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Friday, November 27, 2009

My Book Project

I heard about kickstarter yesterday, and immediately decided that this is a good way to collect beta-testers, people who want advanced reader copies, pre-orders, etc. The current intention is to use Amazon's self-publication service, and of course, Kindle editions.

However, for pre-ordering folks, I'm offering a DRM-free digital copy of the book if you pledge to support the project. My goal would be to get about 20 beta-testers out of this (hence the $1000 project goal). As with other kickstarter projects, if not enough people demonstrate interest, you're not on the hook for the costs.

I consider this an interesting experiment, and look forward to seeing how it will turn out.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Review: Mercury Falls

When Robert Kroese, who also works at Google, offered his comic novel Mercury Falls on the Kindle for $1.99, I bought it, to support another Googler, if nothing else.

The novel revolves around the apocalypse --- Christine, a reporter for the evangelical newspaper The Banner has seen so many cults proclaim the end of the world that she's now jaded, but after returning from yet another apparently fruitless such prediction, she discovers that her house has been broken into by a Demon, and the apocalypse ensues.

The style is evocative of Douglas Adams' classic, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, complete with several digressions into tangents, an omniscient narrator who explains what's going on behind the scenes to the reader, and self-referential jokes.

Unfortunately, I found the book merely mildly amusing, rather than being funny the way Adams' series was. There are moments of amusing word play every chapter or so, and every once in a while a funny moment deserves a chortle. But while Adams' works frequently make subtle references to the human condition, I found that Mercury Falls frequently made cheap shots --- like having a flaming pillar of fire from heaven coming down and striking down hapless characters.

The book finishes in self-referential fashion, by constructing a rationale for its existence, tying up everything in a nice little knot, but ultimately, I found myself unsatisfied in the quest for laughs. Nevertheless, humor is an unpredictable thing, so if you have a Kindle you might as well download the sample and see if it sucks you in. But I found Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys funnier and less obviously forced.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Honda Fit first impressions

Now that we've had a few weeks with the Honda, I can write up my first impressions. I've already mentioned that the main reason we bought the car was that the tandem can fit inside. You can see Pamela Blayley's write up for all the gory details, but as far as the 2009 Fit is concerned, the tandem fits very nicely with no problems, and plenty of room for camping gear, water bottles (this thing has 10 cup holders, 4 of which are ideal for cycling water bottles, so it's clearly designed to haul cyclists and the bike). I bought the Hollywood Fork Mount, went to Orchard Supply Hardware and bought a block of wood --- they even cut it for you if you ask nicely and some wood screws, screwed the fork mount into the wood to make a glider board, and I was all ready.

It's definitely no more than a 2 person job to load the bike into the car, since one of you has to hold the bike upright while the other runs back to the front of the car and lifts the rear wheel over the hump that the front seat makes. Nevertheless, it's just as fast as mounting a hitch-mounted bike rack and then lifting the bike onto the rack, along with all the the rigamarole I needed to do to get the fork of the tandem mounted onto the vertical bike rack.

Needless to say, all this running around means that the rear bumper of the car could get scratched, so after a couple of near misses, i bought the Rear Bumper Applique and installed it. We also needed bungee cords to secure the tandem so it wouldn't sway side to side while in the car, but the large number of anchor points inside the car made that easy. I was impressed by how many of those they were. Removing the bike from the car is far easier, and the first time we did it at a parking lot, other cyclists had to stop and stare, since they could not believe how a big bike like this could come out of a tiny car.

OK, enough bike talk. How does the car drive? It drives just fine. Some people refer to it as a sporty suspension, and it does feel a bit less of a boat than my Chrysler, but it's also a smaller car, so that's to be expected. The Fit is quieter than the convertible, but then, I would have been surprised if it wasn't. I love the reduced turning radius --- it certainly feels very agile when maneuvering in the parking lot.

