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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Review: Breasts

As an Asian immigrant, I don't share American men's obsession with breast size, but when I read an excerpt from Florence William's Breasts, I immediately placed a hold on it from the library. It's a good book and a fun read.

Fundamentally, despite male obsession with breasts, there's actually been relatively little non-cancer research on how they work, what susceptibilities they have, and how they evolved. For instance, other primates do not have permanently rounded breasts: the female of those species tend to enlarge their breasts just in time for breast feeding and then the breasts fade back afterwards. Williams discusses the various hypotheses for why humans are special in this regard (and yes, sexual selection is one of the hypotheses), and why and how they evolved.

The rest of book, however, throws out information that I'd never seen anywhere else, and hence I found myself sucked into reading more and more. For instance, breasts as fatty tissues, essentially hold on to many of the man made chemicals around us. Which means that if you test the breast milk of a typical American woman, you might find PCBs, and various other environmental toxins. What's even more interesting is that the toxins get loaded into the breast milk fed into infants. Williams points out that humans are on top of a very long food chain, and the baby's on top of even where mom is. There's apparently already evidence that among certain species of dolphins, the first-born has a mortality rate 40% higher than its siblings because of the dumping of environmental toxins into its body. Birth order might become more and more important in the future for humans. (Don't tell the La Leche League about this) In fact, even amongst humans, Williams makes the provocative statement in the book that breast milk from the Inuit Eskimos (with their heavy seafood diet) could be classified as industrial waste, and that Sweden is currently considering recommending that breast feeding lasts only for 6 months. That sounds incredibly disturbing.

Other chapters explore silicone implants, how milk is produced, what happens during pregnancy, the impact of the pill and hormone replacement therapy. One particularly fun one to read is the one describing how men can actually get breast cancer. (Don't worry guys, you only have 1/100th the chance of getting breast cancer that women do --- not that it's any consolation if you happen to get "lucky")

Speaking of breast cancer. One thing the book raises is that women who get their first pregnancy before their twenties are much more protected from breast cancer than women who get their first pregnancy after 30. I'm very surprised the conservatives haven't made this a big deal yet, if true. In any case, Williams explains why this comes about, and what the mechanism for this protective effect is.

In any case, I found this book a great read. I do have to wonder about the author's sources and how much of what she writes is actually accurate, but there's a fairly complete bibliography at the back of the book so you can check out her sources and references for yourself if you're inclined to. And unlike most other non-fiction books nowadays, the references don't take up half the book.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

KTSF Channel 26 Interview

I was interviewed in May by the local Chinese language television news about my book, An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups. It aired some time in late June, and I'm told aired again fairly recently. I didn't expect the segment to affect my sales, and in retrospect, made a few fundamental errors that I need to correct in the future:
  1. Screw ethnic pride and do the interview in English! The problem with doing it in Chinese is that nobody can Google for my book in Chinese! XiaoQin points out that many Chinese people (rightly or not) think that English is classier and I would net more sales that way. Not to mention that Chinese input is a disaster.
  2. Stop the head-wag. I must have spent too much time with Indian roommates during my formative years.
  3. Get the station to at least show my business card at some point.

In case you can't tell, the interview was done at Ranch 99 in Cupertino Village. All in all, I had to get experience doing TV interviews at some point, so doing it in a Chinese language channel was as obscure as I could get. If I'd embarrassed myself completely (and I could have), nobody would ever have known.

For those who don't know, the channel is subtitled in Chinese, because written Chinese transcends all Chinese "dialects." (Cantonese and Mandarin, for instance, has as much relationship between them as Italian and Spanish, for instance)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Southern California 2012

SoCal 2012

Cathy had a wedding at Disneyland, so rather than just go for a day, XiaoQin and I decided to visit my brother in San Diego and Kevin as well.
From SoCal 2012
Kevin was our wedding photographer, and we wanted to meet his child, Calvin. Calvin's almost 2 years old, so it was a bit of a preview of what a toddler was like. We visited Santa Monica, Venice Beach, and walked around Playa Vista.
From SoCal 2012
We even took a ride on the Ferris Wheel! My impression of LA was the same as before: traffic jams getting from place to place, and every street looks like Stevens Creek Boulevard.

