories came from Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, and so I subscribed to that magazine instead.

Rich Horton seems to have a more varied taste than Gardner Dozois, but his selections work well. I liked all but one of the stories in this collection, and the one I didn't like was a super-short meta-piece that didn't rob me of too many pages of reading. My only complaint is that the page count seems a bit slim, but given the price of this book ($6 with the Fictionwise sale) compared to the Dozois book, I'm about to go buy a couple more of Horton's collections while the sale is on.

Recommended at the sale price.

Review: Skoody

I'll admit it --- I got my Skoody at a corporate function, so I have no idea how much it costs. Basically, it's a rain jacket with a hood and a micro-fleece liner. It comes with a neat little pouch that folds up. It's about the same bulk as a Carradice Raincape, and is about the same weight.

The difference is that rain capes absolutely will not work if you don't have fenders on the bike. I don't usually like to use fenders when touring because of the multiple hassles involved --- fenders break, rattle, and are just plain annoying. I used the Skoody on my Black Forest tour and discovered that the Skoody is much warmer than a rain cape. This is perfect if you're wearing short sleeve jerseys, and only put on the Skoody when you need the warmth.

So the Skoody serves 2 functions: a heavier weight jacket, as well as a rain jacket and a around-town wear. This lets me eliminate weight from my saddlebag (I used to carry both a heavy and a light shell --- now I carry the Skoody and a light shell). There's also a scarf mode, but I didn't bother trying it. In any case, it comes highly recommended! I don't know how much longer I will use the rain cape now that I have a Skoody. I don't see it on Amazon, but you can buy it direct from the manufacturer.

Review: Farthing

I started reading Farthing(free kindle edition) because Scarlet mentioned it in a post. Since it's one of the many free books Tor has been giving away, I started reading it.

The novel is structured like an Agatha Christie novel --- a murder has happened within a noble family, and who has done it? The twist is that this novel takes place in an alternate England, a world where Winston Churchill was pushed out of office prematurely, and England sued for peace with Hitler, who wanted to open up a front with Russia without interference. America never entered the war. As a result, none of the stories of the holocaust made it to public consciousness, so anti-semitism is prevalent. And of course, homophobia was prevalent in 1949 in both histories.

The story alternates between Scotland Yard's Inspector Carmichael and Lucy Eversley Kahn, a child of the Farthing Set (the politicians who negotiated for peace) who married a Jewish banker. The murder takes place the night after a dinner party, and Scotland Yard shows up and starts gathering clues. We're given privvy to several things that Scotland Yard doesn't know at the start, and then the hunt is afoot.

I'm actually disappointed by the mystery. It didn't seem like much of one, especially when the reveal happens. The author seems much more caught up in extrapolating her alternate universe, and the characters who are our viewpoint characters seem out of place. There does also seem to be an unusually large number of gay and bi-sexual characters, which seems a bit hard to swallow, given the prevalent attitudes at that time. Ultimately, while I don't regret the time spent reading this novel, I can't recommend paying money for the book at full price. I'll wait for the Kindle editions of the sequels. (Strangely enough, even though the book was given away for free in Kindle format, none of the sequels are available in the sequel store --- not very smart in my opinion)

Black Forest Tour

Black Forest

Thursday was a public holiday, so I took the opportunity to add a vacation day and do a long bike tour. The original plan was to do Grossglockner pass, but with forecast for rain and snow, a lower elevation tour seemed safer. Besides, Karlsruhe had a forecast for sunshine all weekend, so Chris and I bought train tickets to visit the Black Forest. Due to a train reservation snafu, we ended up with different start times on the train, but with the cell phone, I expected to have no problems linking up. Besides, Chris wasn't so sure he wanted to do as many big hills as I did, so it would be great for me to get a ton of climbing in before he showed up.

I didn't sleep well at all the night before, for whatever reason, and showed up on the train a little tired, but despite that couldn't sleep on the train at all. Once in Karlsruhe, I turned on my GPS unit and started to head out of town towards Ettlingen. This part was really boring, and I was starting to queston my desire to save a few bucks by riding. But soon enough, my GPS beeped and sent me off towards some hills towards Schluttenbach and Volkersbach. The road headed up steeply and I was soon having to stand up to turn the pedals. The views weren't great and the weather was looking iffy, but I saw enough cyclists that indicated that this was great. I had called Chris a few times on the phone, but he wasn't responding. We had agreed to meet up at Gernsbach, so I headed down that way after tooling around, and then visited both train stations there. No sign of him. I observed that the next train from Karlsruhe was due at 1:15pm, and it just started raining, so I decided to have lunch.

Chris didn't show up after lunch either, so I took off up along the Murgtal. With the impending rain, I decided not to take in any of the high routes. Sure enough, whenever I looked up, it looked like it was raining in the hills. The forecast was definitely not working.

At around 3:30pm, I found the bike path next to the Murg, and started riding alongside it. What a beautiful area this was --- green trees, a stream, and lovely cute little houses. I wasn't making great time, but I was having a great time. At 4:30pm I started looking for lodging, and encountered a full hotel which made me take this lodging search more seriously. At Heselbach, I tried a hotel but it wanted 60 Euros for one night. I rolled down along the main street and found one for 30 Euros. It was next to the street, but it didn't look like a noisy street, and the entire package was great --- dinner, breakfast, and lodging cost me 42 Euros.

I woke up the next day expecting rain, but found that the roads were dry! off I went past Baiersbronn, and past that, along a bike path towards Freudenstadt. The bike path brought me into Freudenstadt alright, but on a 20% grade! I wondered how many locals even bothered using that path, since I was the only one on it, and had to work hard, even with a 24x34 backing me. Once into Freudenstadt, I figured out how to work my GPS dynamically --- set it for the next town, and the GPS unit will navigate you through the biggest city on the most direct route possible.

Skirting Freudenstadt, I headed towards bad Rippoldsau, This was a beautiful winding passage in the woods, a favorite amongst motorcyclists, it seemed, and then the descent started. And what a descent --- no brakes were needed and I hit well over 50kph, and then the road followed the Wolfach river down alongside a glorious valley before terminating in Wolfach. I stopped in Wolfach to buy some bananas, a donut, and a pear, and ate a little bit before using my GPS unit to set my route for Vor Kirnbach. This navigated me into a little side road into Schramberg. Schramberg was at 426m and Wolfach was at 262m, so I expected a little climbing. What I didn't expect was to climb well over to 800m before descending a fast road down to Schramberg. Once in Schramberg, I decided that the weather was so good that I should do more climbing, so headed up the road towards Hardt.

