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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Piaw buys a car


I buy a car once every 10 years or so. While there are some who enjoy the person-to-person haggling, I don't enjoy it. 10 years ago, I bought my Chrysler Convertible, and it's served me quite well, but this year, it's starting to cost a lot in repairs and mainteneance, so it was time to buy a new one. Selecting a car turned out to be quite easy, since John and Pamela Blayley picked out the Honda Fit as the only tiny car that can handle a full size tandem without couplers or an external rack. We did try out the Nissan Cube, and it didn't work. I also liked the way the Fit handled.

Here's the process I used to get a reasonable deal for the car. Note that the Fit was apparently one of the top sellers during the cash for clunkers program, so don't expect super good deals.

  1. Visit, and select your car and zip code.
  2. Click "View Full Dealer Directory". This gives you all dealers within 50 miles.
  3. Copy and paste the specifications of the car into the text box, and fill out the details, for every dealer. Specify all details like trim level, transmission, and color preferences. (Annoyingly, most dealers won't actually read what you wrote, but since you're spamming everyone, you'll get a good chance of getting a fair number of reasonable responses.
  4. Visit Cars Direct. Select your model.
  5. Click "See our price"
  6. Click "Continue" on the Save with Cars Direct link. This is your backup price. If nobody else gives you this price, just buy it from Cars Direct!
  7. If your best price came from a dealer, you might try to drop the price further by calling another dealer close by and seeing if they'll match or beat it. You can play this game over the phone a couple of times or until you get sick of it.
  8. Confirm your final price over the phone and make your appointment.

When you show up, don't get talked into paying for features that the dealer installed and want to sell you as part of the package. It's not your fault they installed it. Don't get talked into extended warranties or anything like that. (Though in my case, there was one deal that I couldn't pass up --- a reimbursable extended warranty which meant that I was buying an extended bumper-to-bumper dealer warranty for 8 years for $50 and foregone interest on the premium --- given how low interest rates are, the NPV of foregone interest is very low)

Anyway, here's to hoping this new car lasts way more than 10 years!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

I don't usually review short stories, since it takes less effort to read them than to read a review and then decide to buy them, but I'm more than happy to make an exception for Ted Chiang, and I feel an obligation to do so, since he's not prolific, and has never published a novel, so the collection Stories of Your Life and Others (which is now sadly out of print and can only be found as a used book --- check it out of the library if you can't get it otherwise) Some of the individual stories can be found on-line, and I've linked to those whenever possible.

Most short story collections are hit-or-miss. But this is Ted Chiang we're talking about, so every story is amazing, and excellent. The collection starts with the Tower of Babylon, an interesting take on the familiar biblical story. The ending is a surprise, but the tone is incredible. It's followed by Understand, a super-intelligence story with a twist. Division By Zero strays into Greg Egan territory, but in a complementary fashion (and though I dislike Egan's novels, being able to keep up with Egan in a math story is no small feat).

Story of Your Life, the title story, is easily one of my favorite alien contact short stories. The language used, the use of science as well as the narrative scheme is all put together in an amazing package --- you'll have to read it to believe it. Seventy-Two Letters is similarly interesting --- Victorian Science fiction done right, as it were --- about biology and genetics, of all things.

Hell is the Absence of God won the 2002 Hugo award, and rightly so. It postulates a world in which miracles do occur, and the presence of God is undeniable, and shows how much of a nightmare the world would be if God really did exist. Fantastic reading, and highly recommended.

The book wraps up with Liking what you see, a great little story about how nice the world would be if we could turn off our predilection to judging people by physical beauty. It's a great little piece, and well worth the time. It's followed by a bunch of notes about each individual story --- interesting background reading, and insight into what Chiang is thinking as he writes these stories.

There you go, a short story collection with no duds, by a fantastic writer. My brother luckily managed to buy the Kindle edition of this book when it was available for $9.99, and looking at the used prices now, it was a hell of a bargain. Highly recommended. Go check it out from the library now.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Review: Enough

It is no secret that John Bogle is a hero to many investors, myself included. Enough is his book themed the current rapacious greed that seems to have taken over most of American society.