I opted for the "Sport" trim, which came with alloy wheels, auto-stick paddle shifters, fog lights (useful for San Francisco), and a sound system that could take as input a USB port, and supposedly an ipod. To my disappointment, the ipod dock would not recognize my ancient 20GB ipod classic. Looking through the manual, it looked like it would only recognize the latest ipod classic or ipod nanos. Oh well, I plugged in a USB flash drive instead, and that worked just fine. The big shocker, though, was that it wouldn't display unicode characters (Chinese or Japanese!). A look through my document's paperwork showed that the car was indeed assembled and manufactured in Japan, which makes me wonder what the heck Honda was thinking! (Sure, the car was destined for California, but California has plenty of Chinese/Japanese/Korean speakers)

The sound system in the car is great --- nothing fancy, it just works. I also like it that the sound system also takes MP3 CDs, not just regular audio CDs. My guess, though, is that I'll buy a 16GB USB drive and just be done with it.

As previously mentioned, the car comes with sports paddle shifters, similar to the auto-stick that was on my Chrysler. It works, but has one flaw --- it doesn't display the current selected gear continuously, only when you first click the paddle. This is nasty, since the car seems to have the habit of down-shifting and up-shifting without telling you even though you've used the manual mode, so you could easily think you're already in one gear when the car's already shifted to another. Not a big problem, but makes the feature less attractive than you might imagine. (Why would you use auto-stick? Mostly to force the car into 3rd gear when descending a big mountain --- not a big deal to most people, but California is mountainous)

Sitting in the car, you get the impression that the car is pretty big. That's because even though it's a small car, the design of it is such that there's a lot of headroom. This is good, because it lets us get the tandem into the car without lowering the stoker seat, but it also contributes to giving the car's interior an airy feel, which I like.

All in all, it seems like a pretty nice car so far, and I'll report some more after we've had a chance to take a few long trips with it.
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Friday, November 20, 2009

Programming Tools

Every time I think about programming tools, I get really annoyed. If you've been programming for a while, you probably started off with the basic PRINT statement as your debugging tool way back when micro-computers were too small and insufficiently powerful to run anything as sophisticated as a debugger.

When Turbo Pascal 3.0 came out for the PC, it was a revelation, at least for me. You could have a programming environment that could not only compile at lightning fast speeds, but it too, was restricted to debugging via print statements --- debuggers only became available starting from Turbo Pascal 4.0.

When I got to college and had access to UNIX machines, having a debugger was a revelation. You could single-step through code, print variables, set break points (and even conditional break points), walk up and down the stack, and if you recompiled the code, you could restart the program and the debugging would automatically pick up the new binary. I got out of the habit of writing print statements.

As an intern at Geoworks, I became even more spoiled. Geoworks had an in-house debugger called swat, and the basic development environment was a SUN workstation connected to a PC via a serial cable. You would then cross-compile on your SUN (using a distributed compiling environment), download the code via the serial cable to the PC, and swat would run on your workstation while talking to a debugging stub on the PC. Swat was ridiculously sophisticated --- to this day, I still have not used a debugger that works as well. (The author, Adam de Boor, like most of the smart people I've ever met, now works at Google) First of all, it had an extension language built into it (tcl). But secondly, the programmers working on GEOS had a very tool-oriented ethic: every time a new data structure was added, they would also write a swat extension that understood how the data structure was laid out in memory. This enabled you to type "heapwalk" at the swat prompt, and the debugger would then walk through memory and dump out all the data structures in human-readable, human-formatted form! If you had a linked list, you could tell it to walk the linked list and dump every element in it. If it was a linked list of a certain object, you could tell it to dump out the actual objects while walking through the list, rather than just dumping the pointer. Even though GEOS was written entirely in assembly (yes, even the applications --- how do you think everything fit into 512KB?), it felt more sophisticated than any high level language except Lisp.

When I graduated school and worked at Pure Software, we took a lot of pains to make sure the purify would work with debuggers. Stack traces, etc., would work with whatever debugger you used, and variable names always remained intact. This was despite incremental linkers and other techniques that Purify applied to binaries under inspection. To this day, no other UNIX vendor or free software tool has deployed an incremental linker.

When I started having to do Windows development again, the IDEs such as Visual C++ felt like a step backwards --- they had a lot of pretty visuals, but none of them were extensible, so you couldn't teach it about your new data structure, or get it to walk a list. Nevertheless, I still didn't need to write PRINT statements. When I ended up writing VxDs for a living in 1995, I had a much more primitive environment, and it was painful, but I quickly learned to abstract away most of the issues and not rewrite VxDs as much as possible.