Yes, it was a hard climb. I stayed in my 24x34 quite a bit, so the grade exceeded 12% for a good long stretch. It was then that I realized that single chevrons on my map meant 12% grades, while double chevrons indicated 20+%. Clearly, my map was designed far masochists! I felt the climb and once in town checked my altimeter that said that I had done 1800m of climbing that day. That's right up there with a tour of the alps.

From Hardt, I decided not to do any more huge amounts of climbing, and rode into Sankt Georgen, where I found an open bakery and ate a cake, flushed down with some orange juice in a pouch. I then set my GPS for Vohrenbach and followed directions. I found the traffic annoying though, so when I saw a sign for Unterkirnach, I took it despite the promise of more climbing. Indeed, the climbing was hard (and I was really feeling it by now), but hey, the views were worth it. My GPS beeped once again, and I looked and saw that it had found me an alternate route to Vohrenbach that wasn't on my map. I took the route and found it leading down a gorgeous valley filled with hillside flowers, dumping me back out on the main road only 3km from Vohrenbach.

I arrived at Vohrenbach to find the tourist information office closed at 12:00pm on Fridays. Obviously, tourists don't drop by on Fridays. I took the hint and pushed on to Hammereisenbach, where the hotels didn't look that good, so I pushed on to Eisenbach up the hill a bit. The first hotel there wasn't yet open for the season, but the second one had the German cycling club logo on the outside, so I asked for a room. I couldn't believe it when I was quoted a 25 Euro price for a room and breakfast. The dinner was excellent as well!

Breakfast the next morning was a little anemic, but I was confident in my ability to find food somewhere else as necessary. I pushed on up the hill towards Titisee as rain drops started falling. Once into Titisee, the sun came out long enough for me to put on sunscreen, but of course once I had done so it started raining again. I rode up into Barental, stopped there to buy 3 bananas and a pear for an Euro, ate a banana, and rode up to Schuluchsee. The lake was quite pretty, but I wasn't in the mood for it was the rain started coming down then. All desires to do a scenic route vanished and I spied a sign for Bonndorf and took it. Hopefully it being not marked as scenic would mean less traffic, which would mean that I would enjoy it more.

Sure enough, there was much less traffic. One thing that I'm learning now about the Black Forest is that it is hilly. Schluchsee is 951m, and Bonndorf is 847m. So you might expect a descent between the two, right? Yes, but not before climbing to well over 1100m. The traffic being so light, however, was quite nice, and I saw quite a scenic view towards the North in one of the open areas.

Down into Bonndorf I went, and there I ate a banana before heading towards Blumberg via Ewattingen. This was marked as a scenic route on the map, but it didn't seem that terribly scenic to me. The part from Ewattingen, however, was scenic and fun! Several hairpin turns one after another and a sharp turn alongside a river took my breath away. I had too much fun descending to take any pictures. Once in Achdorf proper, however, I discovered that I had a flat. I stopped at a bus stop, ate a banana, and fixed the flat, which had no cause I could discern from an examination of the tire. I patched the tube and stuck in a new one.

It was a good thing I fixed the flat then, because the climb from Achdorf to Blumberg was marked with a 15% grade. A car driver stopped as I was climbing the road to warn me about the steepness! I sat in my 24x34 and spun up it, not even daring to stand up because the road was wet. That was a doozy! After that, the ride through Nordhalen, Tengen, Engen, and Neuhausen was unremarkable except for brilliant hillside yellow flowers. I started making my way through the built up areas, following side roads and bike paths as much as possible, until in Nenzingen where I could finally set my GPS for Ludwigshafen on the Uberlingersee.

There, I spotted a sign: 68km to Lindau. Since it was only 3:30pm, I thought I could make it. Well, I underestimated how tired I was because once I got into Ludwigshafen and the bike path, I found my butt a bit sore. I stopped at a bathroom and changed to a fresh pair of bike shorts, which helped quite a bit. But by then I had eaten all my food, and was tooling along slowly. At that point, I had to find lodging or keep going. I elected to keep going a bit more through Uberlingen, and that was my mistake. Past Meersburg, there was no lodging to be had at all, and I had to keep going in search of lodging. Finally in Friedrichshafen I saw the train station, got onto a train to Lindau, and from Lindau bought a Bayern ticket and took the train back to Munich, getting in at 11:30.

The total ride was 350km with 4027m climb over 3 days (the first day was only 77km and 700m of climb). Not bad at all but with only one day of sunshine and 2 days of rain, and one flat, I wish I could have done better. In any case, if you enjoy climbing, I think the Black Forest is for you. The scenery isn't as nice as the alps, but it was a good change of pace, and the climbs are as steep as anywhere you'll find. And the prices are amazing. Highly recommended for cyclists on a budget.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Review: A Song of Stone

This is an awful book, despite my being a fan of Iain Banks.

A noble man (wealthy enough to own a castle) and his companion (it's unclear whether they're married, but given Banks' penchant for illicit relationships between siblings, they could easily have been siblings) are fleeing their home in the aftermath of a war. They get caught by a band of soldiers who force them to lead them to their castle, take it over, and begin a series of operations, culminating in the destruction of the castle and lots of deaths.

I can find no redeeming value in this novel whatsoever. Nobody in it is a likable character, and nothing happens to move the plot along or make it interest. Near the end, I was slogging through it out of a sense of obligation, and if the novel had been any longer I would have just given up. Two thumbs down, not worth your time.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Deutsches Museum

It was raining today, so I took the day and spent it at the Deutsches Muesem. Anyone who's known me any length of time will know that I'm not a big fan of spending time inside museums, particularly for art, where I can appreciate the print just as easily as the original. (Or in the case of impressionist paintings that depend on me not being red-green color blind, I can just as easily discover how little I appreciate them)

The Deutsches Museum, however, is not an art museum --- it's a scientific and technical museum. Now, your first thought would be that this would be something like the San Francisco Exploratorium, which is interesting and entertaining, but not all that enlightening. The Deustches museum, however, covers much less sexy topics --- unless you're an engineer.