You might think that for someone like me (who has an incredibly low opinion of people in finance, and the profession in general), there's no way a financier could be a hero. But that is not true. Last I checked, Vanguard has well over $1 trillion in management. To put things in perspective, Fidelity has $1.5 trillian under management, which is enough to put Abigail Johnson, who owns 24% of Fidelity, well into the Forbes 400 list of richest people. John Bogle isn't even #400 on the list, and neither are his heirs. It truly takes a great man to organize a company so the benefits go to the customers, rather than to himself and his heirs.

The title of the book comes from Kurt Vonnegut's poetic obituary for Joseph Heller. When Vonnegut told Heller that the host of the party (a hedge fund manager) made more money in one day than Heller's novel re had earned in its entire history, Heller said, "I've got something he'll never have." In response to Vonnegut's "What on earth could that be?" Heller said, "The knolwedge that I've got enough."

Bogle starts off with an indictment of the entire financial industry, and it's a rant I entirely agree with --- unlike being an engineer (who creates things), a doctor (who heals people), a teacher, or any other professional, finance's contribution to society can only be subtractive --- whether a broker working on commission, a financial advisor taking a percentage of assets, or even merely lending money, a financier's take always comes out of the client's capital or gains. In fact, in the case of the hedge funds, the managers get 2% of assets every year (win or lose), a 20% off profits, and on top of that (through successful lobbying) pay 15% taxes on the money they make, unlike a school teacher who pays federal marginal tax rates no matter what.

What's more, the brain drain from physics and engineering to the financial field has cost society even more, as smart people go from building and making things to shuffling money from one end of the table to the other, while figuring out more and more ways for some of that money to land on their laps.

Bogle moves from there to other topics --- from chief executives padding their wallets at the expense of shareholders (a topic Warren Buffett has also ranted about), to how having wealth be the measure of success is really not satisfactory. Unfortunately, I think the only people who would actually pay attention to this are folks already capable of making that judgement for themselves.

I enjoyed this book, but it's probably not for everyone. It's short enough that it won't be a waste of time, though!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Review: The Luck Factor

After I read Richard Wiseman's article on how you can be lucky, I was intrigued enough to pick up his book on the topic, The Luck Factor.

Perhaps the ironic result of reading the book is that it's convinced me that there's no such thing as luck. The book starts off by convincing us that people who consider themselves lucky are in fact, actually not any better at picking lottery tickets, for instance --- it turns out that luck has nothing to do with chance.

However, Dr. Wiseman quickly shows us that behaviorally, lucky people do several things that are very different from what unlucky people do:

  1. They notice, create and react to opportunities. By deliberately introducing variety into their lives, and being open to new things, they create situations where they are exposed to people or ideas that they wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise.
  2. They listen to their intuition. In fact, they train their intuition actively.
  3. They persevere. One of the reasons they persevere is that they are optimistic about the future, which enables them to keep trying even when others have given up.
  4. They bounce back quickly from failures. The classic method of bouncing back here is to reframe a failure or an unlucky incident as something that would have happened for the best.

In one case, Wiseman set up an experiment where he invited both a lucky person and an unlucky person to a coffee shop, ostensibly to meet with an experimenter. Before each person arrived, they planted a 5 dollar note in front of the door to see if they would arrive. One of the folks in the coffee shop was a successful business man as well. The lucky person would show up, find the money, sit down next to someone, and start talking to them. The unlucky person would show up, walk past the money, and sit down silently not talking to anyone, and missing all the opportunities that had been set up. Wiseman set up more than one such experiment, and it's interesting to hear all the stories.

The section of the book I enjoyed the most was what Wiseman called luck school: he took a bunch of people who were unlucky, and tried to teach them to unlearn their habits so that they would start to see opportunities. In fact, it turns out it is possible to deliberately introduce variety into your life (by deliberately introducing randomness, for instance), meditate to improve your intuition, visualize your success, and all the other things that coaches have been after you to use. So unfortunately, you already know everything you needed to do to be lucky.

I enjoyed the book, but felt that reading his article already exposed me to 90% of the benefit, hence can only mildly recommend it.