Enter the internet server age, and I feel like it's 1986 again, and I might as well be programming on a PDP-11 using RSTS/E BASIC. Today, any kind of cloud programming that requires harnessing multiple machines essentially relies on RPCs. One would think that with all the knowledge we have from building old debuggers and such systems, we would be able to do things like single-step through a procedure from one machine to a remote machine, and still be able to do stack dumps, walk stack traces, and print data structures. The sad truth is, we can't. In fact, in many environments, you can barely attach a debugger to a remote process, and in some cases if you do attach a debugger and then detach it, the process immediately exits. Symbolic variable names? Thanks to C++ name mangling, I can barely decipher error messages from the compiler, let alone use a symbolic name in a debugger. Combine that with threads, remote systems, and other such setups, and pretty soon you're back to debugging using PRINT statements. You might dress it up and call it "logging" (and I know I've been guilty of doing that myself), but really, it's debugging via PRINTs, and as someone who calls himself a software engineer, whenever I put in yet another LOG statement I feel ashamed, both for myself and for my profession --- we had such beautiful tools in the 80s and 90s, but they are all wasted in the internet era. Yes, I'm well aware that people have written RPC analyzers --- but again, they're all after-the-fact analysis tools --- not nearly as useful as being able to "stop the state of the world and examine the state at leisure", which was what swat and the other tools were capable of doing.

What's responsible for this state of affairs? I think the big one is the decline of the market for programming tools. After Borland died, there was no longer an effective programming tools company that had the kind of end-to-end reach that could provide a development environment that was sophisticated. Microsoft all but stopped evolving its programming tools. Since it was impossible to compete against the free gdb/gcc/g++ tools (and now the free Eclipse), it became a case of "don't beat them, join them." Without end-to-end control of a development environment, it's hard to build a debugger that would do the right thing --- Microsoft could probably do that for its environment, as can Apple, but neither are power-houses in client/server/distributed computing. Google and Yahoo could invest in their distributed debugging infrastructure, but have chosen to invest resources elsewhere. The net result: I don't feel like our programming tools have done anything but gone backwards, despite all the progress we've made in other areas.

Some conversations are too funny not to post

Back when she was at Google, X used to work out with me every so often. Not being a motivated health nut, as soon as she left, she lapsed, but recently tried to get started again:

X: I'm thinking about seeing my doctor because everytime after i work out my chest area hurt. I'm not sure if it's my heart or if i'm pulling muscle and just exercising wrong.
Me: Do you feel nauseous? That can happen if you work too hard.
X: i don't feel nauseous. i just feel a tight feeling near my chest but i don't think it's my heart
me: What are you doing when you feel the tight feeling? running? lifting weights?
X: no, stretches, light weights. really light tho, lighter than what we used to do.
Me: oh, that just means your bra is too tight
X: REALLY?!?!?!??! .... OK, I'll cancel my doctor's appointment.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Review: Dark City, Director's Cut

I was first introduced to the movie, Dark City by Steve Grimm, who told me that it was one of the best movies ever made, only marred by the movie studios who stuck in a narration at the start that spoiled everything. He loaned me the New Line Platinum edition DVD, and told me to stick it into my DVD player and skip the first chapter.

I went home, and did exactly that, and my brothers and I were captivated by the movie. The story was well-told, the actors portrayed what felt like a very real world but in a surreal environment, and the visuals quite unlike any movies I had seen up to this point. When I saw that the director's cut was out, I bought it, despite my fear that somehow knowing the plot would make the movie less watchable.

It turned out that the director's cut is only very subtly different from the original theatrical release. The opening narration is gone (a mistake admitted by the director), and some scenes have been extended for more character development, but to be honest it was so long ago since I saw the theatrical release that I no longer remember what scenes were there as opposed to not.

Regardless, the story is still compelling, moving forward quickly enough to keep your interest, but not so fast as to lose you. William Hurt plays his role with verve, and Jenny Conelly has a luminosity in her scenes that has only grown since. All in all, 90 minutes very well spent.

Highly recommended. (Note: this movie is R-rated, not for any particular scene, but the intensity might be a bit much for young viewers. Lisa had a nightmare afterwards)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Review: Stop Acting Rich

At this point, has there anyone who hasn't read about The Millionaire Next Door? When one of my brothers read that book he told me that the saddest thing about reading the book was that he had to learn to be a cheapskate like me.