The mining exhibit, for instance, can easily take you an hour to walk through, and has parts that simulate a real mine --- complete with the sense of claustrophobia, though not the dirt and risk of suffocation. The section on power generation contains full scale runners from actual generators. The aviation section has cut away engines. Not just one, but many of them!

The museum is huge. I spent all day there and didn't see everything. I didn't even attempt to get in on the guided tours, though we happened to wander into the tail end of one while visiting the printing section. (The printing press was invented in Germany, and so was lithography, so you got to see the original versions of the lithographic machines and so forth) By the end of the day, I was exhausted from standing, and there was still plenty to explore. Definitely something to come back to again. Recommended, even for those who are usually museum haters.

Yes, the museum does allow photography inside, but my SD card chose today to give up, so I was screwed.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Review: Northanger Abbey

One thing about owning a Kindle is that all the classics are pretty much free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. So when I ran out of purchased reading material during a trip, I started on Northanger Abbey (wireless kindle delivery, free download).

My brother tells me that this is one of her minor works, not really worth reading, and it does appear to have quite a number of flaws. The main plot, as with most of Austen's novels, have to do with getting married to someone with a lot of money. That part of nature hasn't changed since 200-300 years ago, so it's as relevant today as it was then. The heroine, Catherine, is referred to as such all through the book, and she is a true innocent, visiting Bath with friends of her family and getting caught up in the social scene.

There, she meets her best friend, Isabella, and embarks along with her on a quest to find the perfect husband. Along the way, there's betrayal, family, and an unexpected ejection from the family estate of her beau, Henry Tilney.

The plot is a bit shallow, since there is no complication under the control of Catherine all through the story --- she is a passive character, carried along by the narrative like a bottle by the waves. And she is so innocent of her friends' wiles that nobody bothers to explain to her what's going on. The ending of the novel also feels extremely rushed, as though Austen suddenly ran out of paper and hurried to get to the conclusion before her supplies ran out. I agree with my brother: not recommended.


English Garden

So how much do I like Munich? To be honest, I don't usually like cities. They're noisy, dirty, smelly, and I don't go to bars and clubs and night life doesn't interest me, so usually I do everything I can not to have to live in one.

But I'm finding that I like Munich a lot. First of all, it's got a lot of greenery. It's kept incredibly clean for a city, and it's very compact, so it doesn't take much to get out of it. Even within it, the Isar bike path, for instance, makes it so you can go stretch your legs. And the English garden is very beautiful. (It is however, a very German garden in that the approach is total control over nature --- even the stream and waterfalls you see within it were constructed with expensive engineering) It's also surprisingly quiet where I live at night. I'm very surprised by how nice that is. Getting to cross a few streams on my way to work every day does wonders for my spirit.

There are cyclists everywhere. I love cycling and cyclists, and a typical city street here during the day sees more cyclists than Foothill Expressway or Old La Honda sees on a pretty Sunday morning in Silicon Valley. Everybody cycles. Old grandmothers cycle. Young boys cycle. Even that cute girl in a mini-skirt rides, flashing her panties to anyone in her path (no, I didn't get a picture of that, but I should have). People ride new bikes and old bikes. You see hub gears and you see disk brakes and you see dérailleur bikes and you see heavy dutch commuters and fast road bikes. You don't see a lot of helmets. Now, you might think that that's because the prevalence of bike paths means that cycling is really safe, and you'd be wrong. Like bike paths everywhere, the bike paths encourage intersection conflicts which increases the chance of collisions --- in fact my first week in the office my office mate (a German) had a car-bike collision right at an intersection. The real reason cycling is safer here is that everybody rides --- when you have enough cyclists, drivers are forced to look out for cyclists everywhere they go, but Germans like to drive fast (despite nearly $8 a gallon gas), so I think traffic calming in the city has a way to go.

Before I arrived I had the feeling that I would experience a shock --- my past experiences with Europe have all been on vacation, so I expected that working here in Munich would show me the ugly side, if there is one. So far, however, it's been very nice. You really do get to live the European dream, of having good bread around the corner, of having an excellent public transit system that goes everywhere you might want to go. The city is very walkable --- I've walked to work every day this week, and you walk past all sorts of stores, grocery stores, luggage stores, bread stands, fruit stands. There is even a Segway store (though the price in Euros is not something you'd want to think about)

Speaking of Euros: it's expensive to live here --- despite the Euro being a strong currency, there are no signs that goods denominated in Euros are going to get cheaper any time soon. A monthly transit pass costs 60 Euros (and that's the cheap pass --- you can't get on the train before 9am on that pass!). I bought some freshly made pasta today at the market for 4 Euros. Ok, I couldn't have bought that anywhere near Sunnyvale for any price. Asparagus costed 5 Euros. I suffer from sticker shock every time I have to buy something mundane, like dental floss. And of course, electronics are priced as though each dollar was worth 2 Euros. But again, factor in the fact that what you buy is generally really good (as in Michael Pollan would approve), perhaps the price is generally worth it.

Here's another example of the European dream: the waiters and waitresses actually get paid a decent salary. That means that they don't need tips to survive --- tipping here is a matter of rounding up, not a matter of survival for the staff. It is nice to know that everyone here makes a decent living. Even the person selling you train tickets gets their mandatory 6 weeks of vacation a year. (Alas, I'm still on the American contract, so I'm stuck at 4 weeks --- and even that's generous for an American company)

The ugly: financial services here really suck. Opening a bank account is like getting a permit to start a weapons factory. My relocation specialist helped me make an appointment and it turned out to be ok, but my bank charges me 5 Euros a month as a service fee! (Try that in the US and see how many customers you get) On top of that, my wire transfer is taking more than 2 weeks to get through. At this rate, I might be better off going back to the US, getting cash in Euros, and then using that to pay rent. It is amazingly bad. And because people go on vacation for weeks at a time, sometimes you just can't get anyone to help you. Now until recently, no one in Germany actually had to save for retirement because the state pension was generous and took care of you (plus, they have universal health care, so you won't spend all your money on drugs to keep you alive). But I heard that that has been changing, so Germans will have to get more sophisticated about money. Hopefully that changes the financial sector some, but not soon enough to help me, that's for sure.