Review: More than you know

More than you know is written by Michael J. Mauboussin, who teaches Security Analysis at Columbia University, the class that was pioneered by Benjamin Graham and graduated famous investors such as Warren Buffett. This is a collection of fifty essays about investing, with each essay being about 4 pages long, capable of being read in about 2 hours in total.

Yet it would probably be a mistake to just read the book in one sitting --- each essay by itself is worth contemplating for a little bit. For instance, the first few essays cover many of the same topics in Nassim Taleb's Fooled by Randomness, and yet does a better job of communicating Taleb's point than Taleb himself, in providing a decision tree for Taleb's reasoning.

Another essay points out that the market's participants is composed of many individuals, all with different time horizons, which plays a major role in your investment decisions, hence not only is a one size fits all approach is doomed to fail, but any mutual fund with high turnover is shooting for an extremely short term approach, one that long term investors should steer away from.

More essays explore behavioral finance, mean reversions, and the importance of diversity and intellectual curiosity when it comes to investing. Furthermore, he points out that while many financial models use the normal distribution for modeling stock market returns, the actual stock market more closely resembles a fractal distribution --- the implication of these fat tails is why million year floods occur every 10 years or so in the stock market. It also means that predicting stock market returns is fraught with danger. One interesting point he makes is that stable systems found in nature (such as bees in beehives) are composed of individuals that were selected for taking into account how their behavior affects the hive (i.e., fundamentally altruistic with respect to the hive), while markets are unstable because they rely on individuals who are only looking for their own benefit regardless of what happens to the market as a whole. That degree of selfishness naturally leads to bubbles and instability, even though over the long haul markets are relatively resilient.

The last part of the book explores the power law and the implication for large cap companies. This is particularly relevant for fast growing companies that are in the fortune 50 --- because they so dominate the S&P 500, they have a hard time out-performing the index, which means that owning those companies individually is less ideal than owning the index itself.

All in all, I found that this book gave me a lot to think about, and I will look for more books by Mauboussin in the future. Recommended.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Gastronauts Launch Party


Nate Keller and Mirit Cohen were two of the most talented chefs at Google, so when they sent me an invite to the launch party for their food service, Gastronauts, I got very excited and immediately blocked off the evening.

The meal served was absolutely outstanding. When I visited Paris last year, I noted how various restaurants, despite being really good, were outdone by various Google cafetarias. Well, this restaurant won't be outdone any time soon, that's for sure. We started out with a mushroom bisque with toasted garlic and fried almonds, which was then followed by smoked salmon on a bit of bagel bread with fried capers and wasabi, were bedazzled by a triplet of fruit pairings --- guava with pear, cactus fruit with pear, and pomegranate on a grape jelly. The explosion in my mouth with the guava and pear pairing was an out of body experience. The main dish was ribs on polenta garnished with tomatoes with a chocolate sauce. I think I started salivating with the description and didn't stop until every morsel was off my plate and in my tummy. The desert was a pumpkin panna cotta, cream, and nutmeg, with a cookie. You had to take the panna cotta, add the cream, put it in your mouth, bite of a piece of the cookie, and then sip the nutmeg, a complicated sequence that paid its rewards in the form of a burst of flavor in your palate.

Mirit and Nate say they'll be launching a retail operation soon, so if you live in San Francisco, I think you should plan on a visit! Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Reverse Brain Drain?

There's always been a crap load of doom-saying about Silicon Valley, and the latest one by Vivek Wadhwa talks about how Chinese and Indian "young guns" are returning to the mother country.

This sort of thing has been around for a long time. For instance, Ed Yourdon wrote Decline and Fall of the American Programmer in 1992, just as I was graduating college with (you guessed it!) a degree in Computer Science. 1992! Within 3 years we had the internet revolution, and the poor guy, rather than recanting, wrote another book so you could pay more money to see why he was wrong. (Read Peter Norvig's review of the book at the above link. It's a hoot!)

It's very tempting to write off California and Silicon Valley (especially right now with an unemployment of 12%), but it's always reinvented itself. It's no a coincidence that when Paul Graham settled on only one location for Y-combinator, it had to be Silicon Valley. No where else is failure not regarded as a black mark on your career, and no where else can you get lawyers who'll help you out in exchange for startup stock. In fact, when my friends and I discuss startups and places that attract engineers, even San Francisco startups get the short-shrift.