Stop Acting Rich is a follow-up, in the fashion of Hollywood studios who can't help milking a movie Franchise over and over again until every marginal dollar has been made.

The book makes several points:
  • Many people who drive expensive cars and live in rich neighborhoods are themselves not rich. The few who are, tend to come from a special type of household and childhood that they are trying to banish by deliberately spending on "the best."
  • Living in a wealthy neighborhood before you are wealthy makes it harder to accumulate wealth. People measure themselves by comparing what they have to what their neighbors have. By constantly surrounding yourself by people who are so wealthy that $50,000 cars are a minuscule portion of their net-worth, you set yourself on a hedonistic treadmill which depletes your wealth instead of accumulating it.
  • Engineers are the most frugal millionaires in America. They have no problem living below their means, and driving cheap cars for the sake of efficiency. Engineers account for 7.6% of millionaires but are only 2.3% of the working population. They also never pay retail. What amuses me the most about this, of course, is that engineers have a notoriously hard time attracting mates, which tells me that a lot of "acting rich" is really about demonstrating proof of reproductive suitability (don't ask me whether the strategy succeeds --- the author doesn't mention it). And true to form, I checked this book out of the local library rather than buying it.
  • By contrast, middle managers and attorneys have a hard time accumulating wealth despite having high incomes. That's because their peers tend to live in expensive neighborhoods, which tends to accelerate their spending. This also explains why I've occasionally seen signs of jealousy from managers in the past.
The author makes this point by using examples from homes, watches, and cars (I would have loved it if he had included Apple products), but the problem is that we don't see good statistical analysis --- if a large number of millionaires buy Toyotas, that doesn't tell us whether or not buying Toyotas is an independent variable, or whether they do prefer Toyotas to a larger extent than the general population.

All in all, the book is entertaining, but provides limited additional insights if you've already read The Millionaire Next Door, so I can't in good faith recommend it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Review: The Investor's Manifesto

The Investor's Manifesto is Bill Bernstein's latest book on investing. I was worried that since I had read most of his previous books, The Four Pillars of Investing, and The Birth of Plenty, that this would just be a rehash of old material so brilliantly covered by David Swenson in Unconventional Success.

Bernstein wrote that one of his goals was to write a book even more accessible than Four Pillars, and I think to that end he succeeded --- I easily breezed through the book in a couple of days, and there's no sophisticated math here to scare even the most liberal of liberal arts majors away. A big important section that wasn't properly covered before is the emotional aspects of investing --- Bernstein points out that most investors over-estimate their risk tolerance (something frequently causes them to buy high and sell low), and that faddish investing (investing so as to have something to brag about at dinner parties) is likely to have extremely poor results. He puts it all across in a very witty fashion as well, for instance, writing about the fad for investing in China, he points out that the Chinese stock market has had a negative 3.3 percent return over the last 2 decades, and in addition:
Finally, in many developing markets, governments do not protect shareholders from the rapacity of management as well as in nations with more established legal systems. In other words, in these countries, management and controlling shareholders find it disturbingly easy to loot a company. Even more bluntly, a nation that does not protect its children from lead-contaminated toys will likely not protect its foreign shareholders.

In particular, the chapters on asset allocation and the provided sample asset allocations are now very refined in explanation. His advice on rebalancing, for instance, is even more nuanced than before, and covers all the tax considerations that were not always mentioned in previous books.

He points out on the one hand, given the failure of Wall Street professionals to beat the market or even match the market indices' performance, it seems extremely unlikely that asking all Americans to manage their own 401(k) portfolio would result in a good outcome. On the other hand, hiring a financial advisor is also fraught with danger:
people do not go into the financial services industry for the same reasons that attract individuals to social work, government service, or elementary education. It is rare to meet a hedge fund manager or mutual fund executive who has a vision of the world that extends very far beyond his or her own self-interest. It is not grossly unfair to observe that most seek employment at brokerage houses, hedge funds, and mutual funds for the same reason Willie Sutton supposedly offered for robbing banks: “Because that’s where the money is.” Consequently, you should extend an extra degree of caution to anyone who wants to manage your finances.

These are dilemmas that I myself haven't been able to resolve. Bernstein then finishes up the book by describing how you can inoculate your children against American brand-awareness and marketing, as well as teaching them how to manage their finances well. This isn't typically covered in many financial books, and short as his advice is, I think it will prove effective.