So there you go, that's how I like Munich. While I'm here, if you're a friend of mine, consider visiting! Especially if you're a cyclist. The cycling here is amazingly pretty, and cycling in Europe has to be experienced to be believed. Germany isn't the best country for cyclists (the drivers aren't nearly as polite as Switzerland's), but it's still miles better than the US.

Munich: Impressions

A lot of people have asked me: How do you like Munich? I would say, I like Munich just fine, but of course, I've been working here the last few weeks and haven't actually gone to any museums or any of the things that people do when they visit a city for tourism. Well, today I woke up to an overcast, somewhat windy day. I had mapped out another route to explore down in the Holzkirchen area, but on looking out the window decided that I would be better off doing a local ride. I hadn't yet found a satisfactory route from my new apartment (which I still can't take possession of), so i decided to try it again.

This time, I found the route just fine (3rd time lucky!). The East side of the river has a nice continuous paved bike path for about 6 km or so, and then you get onto a bridge to switch sides onto an unpaved bike path. There's cobblestones to ride over and then finally for the last 1km or so there's pavement that leads back to Pullach. The distance was about 15.1km --- call it 10 miles or so, and the view from the bike route (which you can see above) is quite pretty. It took me 43 minutes or so to go from there to the office. Come to think about it, if all this really happens, this will be the best commute I'll ever have had --- it's flat, but the variety of surfaces and the turns are quite fun, and you can keep a good speed up with no traffic lights on the bike path. The last bit into city center proper is less than a mile, and a good way to cool down.
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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Review: Little Brother

I am of two minds about Cory Doctorow's Little Brother (free download under the creative commons license). Billed as a young adult science fiction novel, it's a cautionary tale of a young man who is caught up in the insanity that is the war on terror.

The protagonist, Marcus, is playing hooky from school when a band of terrorists blow up the San Francisco Bay Bridge. In the ensuing panic, his group of friends gets picked up by the Department of Homeland Security and then is taken into a Guantanamo Bay type prison system. After being nearly tortured and interrogated, Marcus is set free but told that he will be watched carefully. Despite that caution, he is determined to buck the system and starts an underground movement by distributing secure Linux versions, foiling security devices, creating a web of trust key-signed system, and setting up blogs and videos to undermine the DHS's credibility.

Along the way, he gets in trouble with his father, the school system, finds himself a girlfriend, and learns to hold press conferences in gaming environments. Doctorow worked for the EFF, so most of the technologies explained, described, and depicted in the novel are described correctly.

The writing style isn't great, but compares just as favorably to the latest John Varley novel, for instance. (That's not saying much, at his best, John Varley can write Doctorow into the ground, but Varley has not been himself lately) The teenager voice is well done, and the exposition while boring for a computer scientist probably wouldn't be so for its target audience.

While I like the message (who wouldn't be for privacy, for instance?), I'm at least partly concerned that the kind of attitude Doctorow espouses also leads to the kind of privacy paranoia that greeted ads in Gmail, for instance. That kind of simplistic thinking (spam filters, for instance, also have to read your email to be effective, and we didn't see the privacy paranoids lobby against those) creates a lot of noise and doesn't actually help the kind of effective debate we need to have as a society about the nature of privacy and freedom, and how to best protect it. Doctorow's novel definitely does not present the nuanced view of privacy that we need to have. For instance, I myself side with David Brin's Transparent Society approach, and think that ultimately that's the approach that will succeed, rather than Doctorow's privacy at all costs approach. (A detailed review of The Transparent Society can be found on Brad Delong's blog)

Obviously, I could be wrong, but I cannot recommend this book by itself --- reading it without reading The Transparent Society would be like reading Starship Troopers without also reading The Forever War. I read this book on my Kindle for free, so I didn't feel compelled to ask for my money back.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Full Feed Available

Someone told me today that she'd stopped reading my blog because I had turned off full feeds. The reason for doing so was that some nefarious scumbag out there had started syndicating all Googler's blogs without proper attribution or link-back. I consider that evil, and won't do anything to make his job easy (and no, he doesn't have the smarts to scrape my blog --- I checked).

But I also don't want my friends to miss out on the full feed if they're too lazy to click through, so if you know me personally, and want access to my full feed, let me know and I'll give you the full feed address as long as you promise never to post it somewhere (or syndicate it into a livejournal, etc.).

Monday, May 12, 2008

Review: My Own Kind of Freedom

One of the big benefits of the Kindle that few people mention is the large collection of free books out there. For instance, Tor has been giving away free books since February. It's kinda tough to read a novel on a computer screen, but download it to the Kindle and it's all good. For a while, Fictionwise has been giving away all the short form Hugo/Nebula nominees, so I also got to read all of those --- the first year I've managed to read all the nominees (no, don't expect to see a review of those --- they're all short enough that it's faster for you to read them than to read a review, and the nominees are all worth reading).

Imagine my surprise to discover that one of my favorite authors, Stephen Brust, released an entire novella on-line under the creative commons license. Imagine my further surprise to learn that it's effectively fan-fic written for the firefly universe.

Set in the period between the end of the series and the movie, the novel is a typical Firefly episode: our esteemed crew has to perform a job, the Alliance is coming after River, and Jayne betrays everybody, yet somehow is forgiven. Perhaps that's a bit too typical. As you might expect from Brust, the tale is well-written, and he gets the firefly dialog pet. Heck no, I think he does a way better job than the TV series did, and at least, in my head, the Pinyin doesn't get mangled by some actor who didn't have access to a language lab so he could speak Mandarin properly.

Given the price (free!), I don't see how a bona-fide Firefly fan could not want to read this. Recommended for fans. Not recommended if you've never seen a Firefly episode or hated the show.

Review: Woken Furies

The author bills this as the last Takeshi Kovacs novel (kindle edition). At this point, I think I know what to expect from a Takeshi Kovacs novel: lots of sex and violence, mixed in with philosophy, serendipity, and perhaps an examination of character. It's a potent, powerful mix, but when one learns to expect a hit, the hit is perhaps lessened.

Nevertheless, Richard Morgan's style is irresistible --- the prose in this novel flows like a fast moving river, carrying you along. In this novel, Kovacs is caught up in a Yakuza plot on his home-world of Harlan's World, where he is carrying out a vendetta against some religionists. When his planned re-sleeving falls through, he ends up falling in with a Decom squad --- a squad of quasi-military folks whose job it is to de-commission some self-aware robots in an area known as the Uncleared.