My take on this current cycle of doom and gloom is that the Sanjay Mavinkurves (mistakenly identified as an engineer in the New York Times article --- he's actually a product manager) of this world will continue to fight tooth and nail to stay in Silicon Valley, while the ones who return will eventually learn that performance is extremely contextual, something that American culture doesn't recognize, but Silicon Valley does --- as evidenced by Facebook's move from Boston to Palo Alto once they got funded. (Also make sure you read the New York Times all the way to the end --- look at the number of corrections necessary --- all reflection of the eagerness of the media to portray Silicon Valley as being in trouble over immigrants)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Review: Kool-Stop Salmon Brake Pads

I must have done at least 100,000 miles of cycling by now, and the one piece of safety equipment that I've always relied on was brake pads. They're unobtrusive, doing their jobs quietly --- unless they're cantilever brakes, in which case they don't do their jobs, or do it only grudgingly and noisily.

Over the last 10 years, I've been using Kool-Stop Salmon brake pads. They worked so well that I don't mention them, not even in the substantial information packets I provide to fellow cyclists on grand tours.

Well, during the recent Tour of Hokkaido, I once again forgot to mention them, and during one rainy descent, I commented on how smooth and easy Japanese descents was. No one else agreed with me, to my surprise! Well, it turned out that I was the only one running Kool-Stop Salmon pads. Everyone else was running the OEM pads (not surprising --- it takes a long time to wear out brake pads in California), and those were apparently not stopping the bikes, thereby giving my friends a scary experience.

Come to think about it, during the 2007 Tour of the Alps, and 2008 Tour Across France, the only time I was beating my companions down the hill was when it was raining. Again, I was the only one running Kool-Stop pads. Even if you don't ride in the rain, there's still a good reason to replace them --- here's a comparison between the Shimano OEM pads versus the Kool-stops. Yep, those OEM pads tear up your rims, so your wheels will last longer with the Kool-stops than with the OEM pads.

Given that they're only $6.95 on with free shipping on purchases over $25, they're a cheap and easy upgrade to your brakes, and pay for themselves on the first rainy descent.

Updated: If your brakes are cheap and don't come with brake holders, splurge and spend $19.13 + shipping on the Dura Type Brake Holders.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Review: The Numerati

The Numerati is Stephen Baker's exploration of the world of large scale information technology. Unfortunately, his approach supports my thesis that the world is now too complicated for English majors to understand.

Every topic that he covers is touched extremely shallowly --- he'd cover the marketing approach by interviewing a couple of folks who manage advertising campaigns or product placement in supermarkets, but not the underlying algorithms and scale that made it possible. In fact, at one point he describes a smart shopping cart, but doesn't explore the economics behind it and why they haven't become prevalent (shopping carts with too much technology would get stolen for their screens, for instance).

He covers a bit about Google, but again, tries to get away with mentioning SEOs (Search Engine Optimizers), but doesn't explain how they work or even interview one. The technology behind all this is hand-waved (he drops names like Support Vector Machines but doesn't demonstrate that he understands even basics such as Bayesian learning)

What annoys me is that even the interviews (which many English/Journalism majors do well) are also really shallow, with none of the depth of Carrie Grimes' profile in the New York Times.

Ultimately, however, the biggest disappointment was that Stephen Baker clearly doesn't understand what all these corporations are doing, which is to distill specific insights into algorithms that can scale. The problem with doing so is manifold --- the distillation is at best imperfect, and doesn't come with the intuitive insight that the best human judgement can render. (A look at the adsense ads on this blog will dispel any feeling that such algorithms have even matured to the point that they are useful) That fact is why Warren Buffett is still beating out hedge funds with lots of computers, software engineers, and statisticians.

Not recommended --- you can do better by sitting down with any of the thousands of Computer Scientists who do this stuff for a living and having a casual chat. It'll be more fun and won't be a waste of your time.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Upgrades should always have a positive connotation

The sad secret of the cycling cottage industry is that they don't cater to the avid cyclist, i.e., the person who rides about 5000 miles a year or more. They cater to the frequent upgrader --- the guy who buys a new bike every 2-3 years, upgrading to the latest and greatest whenever he can.