All in all, this is a very good book, and very much worth your time to read. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Kindle App for your PC

The Kindle App for your PC just launched. What's really cool is that it doesn't seem to take up a slot as far as devices are concerned (which I would have known, since I already have 6 devices).

Another nice thing is that tables, etc., show up much larger on a 24" screen than they do in the book. This is particularly useful for non-fiction books, such as Value Averaging, which has lots of tables, equations, and charts, all rendered as pictures on the Kindle.

Even if you don't have a Kindle, and like reading on a netbook, this application basically makes all of Kindle's content available to you. Given the number of free books for the Kindle, that makes it worth the download.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Review: Every Landlord's Tax Deduction Guide

Every landlord's tax deduction guide is a guide to tax deductions oriented towards a landlord. Of course, some people I know run their rental businesses on a cash basis and evade taxes that way, but I don't advocate doing that, since pissing off the IRS is a good way to lose a lot of money.

Once you've decided to run a legitimate (at least in the eyes of the IRS) business, there are several questions, including:
  • What does depreciation mean, and how do I take advantage of it?
  • If I upgrade the unit, do I get to write that off against income?
  • What if I'm renting out a room in a house, as opposed to the whole house?
  • What if I rent it below market to my cousin?

As you can see, any complication at all, and you need to start worrying about how the tax system works. In addition, by knowing what sort of items are deductible, and what aren't, you get to do better tax planning and increase your after-tax profits.

You expect tax books to be extremely boring, but this one was very well-written. It's still not as interesting as say, a Richard Morgan novel, but if you read it in small chunks everything is laid out clearly and you won't be bored. The only obvious flaw I can find is that they don't emphasize how fraught with danger the home office deduction is --- it is easily the biggest red flag the IRS looks for when seeking tax cheats, and if all you do is set aside a small portion of your home for it it is probably not worth putting up with the tax audits as a result.

All in all, this book is recommended if you're running a rental business --- I can see myself looking over it again in April as I file my taxes. And before you ask, yes, if you're running a rental business this book does qualify as a deduction.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Review: LG WM2016 Washing Machine

One of the benefits of owning a house is that I now get to have a washer and dryer. Prior to moving into my house, I had been doing laundry at work. At one point, I even would rig up a trailer to my bike so I could ride in with a load of laundry and get it done. It felt a bit ridiculous, but since I had absolutely no room at my apartment for a washer and dryer, I felt entirely justified.

When I moved to Munich last year, the office there didn't have a laundry machine at work, so I was forced to buy a used washing machine. Talk to a European who's lived in the USA about washing machines, especially a German, and you'll get a lecture about how German washing machines are much better in terms of cleaning laundry, energy efficiency, water efficiency. A typical German would tell you, "The only thing the American machines are good at, is not washing your laundry very well quickly!" German machines took a long time to run.

To my surprise, when I started shopping for washing machines, the one that stood out was the LG WM2016. It was the lowest priced machine that qualified for the PG&E energy efficiency appliance rebate. In fact, for Santa Clara county, the water company chipped in for a grand total of a $200 rebate, so the fact that it was $600 cheaper than all the other Tier 3 machines meant that it was a no-brainer. Consumer reports said good things about it, as did all the other web-sites that rated energy efficient washers. I bought the machine at BestBuy, in part to get the delivery and installation taken care of (these high efficiency must be properly leveled, so it's worth the $30 to get them to do it for you), and in part to pick up a 5 year warranty. I don't usually pick up extended warranties for products, but my brother convinced me that these front-loader units (at least the ones sold in America) are still not fully debugged, and since I intended to get a renter, I decided that the reviews on epinions meant that I should get a warranty.

Operating the machine is pretty straight forward: stuff all the laundry into the drum, close the door, drop in some detergent and bleach, and push the play button, and all the defaults will do the right thing. This machine was more sophisticated than my German machine in that it gave me a time estimate for when the laundry would be done (and yes, expect it to take at least an hour).

The trick lies in the various rules you have to abide by if you want to keep your machine reliable. First of all, you must use HE-rated detergent. This is a big deal because normal detergent generates too many suds for these machines, eventually clogging up the machine's outbound pipe, and resulting in a dead machine. I thought the detergent would be more expensive, but it turns out that Safeway sells a 96-load pack of HE detergent for $10 under their house brand. To prevent the renter from cheaping out and using normal detergent, I've simply folded the cost of detergent into her rent, so she uses ours.