Things take a turn for the strange when the leader of the unit, Sylvie Oshima, starts claiming to be Quellist Falconer, the revolutionary leader whose philosophical quotes adorn the start of many a chapter of the Kovacs novels thus far. On top of that, we learn that the first family of Harlan's World has sleeved an earlier version of Kovacs (illegally, of course) to hunt him down, so now Takeshi has to take on the toughest opponent yet --- himself.

In many ways, this is a novel for fans --- we get to meet many of the characters only mentioned in previous novels, and in some ways, we get to see the wish-fulfillment of both Kovacs and fans. The ending, however, is just a bit Deus-Ex-Machinas for me. Rather than being something that the reader could have figured out (and I admit that I was never patient enough to try to do so), the ending feels like it was placed there by the author without any clue as to what had happened. I felt slightly cheated.

Nevertheless, it's a good read, and I certainly got value for money. Perhaps Morgan is the rightful heir to Ian Fleming's legacy --- but in any case, he is still a far better writer than Fleming was. Recommended, but only if you also enjoyed the other two Kovacs novels.

Ebersberg/Salzburg/Traunstein Tour

Salzburg Trip

It was a 3 day weekend in Bavaria, so I took the opportunity to do a longer, multi-day. I packed my saddlebag with the usual touring equipment, and met with Chris Brown at 9am to catch the train to Ebersberg to start. The train to Ebersberg took 45 minutes, so it was 10:15 by the time we got started. I discovered that unless you get your waypoints absolutely correct on Garmin's Mapsource program, the GPS unit's routing algorithm differs from what runs on your PC, which results in discrepancy between what you see on the computer screen and what finally shows up on the GPS unit.

No matter, I picked a direction and immediately started riding. It didn't take long, however, for me to hear a rubbing noise coming from the tire. I stopped to check, and discovered that it was indeed the fender rubbing against the tire --- the right rear screw holding the fender to the eyelet had fallen off. I cannibalized an unused screw and all was well, but it wasn't an auspicious start to the tour. Since I no longer trusted the GPS, I got out a map sheet I had torn out of the Deutschland Atlas the night before. After conferring with a local, we headed towards Jacobneuharting and Roti am Inn. The day was beautiful and warming quickly, and we climbed and descended from one river valley to another.

The GPS unit finally kicked in at some point and routed us towards the Inn river crossing. There was a strong north east wind blowing, but it didn't bother us very much --- at the bottom of the river valleys, we were shielded from the wind, and we were heading south-east anyway, which meant that half the wind vector was helping us.

We headed across the Inn river, and saw on our left hand side the Mozart bike trail, which looped around the greater Salzburg area. It wasn't heading where we wanted to go, however, so we stayed on the busy highway and turned off within 2km towards Berg and Vogtareuth, where we found some of the nicest riding we had seen so far. From there, we headed towards Sochtenau and Bad Endorth via the narrowest roads I could spot by eye and on the map, and eventually ended up having lunch between the Hartsee and the Langenburnge See in a restaurant/bier-garten by the side of the road. There was only one busy highway there, so after lunch we followed it until Weisham where a right turn brought us finally to Breitbrunn and our first look at the Chimsee.

Just before Mitterndorf we headed onto the bike path for a while (which was dirt), but discovered quickly that the path was literally too buggy to ride on --- you couldn't even open your mouth or an insect would get in. Poor Chris swallowed an insect this way. "Tasty," he said. So we got back onto the road and rode around to Seebuck, where the views got much better. Once there, we found n unpaved bike path along the estuary towards Chieming. This one wasn't as buggy, and we happily rode along it, enjoying the shade, the views out to our right (no car driver would ever see this view), and the large number of cyclists out enjoying the day.

At Chieming, we stopped for ice-cream, and stared at the private beach in wonder --- it looked idyllic, but neither of us were willing to pay the entry fee just to get a photo, so I leaned over the fence and shot a few pictures. Once we left the Chiemsee, the traffic picked up, especially towards the freeway, but so did our tail wind. We zipped along past the freeway, towards Grassau, but once over the freeway the road narrowed and the traffic got annoying. As we rode over the Ache river, I noticed a bike path along it and pulled over.

A close examination of the map showed that the river led directly to Marquartstein, where we had reservations for the night, so we abandoned the pavement once again and rode up the river on the glorious bike path. It was a beautiful bike path, with wide vistas of mountain views, and a relatively good surface. Near Grassau, we got diverted off the bike path because of construction, and didn't bother getting on again because we were so close and i didn't want to miss a turn into the Hotel.

I needn't have worried, since the hotel's location was pretty obvious, but when I got in, the hotel didn't have a record of my reservation. That being the case, I got out my blackberry and showed the owner the record of my reservation. He apologized and gave us an apartment suite --- the largest hotel room I'd seen for a while, for the sae price (69 Euros for both of us, including breakfast). We both delighted at this stroke of luck, and promptly took showers to wash off the road grime before heading into town for dinner, where prices were much lower than I'd gotten used to in Munich. Chris was surprised that we stopped so early (5pm), but I noted that he was plenty tired even so. In fact, he was so tired he turned in at 8:30pm. I read for a bit more before going to bed at 10:00pm.

We both got up around 6:30am, and after a shower and a brief discussion of what was to come today, we headed down and found a fabulous breakfast. The PrinzRegent Hotel definitely has my endorsement --- Chris was on his first overnight bike tour and commented at the favorable price --- I pointed out that we had deliberately stayed off the beaten path to get these prices.

We headed up the mountain towards Riet im Winkl. Along the way in Oberwassen, I noticed a sign for the Achetal bike loop. We got off the road to have a look see, but the loop was exceedingly short and we didn't save any time because of it, though we did have a nice diversion because of it. Back on the main road, the hill started going up, and finally we crested Maserer-Pass at 793m. This was Chris' first mountain pass, so we stopped for a photo before descending into Entfelden, where we turned off onto the Deustche Alpenstrasse. The traffic here was very annoying, so I was glad to find the Mozart bike path here did indeed go where we were going. The dirt path was a little looser than usual, and my rear wheel spun here and there, but it was quite manageable on 25mm tires. I wasn't willing to put up with dirt on a descent, however, so once the road leveled out, we abandoned the otherwise scenic Mozart path for the main road, which wound around the Weitsee, Mittersee, and Lodensee here, making for a gorgeous ride.