Our tandem has about 15,000 miles on it. During that time, we've worn out chains, tires, chainrings, and cassettes, all in relatively short order. One incident recently had me by the side of the road piercing together a 9-speed chain that had been fatigued by riding a worn out cassette aggressively and then shifted under load. Not having a replacement 11-34 9-speed cassette handy, I replaced it with a 12-27 from one of the singles, and went on-line to look for cassettes.

The cost of 9-speed chains and 9-speed cassettes had gone up quite a bit since the last time I bought replacements, and thinking about the situation, I can't think of a time when that 9-speed cassette really bought us anything. The result, I ordered a bunch of 8-speed cassettes at $20 each, and yesterday, upgraded my 9-speed tandem to 8-speed. I won't bother upgrading the 9-speed chain yet, but when it finally goes, it too, will be replaced with an 8-speed chain.

From the "industry"'s point of view, I'm downgrading my bike, but in terms of cost, expected life time, robustness, and everything else that I care about, it's an upgrade. Yes, there are many who can't wait for the latest 10-speed systems with electronic shifting and what not, but for me anyway, the satisfaction of being able to have a running bike that I don't spend a lot of time working on is a big plus.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sting Followup

After my sting and swelling reaction, my allergist did not want to test me for a month, so I went touring in Japan and came back before getting the skin test.

The skin test tested negatively for bees and yellow-jackets, but positively for mixed vespids and wasps. Because of a recent lawsuit involving the reliability of skin tests, my doctor also made me get a blood test. Strangely enough, yellow jackets also came up positive on the blood test, so in this particular case, I'm grateful for that medical malpractice suit.

While I was at it, since I was going to have to get shots anyway, I decided to go for a skin test of all my other allergies and get inoculated for those as well. The result: I'm allergic to everything except 2 kinds of mold. So now I'll end up with 3 shots twice a week for several weeks.

According to my doctor, the sting inoculations will be over in 2-3 years, but the environmental allergy shots have to go on for quite some time. In any case, I can't wait for the day when I don't have to carry any Epipens!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

International Kindle Launches

The big news is that the Kindle went international yesterday! For $279 and a $2 delivery charge per book (and a $5 per week delivery charge for periodicals like newspapers), you can now have books, newspapers, etc., all sent to your Kindle while travelling. No more running out of reading materials in Hong Kong!

Furthermore, my friends in Germany can now own a Kindle! I was surprised by how expensive English books are in Germany, so I think this is a huge deal as well. I expect German adoption of Kindle to outpace that of the US by a significant margin because the payback period will be much lower. Books are incredibly expensive in most of the rest of the world.

Another bit of news that went soaring past most analysts' heads is that Lonely Planet travel guides are now available on the Kindle store. This will drive massive adoption in the "backpacking through Europe" summer student crowd, since not only can you now buy those lonely planets as you go, the weight savings are massive (those lonely planet country guides check in at a pound each!), and you can now use search on those massive tomes, which was something you never could do before when they were paper.

I've been resisting upgrades to the Kindle (mostly because of the loss of the replaceable battery and SD card), but I guess the international version will be a worthwhile upgrade for me the next time I travel.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

San Jose Rock & Roll 2009

4235 Sy Usagichan M 30-34
Half Marathon Start: Gun 8:03:09 Chip 8:07:44
Splits:5 Km10 Km10 MiFinishO'AllSexDiv

i'm quite happy about this time in spite of it being my slowest time of the 3 times I've done this!

That's mostly because I had the least amount of training and still knocked this one out. Strong up till Mile 10, whereby I slowed down a little, but otherwise I'm amazed at how consistent my pace was! I have slowed down since 3 years ago from running 6.7 mph to 6.3, and 9:33 per mile is the pace for 6.3 mph!

My training this year has been rather haphazard, doing 5 mile runs about 2 to 3 times a week and making up the rest of the other workouts on the stairmaster.

I probably could have pushed for a 2 hour finish time, but I didn't want to hurt myself either. At this juncture, I'm still feeling pretty good!

Anyhow, I'm stoked that I finished with as weak a training as I did!