Next, when you're done with laundry, you must leave the laundry door open. Actually, all washing machines have to be treated this way, otherwise, mold will grow in the machine and your clothes will never smell clean again. It's just that a top-loading machine would typically have its lid open when laundry is done without interfering with anything else, while a front loader's door could get in your way. I solved this problem by putting the washing machine in a place where the open door wouldn't be an issue.

The machine has all the functions you might expect --- separate settings for washing towels, delicates, even a hand-wash mode. You can pre-rinse, pre-wash, add an extra wash cycle, set spin speeds, and decide what temperature of water to use. When it first starts up, it will turn the drum over --- that's the machine weighing your laundry so it can figure out how much to use! The result is the machine is very quiet, extremely water and energy efficient, and takes forever to do laundry. That would have driven me wild if I had to share a laundry machine with 10000 other Googlers, but for just Lisa, me, and the renter, it's just fine.

All in all, we've had the machine for 4 months now, and it's working like a champ. We're not heavy laundry users, maybe doing a couple of loads a week, but we're quite pleased with it. I'll post a long term report after a few years to see how it goes.

In case you're wondering, for the dryer, we just went with whatever scratch-and-dent unit Best Buy had in stock and went for the cheapest one. There's no difference in energy efficiency amongst gas dryers, so that's the correct selection method.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Review: Honda Fit Floor Mats

It seems really odd that my $17,358 (before tax, docs, and extended warranty) Honda Fit came without floor mats, but I guess that's the price you pay for getting absolute rock bottom pricing.

Not being the type to pay for dealer pricing, I kept the car garaged and bought the 2009/2010 Honda Fit All Weather Mats online at When the package arrived, I was surprised to find that every mat was different. I guess that's so that you think you got a good deal, custom fit and all.

What came as an unpleasant surprise, however, was the installation procedure. The non-driver's mats were easy --- just open the door and slip them in. The driver's mat, however, came with two anchors so the mat wouldn't slip onto the brake, accelerator, or clutch pedals. Now, you might expect that the mat anchors would just clip in onto existing purpose fit mount points onto the floor beneath the driver's seat, and you would be wrong.

Instead, the included instructions tell you to get out your exacto-knife, and cut into the carpet of your brand new car! What the heck was Honda thinking? OK, so I got out my leatherman and began the work of installation. As I worked on it, I kept hitting my head onto the driver's seat, despite having already pushed the driver's seat all the way back. The position was very awkward, and there wasn't a lot of room. It occurred to me that this would have been a heck of a lot easier if Honda had simply installed the anchors before installing the seats in the car, and charged me an extra $20 to do it, since it would be much easier to do at the factory.

After cutting out the two holes in the carpet, and another flap, I slipped the anchors in, and then backed up the anchor with the screw-driver portion of the leatherman, and snapped the bolts in place. Having done that, the driver's mat simply fit in, and I could then snap the anchors into place and the mats would be safely bolted to the floor.

It was a bit involved, but the whole process took only about 20 minutes, and given that the MSRP for these were $130, and I paid $120 (after shipping) by buying on-line, I guess I saved about $10 + labor (probably something outrageous at the dealer) for 20 minutes of work, which wasn't too bad. Nevertheless, it's annoying that something like this would be considered an after-market accessory, not something built into the price of the car.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Review: Crazy for God

Crazy for God is Frank Schaeffer's memoir about how he grew up in a Swiss mission, helped to found the anti-abortion fundamentalist movement, became a mover and shaker within the movement, and finally broke away from it when he realized how corrupt and irrational fundamentalism was.

Because the local Methodist school was one that had a good reputation for teaching English, my parents sent all three of their sons there. Ironically, our experience there made all three of us virulently non-Christians, and none of us could tolerate the middle-eastern origin religions as a result. I've long wondered whether people ever got sick of these hell-fire and damnation religions, and reading this book told me that it took an unusual person to actually submit themselves to rationality after years of indoctrination, but that it's actually possible.