It was a short descent into the junction, where we turned away from Ruhpolding and started the climbg towards the Zwingsee. Here the traffic dropped and the scenery started to look really good. We rolled around for a bit and then hit the sudden, steep descent where we turned towards Bad Reichenhall. The traffic picked up, and I decided that German engineering for fast roads does not a good cycle road make. We tooled along, using bike paths whenever possible but staying on the road where not. While German drivers are generally competent, there's still something harrowing about a big bus over taking you with 12 inches to spare. I was glad when the road started descending steeply and I could take the lane, since I was going as fast as or faster than the cars. The roads were engineered such that even I had not used my brakes at all on any of the descents in the Deutsche Alpenstrasse.

In Bad Reichenhall, Chris decided that it being mother's day, he should go see his mom, so we ate a quick lunch, and said farewell to each other. At this point, the GPS kicked in, and I followed the directions into Salzburg, where I passed the airport (which looked like a great airport to ride into or out of) before finding my way near the university and finally across the Inn river once again. As before, I spotted a bike path and ignored the GPS to follow it out of Salzburg. This one was paved, and being along the Inn river, was flat and crowded with Sunday cyclists. I played "dodge em" for a bit but once out of the city proper, the bike path quickly emptied and I could tool along until I hit Bergheim, where the GPS once again beeped at me to exit the bike path. Seeing that I was but 20km away from Seeham, I acquiesced and to my delight found that I was out into the small country roads that I so loved.

My delight was further compounded when I discovered that the route took me steeply up into the woods, where it was shaded and the climbing was steep enough for me to switch to the inner chain ring. I rode up into Voggenberg, Trainting, and other towns with such names, and soon realized that I was following the ridge-line. I guess I deliberately put in way points to stay off the big roads, and this was paying off. Seeing the icons of cyclists along the way made me realize that this was a major cycling recreational area. The wind had picked up at this point, so it was slow going even up the hill, though the wind also meant that I never overheated. Neither words nor pictures can overstate how pretty this area was --- the last time I saw something this pretty was in the Lakes District in England, during our 2006 Coast to Coast walk.

Just as I was tiring, the GPS guided me down a steep hill and I was in Seeham, where a quick jog along the main road followed by a steep climb led me to Hotel Walkner, where I did not even have to introduce myself to the receptionist/waitress before she greeted me by name, being the only Asian person showing up that day. She showed me to my room, and the Englishman drinking a beer at the bar showed me where to stash my bike. I then ordered an ice-cream (well, they didn't have any, but they gave me a cake with ice cream over it), then took a shower. The pool was too cold to swim, so I read for a bit before having dinner.

At dinner, the hotel manager made a point of coming up to greet me, and had something sent to me from the kitchen as a greeting. The Salzburg snitzel was also excellent, as was the asparagus minestrone soup. I was impressed by the whole lot. As other guests filed in, I greeted Peter, the English lorry driver, and got him to recommend a few places to go, since he holiday'd in the region quite a bit. I then spotted 3 other cyclists who'd come in a bit after I did, and inquired as to where they came from. It turned out that they had ridden in that day from Salzburg, and were on the EuroPro self-guided tour --- they were handed route sheets, their luggage got ferried between stops, and their hotels were pre-booked. They had a GPS unit with them, so I gave them a card so they could e-mail me their GPS logs when they were done.

I woke up the next morning hungry, and headed down to eat as much as I could. I then grabbed an apple, paid my bills (45 Euros for the room and breakfast --- no complaints from me, given the service they provided), and headed out and around the lake before heading north to Berndorf where I would start my return towards Trauntstein, where I could catch a train back to Munich. I had prepared a different route earlier that would have me circumnavigate more of the Austrian lakes (and seeing as they were very pretty), but that would have taken me through Salzburg again, and I decided there that two Salzburg traversals in one trip was one two many. Besides, I had laundry to do, and it would be nice to get some rest.

The ride to Oberndorf was pretty and as scenic as the day before, and I once again took advantage of a high ridge road. Past Oberndorf, I was impressed by how my GPS unit had picked a route that other cyclists had also picked. Hoping to pick up more rural roads, I turned off the main road at the sign pointing towards Strass, and soon found myself lost in the twisty curves, relyng on my GPS to guide me. At some point, it became too much trouble to get out a map, so I just followed the GPS along the Waginger See and over the bridge separating the eastern end of the lake from the western end of the lake. The unit gave me a nice route to follow but as is wont to do too often, dumped me onto a main road 10km away from Traunstein. Fortunately, I spied a bike route sign and quickly left the main road, where the traffic while not too annoying was not what I wanted.

The bike route returned me to the main road about 3km from Traunstein, and there I gave in and followed the GPS's directions, which led me to the train station at 1:10pm, where I had enough time to buy train tickets and eat an ice cream before the train arrived.

All in all, the trip was 273km with 280km with 2705m of climb. There was only one mechanical (loose fender bolt), and the weather was perfect in every way. I can't wait to explore more of the lakes area of Austria.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Goethe Institute 2 week Superintensive German class

I spent the last two weeks at the SuperIntensive German course at the Goethe Institute. I figured that the start of a new work assignment is the best time to take the class, since I would then get to use my new found language skills (if I acquired any), for the rest of my stay.

The class is conducted in 10 days, from 8:30 to 5:00pm every day, in 4 sessions of 1.5 hours each, and a 1.5 hour lunch break. It is a full immersion class, where the instructors speak to you completely in German from day 1, and my class at least, had only 3 students per instructor, so the instruction was really really personal. In fact, the instructors take a survey at the start asking you what you want to know, and everything you need will be covered, up to a point.

The point, unfortunately, is that German is a difficult language, structurally speaking. No lesser a man than Mark Twain himself has written a treatise on how difficult the language is to learn. (The article is a lot more funny when you've burnt 40 hours attempting to learn the language) Of course, there are benefits to learning German --- you don't have to remember as much vocabulary because there are a lot of similar words to English.

My goals were very simple: to be able to do simple tasks (get a hotel room, ask for directions), and to be able to listen in on colleague's conversations, as well as make myself understood. I'm afraid I wasn't terribly successful at the first, and my German accent is apparently thick enough that I'm going to have to carry a dictionary so I can point at a word in frustration if I can't pronounce it well.

This is indeed the biggest fault of the Goethe Institute: it does not have a language lab. It has a media center, but to get rid of strong and heavy accents like the one I have, you'd have to have a real language lab --- one that records your attempts to say a word, plays it back to you along with the correct enunciation, and thereby provides you proper feedback to modulate your voice. As evidence of this, I used a language lab as part of my Japanese class at Berkeley 15 years ago, and I enunciate Japanese perfectly --- I might not know much Japanese, but my pronunciation is so good that people assume I know more than I do.

As it is, I can understand about one quarter of typical spoken German, and I can read the train site now without much trouble. I no longer need an English menu at a restaurant, and I can count. This is pretty good progress for 2 weeks, so I'm pretty satisfied. Obviously, at 38, I'm no longer young and find it tough to learn new languages.

All in all, if you had to learn German in a hurry, this is probably a good way to go. If you have a month, the institute also has month long classes that aren't as intensive, which is probably a good thing --- you have more time to absorb what you're being taught, and it isn't as all consuming. But then you'd have to take a month. If you have that much time, then perhaps enrolling at UC Berkeley or some institute of higher learning where you have access to a language lab would give you better results. But then you need at least a quarter or so and the results might not be so immediate and personally tailored.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Iron Man Movie Review

So, it might show up once in a while on these blogs, but me and my brothers are all pretty big comic books fans. It might not show up as the majority of the reviews, but its definitely a guilty pleasure, and in terms of pages read, probably almost equals the amount of pages read from real books.

Suffice it to say that we have a very very good background when it comes to comic books and their super heroes. The past few super hero movies though, have been a bit of a disappointment, Spiderman 3, X-men 3, Superman....I won't even mention Fantastic Four 2. With that pedigree, all from the last year or so, I wouldn't blame anyone if they chose to skip Iron Man. I mean, one of the middle known super heroes, and not particularly the most beloved.

Well, I just finished watching it, and its probably one of the best super hero movies out there. Its up on par with X-man 1, Batman Begins, and Spidey 2 or 1.

First of all, the casting is amazing. Robert Downey Jr as Tony Starks. The real life embodiment of Tony Starks (minus the mechanical genius), playing himself is nothing but sheer genius. He gets the character down to a T. Gwyneth Paltrow as a supped up Pepper Potts was nothing short of amazing as well.

As the rest of the characters are fairly bit players, I won't mention them, but suffice it to say that they're fairly good in their bit parts.

Secondly, the dialogue is incredible. Beyond casting the characters well, they wrote lines that are realistic, witty, funny, and something that just fits the movie perfectly. Its irreverent when it needs to be, its witty when it needs to be, and its completely relevant when its necessary. Never have I enjoyed a super hero movie from beginning to end and looked more forward to the interaction between characters more so than the action.

Thirdly, the movie is very very well updated and the plot is mostly believable (80% or so) =). No longer is Starks a prisoner of war in Vietnam, but a prisoner of war in Afghanistan...Pepper Potts is no longer just in the background, but shows up in the foreground with lines and roles that are every bit as powerful as the titular charcter's repulsors.

I won't go into the plot here, you can google it if you want to, and there's really nothing to spoil, but I'll still leave that as an excercise for the readers.

The action is there, and its great, and its perfect, but in the end, I think whats incredible about the movie is how well its packaged together. The dialogue, the casting, the action, the CG....I guess having good directors do make a difference huh, Marvel? =) Its also surprising seeing as how its only John Favreau's (click for an article on him directing Iron Man) 4th directed movie. I'll be watching out for more of this works from now on.

In other words, highly recommended, definitely at the matinee price, and probably even at full price. It didn't get a 94% at Rotten Tomatoes for nothing!

Review: Rolling Thunder

Once upon a time, John Varley was a serious adult science fiction writer. His novels, such as Steel Beach and The Gaen Trilogy won awards, and were well written, intelligent, and dealt with interesting issues such as the role of computers, gender, and what would happen to humanity if the earth were to become uninhabitable.

I was thus puzzled when his latest novels were all Juvenile Science Fiction (also known as Young Adult Science Fiction --- YASF). But yesterday, John Scalzi explained it to me --- Young Adult fiction outsells adult fiction two to one, so adult science fiction has lost another writer because of the need to pay the mortgage. (Piers Anthony and Roger Zelazny both succumbed to this)

Now I have no problems with YASF if it's high quality. For instance, I'm a big fan of Buffy, and that's nothing if not YASF. I want to see good exploration of themes, intelligent character development, and perhaps, a little bit of science would be nice.

Rolling Thunder (kindle edition) has none of these. The main character, Podkayne, is a bit of a spoiled brat who has everything fall into her lap. She's the grand child of some very important people, and hence gets a plum assignment to Europa for her military as a singer. She then gets involved in a major disaster on Europa where some mysterious monolith type objects decide to take off from the planetoid. The resultant disaster means that she has to use bubble technology to put herself into stasis. She is rescued 10 years later, and one of her songs has made her rich and famous, and then the story then becomes that of her encounter with Jubal (who appeared in the prior "thunder" books), her marriage, and her celebrity life.

The book doesn't even have a useful resolution --- we never find out what the Europan creatures are, and we don't find out where the final spaceship (the namesake of the book) ends up and what happens to the remnants of Earth's population. Varley clearly expects us to buy the sequel and is definitely milking this for all that it's worth. Not recommended. If you want to help put Varley's kids through college, just write him a check directly and save yourself some valuable time.

Another Bavarian Ride

The forecast today was for 20 degrees C, so I left all my rain gear in my hotel room and headed out at 8:50am to meet Chris Brown at 12 Dienerstrasse for our ride. Chris had just picked up his bike shorts the day before, and was nattily dressed in a plaid shirt with mountain bike shorts. He picked up a couple of bottles of water and then we headed to the S-Bahn to pick up the train to Holzkirchen. While waiting for the train I realized that I had left my camera also in the hotel room, but didn't want to pay the 40 minute penalty to go get it, so I decided I would just enjoy the scenery instead.