Schaeffer grew up in a typical hot-house environment, since a missionary essentially lives off charity. What amuses me is how aware the kids are about who has how much money, right from the start, as the Edith Schaeffer, Frank's mother, continually talked about how much money someone had and could give if only he was more devoted to god. The amount of cognitive dissonance his parents had must have been considerable --- since they were fundamentalists (Edith Schaeffer was a dancer, but gave it up because God frowned upon dancing --- these really were the Taliban of America), they raised their children in strict accordance to the scriptures, but because they themselves had a love of art and the classics, would go on vacation to Italy and visit museums and teach their kids art history.

Contradictions were apparent and all over the place, whether it came to Frank's own experience with pre-marital sex (he got his wife pregnant and had to have a hurried wedding --- much to the horror of the community around the mission, but with the support of his parents!), or the kind of person who showed up at the mission, one of which was a woman who was hoping to marry someone Asian so she could go to Asia as a missionary. Yet Schaeffer referred to his parents as tolerant, well coming of everyone from hippies to drug addicts.

Things got more relevant to contemporary politics in the middle of the book, where Schaeffer describes how he persuaded his father to go into the abortion battle, and ended up producing two TV-series that became the heart of the evangelical movement. You can tell Schaeffer is not proud of those years, since the chapters on his presence in the anti-abortion and fundamentalist movements went really quickly. He does, however, pause to explain what most non-fundamentalists already knew --- the leaders of the fundamentalist movement consider their followers little people, who can't think for themselves and are to be exploited at every opportunity, and at the top levels, the fundamentalist movement is extremely corrupt. He made the comment at one point that while he had preached that American culture had become secular and humanist and therefore corrupt and was doomed to failure, he himself had never lived in America, and having to do so was a shock. The chapter where he moved to America as a person with Swiss upbringing and the many shocks American culture came with was a lot of fun.

Things got to the point where Schaeffer was basically doing his speeches by rote, and blanking his mind whenever he said something that he patently knew was not true. The result was that he ended up trying to get away from the movement, first as a film producer, and finally successfully as a novelist. He is now a member of the Greek Orthodox church, and no longer encourages intolerance.

All in all, the book is entertaining and worth reading for a view of what the evangelical movement looks like from the inside. It's a pity that the movement shows no sign of dying out.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

2010 Tour of the German-Speaking Alps Proposal

After the Pyrenees last year, and Japan this year, I've decided that next year will have to be a return to the Alps, still by far the best and prettiest riding I've done anywhere. The proposal would be to fly into Munich mid-to-late June, take the train or ride to Austria, and immediately head towards Grossglockner highway, the tallest road in Austria.

From there, we will likely have to zig-zag over passes between Austria and German-speaking Italy, before making our way into Switzerland and ending up in Rosenlaui for 2-3 days of hiking to finish up the tour. We can then either make our way back to Germany by bicycle if we've got plenty of time, or we'll take the train back from the Interlaken area if we've run out of time.

Since Lisa and I haven't decided on whether we're going to bring the tandem or whether I'll be doing the ride on a single, this tour is likely to be either challenging (like 2007) or an easy-going tour (like 2003). Obviously, whether I/we are in shape will make a big difference in how tough the tour will be.

Training for the tour is easy: as usual, we'll make use of the Western Wheelers LDT (Long Distance Training series) as the backbone of the training program. If you do the entire series of C or D rides, you should be able to finish the Sequoia century in early June in a reasonable amount of time. There are 4 multi-day trips scheduled for the LDT series, and I will also run a qualifier ride in March. The qualifier ride is mandatory unless you've gone on tour with me before --- though even if you have gone on tour with me before, you are encouraged to show up anyway.

After the qualifiers, we will commit buy buying plane and train tickets.

I used to provided expected costs for this tour in dollars, but since the dollar has fluctuated greatly, I'll provide an estimate in Euros instead: 75 Euros a day a person should be expected. This includes food and lodging, but train rides, etc., might prove to be expensive --- I'll try to get those under control as much as possible.

As with previous tours:
  • You must be flexible with your diet --- staying in rural lodging often means eating whatever the family cooks for you.
  • You must be willing to handle adventure --- at the very least some dirt riding should be expected. Hopping fences and having to push your bike over a hiking trail is to be expected.
  • You have to be OK with not knowing where you're going to stay --- I rarely make reservations in advance.
  • You must be willing to carry your own lugguage. No SAG vehicle will be provided.
  • You must be self-sufficient as far as equipment is concerned. Don't expect me to fix your flats.

If you're interested, add yourself to the mailing list I've created. As usual, I'm going to restrict the group size to about 4 bikes. (I've never had more people want to go than I can take) If 3 weeks is too long a trip for you, you can come for less time (i.e., bail out early), but you're not allowed to join in the middle of the trip.

If you want more information, please read up on previous tours to decide whether my tours are right for you. In particular, you want to pay attention to the information packet for 2007 (or the 2005 one will work as well). If after reading all that you're still not sure, then the answer is no.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Review: Engineering your retirement

Engineering your retirement is a book about retirement planning. The author cleverly published it with IEEE press, which means that he can use equations with impunity.

Unfortunately, retirement planning doesn't require much math, so that freedom doesn't actually help him much. For instance, safe withdrawal rates are discussed for free at the retire early home page.

The sections on how to leave below your means is basically a list of ideas. Unfortunately, if you're an engineer (as Golio is smart enough to point out), frugality and efficiency in spending is already second nature to you, so this list is full of ideas that you've no doubt already considered. The section on increasing your earnings is similarly vague --- for instance, he talks about negotiating your salary, but doesn't list steps to go about doing so.

The section on investments does not cover asset allocation. The Retire Early study at least publishes a typical asset allocation strategy that's simple and easy to follow.

Ultimately, while I wanted to like this book, I can't find anything to recommend in it that you can't find for free elsewhere on the internet. In addition, he doesn't cover important topics such as the SEPP 72(t) exception, or the Social Security Application withdrawal option.

If you find John Greaney's web pages disorganized or hard to navigate, then this book might be interesting to you. Otherwise, you are better off spending some quality time on Greaney's web pages, and spending your $31 on something else.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The New York Times once again carries water for the Republican party

It never ceases to amaze me that the public option would be sliced and diced to death, but Republican proposals are taken seriously and at face value. The New York Times article today covers the Republican "healthcare" proposal.

Left unsaid:

  • No restrictions on health insurance denying you coverage for pre-existing conditions.
  • No restrictions on a health insurance company dropping your coverage if you come down with an expensive illness. (Note how carefully the New York Times skirts around this issue when parroting the Republican talking points --- the references to intentionally concealing "material" information about your state of health could easily refer to an infection you got as a kid)
  • No standards on what constitutes health insurance.

And the supposed reduction in cost from allowing insurers to "compete" across state-lines? What that would do is to encourage a race to the bottom. Recall that adverse selection is the biggest problem in healthcare. Many states, such as New York, enforce a community rating system --- if you want to operate as a health insurance company in those states, you have to take all comers, no picking off only healthy folks.

The Republican proposal would allow out-of-state health insurance companies to pick off only healthy folks from community-rating states, therefore forcing in-state health insurance companies in New York into a death spiral.

Does the New York Times provide the proper context and analysis? No. That's because the world's too complicated for English majors to understand. As far as I'm concerned, traditional mass media outlets can't die quickly enough.

Review: First American Home Buyers Protection

I was very pleased that my home came with a 1 year Home Warranty from First American. Unfortunately, I found out exactly how much it was worth: nothing.

We had a water heater break down in the in-law unit. Since we were planning to rent it out, we had to fix it. Pardo diagnosed the problem as being a 120V water heater hooked up to a 240V line (yes, the contractor who wired things up was an idiot --- unfortunately, it was owned by the previous owner), and the heating element was burned out. On-line, a 240V heating element didn't cost that much, but since I had a home warranty, I thought I should use it.

I called First American Warranty, told them what was wrong, and where, and they immediately sent a plumber out the next morning. The plumber showed up, charged $55 for the visit, and then proceeded to tell us that he was a plumber, not an electrician. He further called First American and told them that the inlaw unit wasn't covered by the warranty.

I ended up calling a contractor (the same one who worked on my house's flooring), and buying a 1500W 12V heating element from Amazon for $7.99, and he charged me $50 for the repair.

Needless to say, I do not recommend First American Home Warranty, for picking such stupid contractors, and charging for a visit where nothing got done, when the repair could easily have been done for the same amount charged. I am one unhappy customer, and if you're buying a home and the seller offers you a warranty from First American, I recommend that you either deduct the price from the house (as the warranty is pretty useless), or buy your own insurance.