We arrived in Holzkirchen around 10:00, and after making our preparations immediately headed out to the roads that I had ridden just a couple of weeks before. My goal wasn't to reprise that ride, but to head further East to see if I could find more climbing. Nevertheless, the ride south through Wangau had impressed me so much at that time that I opted to reuse some of the roads. I had created the route on Tuesday, so at this point only had a vague recollection of it. Once again, the beauty of the Bavarian foothills impressed me --- the San Francisco Bay Area has more climbing in less distance, but this area in Spring, at least, kicks butt in the "beauty per mile" division. You get lonely single lane roads, tree lined roads, cute little Bavarian villages where on Sundays folks still wear lederhosen, and then forests, streams, and all the alpine beauty thereof. Ahead of us we could see the snow capped peaks of the German alpine range, mighty and tall.

Of course, having a GPS-navigation device is of no use if you aren't paying attention. At some point I took a wrong turn and ended up on the main road near Ostin. Rather than make a U-turn and retrace our route, I spotted a bike path and headed for it. Since Chris was on a hybrid, the fact that the path was dirt didn't bother him. We followed signs towards the Schliersee, and soon headed into the forest where for the first time since I visited Germany I had to shift down into my 24x34 to climb a steep section. Chris with the stock gearing on his Google bike wasn't as happy, but he was keeping up fine most of the time, so waiting was at a minimum.

As we zipped around the West side of the Schliersee, we hit asphalt, and found a bike path running along a river. It was gorgeous and pretty, and there was even a Biergarten, but suspecting that there was a climb ahead I neglected to tell Chris about it and plowed on ahead. We climbed rapidly up into the Schliersee Berge, and soon enough, the road turned into dirt as we wove around towards Sch-Neuhaus. Bavarian forests have different colors than what I'm used to, and the dirt is mostly well graded, easily ridden on 25mm tires. It is quite steep though, and I had to spend a lot more time in the 24x34. We soon stopped for a quick lunch of a sandwich for me, and an apple for Chris, who was beginning to wonder what he was getting into.

Nevertheless, we pushed on, and eventually, the dirt road descended into a steep drop (steep enough that my brakes started fading despite the cool weather) and dumped us out onto the main road heading into Aurach. The road gave us gorgeous views into the surrounding mountains, but after an hour and a half of not having any traffic, even German drivers got on my nerves. We turned off towards Fischbachau but I spied a sign towards a cafe into Krugmach. I asked Chris if he wanted to head there and he did, so we took a detour and stopped at the cafe where Chris ordered 2 Radlers, since he wanted me to try it.

I tried it --- Radler is a mix of lemonade/sprite and beer, and it doesn't taste half bad, but after about a quarter of a liter felt the world tilt a bit (all that riding effectively gave me an empty stomach), which told me that I probably had had enough. Chris had had enough of riding as well, so he said he would ride over to Bayrischzell and pick up a train bach to Munich, since we had another 50km to go to get to Holzkirchen. We wished each other well, and I headed back towards Fischbachau, since according to my Kummerly+Frey map the next section would be scenic. Well, it was scenic, but there was so much traffic that I didn't appreciate it ntil I got off the main road into a side street, and then I was overwhelmed!

Meadows teemed with wildflowers surrounded me, and little strands of trees stood like islands in the waves of greenery. The weather was cool but not cold, just enough to keep me from sweating, and there was a gentle tailwind pushing me North. If there's anything on Earth closer to cycling paradise I don't know what it is, but this was pretty close. I swooped along on empty, deserted roads, flew along ridges, dived into valleys with sufficient momentum to carry me up shaded climbs alongside rivers. I swept along farms where cows with cowbells tinkled and jingled and stared at me.

By and by, I made it over to Seehamer See, where I bought an ice cream, having run out of other food a long time ago. The water was calm and peaceful, with canoes and walkers a plenty. From Seeham, I rode North towards Sonderliching along a ride, and from there, descended into the town of Valley towards Holzkirchen. Here to my delight I saw a sign for 20% grade, and the descent was definitely steep enough for it! The climb up the other side was also the steepest asphalt I encountered to date, and I had to drop into my 24x34 once again for it. Sure, it wasn't very long, but I think I will come back soon enough to check it out again.

After that, a few more turns brought me into Holzkirchen at 4:15, where I only had a 5 minute wait before the train brought me back into Munich. Not bad for 91km and 1354m of climbing. This was a great ride!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Review: Broken Angels

If Altered Carbon was Richard Morgan's take on Philip Marlowe and Chandler's novels, then Broken Angels (kindle edition) was his take on Aliens. On second thought, it's a combination of the first two Alien movies.

In this novel, we explore the nature of Morgan's setting for the Takeshi Kovacs novels. It turns out that almost all the technology advances we're seeing in the novels is a result of a legacy left behind by a long dead Martian civilization. The details are not revealed, but apparently these were winged creatures who lived in cities only out of necessity, and had technology that humans still did not comprehend.

Our protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, is caught up in a war, complete with the war-weariness and a desire to get out when he is approached by a young man selling that war remedy, the get-rich-quick scheme. The scheme involved recovering a Martian artifact whose implications would shatter the world humans have built. Kovacs, despite his Envoy training, gives in to his desire to get out of the war by any means necessary, and throws his lot in with the scheme. He first breaks out an archaeologist analogue from a concentration scheme (the first broken Angel), brokers a deal with one of the corporations responsible for the war, and then helps put together an expedition consisting of special operations personnel.

Of course, things are not what they seem on the surface, and by the end of the novel, we've seen multiple betrayals, intuitive detective work by Kovacs, plenty of sex and violence (much more of the latter than the former), and a number of loose ends tied up, with Kovacs getting his wish to leave the war. The violence is explicit --- if any parents were concerned about their kids' exposure to violence in video games, I think they need to keep their kids away from this novel --- Morgan's control over his sentences are such that the violence, when it happens, is just as shocking as it would be in any visual media.

There are plenty of scenes in this novel that are beautiful and well done, such as the visit to the soul market, where dead soldiers and their encapsulated souls can be bought by the pound. Then there's the sense of wonder when Kovacs and his team enters the Alien artifact. Make no mistake of it --- Morgan is as good a writer as any. My complaint here is that while there was a sense of redemption in Altered Carbon, there's no such thing in Broken Angels. But that's perhaps in character with the bleak nature of the novel. If you have the stomach, Broken Angels is definitely worth the read.

In any case, Morgan has me hooked. I bought the next book in the series, Woken Furies.