We visited Anaheim for Cathy's Wedding, but did not actually get a chance to go to Disneyland. Mickey and Minnie paid a visit to the wedding, though!
From SoCal 2012
In San Diego, my brother got us Kayak tours to the caves. The tides were perfect and we got to steer our tandem Kayak through the cave to the sounds of Sea Lions in their mating frenzy. We did dump the boat when launching though, but fortunately we were wearing wet suits so we got cold for just a little bit. San Diego water's about 70 degrees, not quite enough to need a wet suit, but since it was foggy, the wet suits helped to keep us warm.
From SoCal 2012
The next day, my brother and I biked from where we stayed to Torrey Pines. Since it was a short ride (2 hours long), we hammered to get a tough workout. Then we drove over to Mission Bay and rented a small Catamaran.
From SoCal 2012
I'd never sailed a small catamaran before, so it was an experience. Those have a reputation for flipping easily, but the reality was, the catamaran we hired had such a small sail area that we could not possibly flip it under the current conditions. My brother had spent a lot of time telling me not to expect too much because there was usually not much consistent wind in the afternoon, but with clear skies we also had a consistent strong wind, which made it a lot of fun. XiaoQin decided that small boat sailing could be fun after all.
From SoCal 2012
We then went to Torrey Pines State Preserve and hiked the Guy Fleming trail and the 3/4 Mile Beach Trail before walking back to the car and then going to a Japanese restaurant for dinner.
From SoCal 2012
For our last full day in San Diego, we went to the USS Midway. It's an aircraft carrier that was turned into a museum. Walking through the museum, I was impressed by how large everything in an aircraft carrier was (except for crew quarters, of course), but everything seemed familiar. Then I realized that a lot of the plot points in Battlestar Galactica were modeled after aircraft carrier operations, which was why everything looked so familiar --- down to the old style telephone. (For those who haven't seen the series, the Galactica was also a carrier about to be turned into a museum at the start of the series)
From SoCal 2012
We then went to Cabrillo National Monument to see the tidepools and the old lighthouse as well as to see the history of Spanish exploration in San Diego.
From SoCal 2012
I'd stupidly left the swimming trunks at home for our last day, so we went back to the sailing center and rented the smallest centerboard sailboat they had (a 14.2 Catalina). This boat carried enough sail to potentially capsize, so Xiaoqin got a good feel for the thrill and potential spills of small centerboard boat sailing.

After all that, we had a dinner at a Teochew noodle place, ate some ice cream, and got up early the next day to catch a plane home. My brother told me that we were unusually tough visitors to host because we weren't interested in Seaworld or the Zoo or Legoland, but my suspicion is that the next time we visit we'll have someone who does want to visit all those places.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Review: Dune

I read Dune back in high school, and thought it was a great read and a fun novel. I just read Dune again as an adult, and am blown away by how great a novel it is.

The structure of the novel is a linear narrative, but Frank Herbert is a master of "in-cluing": within the first 10 pages, he's set up the world the characters live in. Better yet, he's even spoiled his own novel by telling you about the upcoming betrayal of the protagonists and what's going to happen, all the while teaching you about the political intrigues of the novel. Yet you keep reading anyway, because you also learn that the protagonists know they're walking into a trap.

All through the stories, we get wheels within wheels, feints within feints. Everyone seems to have multiple secret identities, and the plot, while convoluted, has such a grand scope that you can't help but be sucked in. In particular, the environment of the planet Arrakis and how the Fremen go about their plans to terraform the planet is crucial to the plot, yet exposed without boring lectures.

I've seen the David Lynch Movie and didn't think it did justice to the book. I have not seen the TV series. All I can say is, this is a book well worth reading, especially if you hated the movie. And yes, the idiot at Penguin Publishing who set the price for the kindle edition of this 40 year-old novel at $15 deserves to land in a special circle of hell.

Nevertheless, the book is highly recommended. You should just check it out from your local library.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review: Ready Player One

I came to Ready Player One by way of Larry Hosken's short summary. Some books just tickle every little piece of me that makes me me, and this book is one of them.

It's a post-peak oil era, and the world's a pretty crappy place to live. Except for OASIS, which is an MMO that substitutes for real life for most of the world's population, including one geeky high schooler. Just like some of the early adventure games, there's a quest and a prize for the first person to solve the quest. What's great about the quest is that the story provides an in-game rationale for all geeky things from the 1980s, which is probably the era geeks of my generation know well. As a result, everything you knew and love from that era shows up in the book one way or another.

D&D? Check. Ancient Infocom games? Check. 1980s music? Check. Wargames? Check. 1980s anime like G-Force/Gatchaman? Check. Mobile Suit Gundam? Check. Ultraman? Check. The list goes on and on and on, and if you enjoy all those pop culture/video game references, you will start reading this book and basically inhale it in one giant breath, just because it tickles all the formative years of your life.

The bad? The plot's predictable in many places. You wouldn't be surprised by the happy ending, and the plot twists while not 100% predictable, does in many places become a bit of a Deus ex machina here and there. The author does not always play fair with the clues as well.

So? Who should read this book and be delighted by it? If you enjoyed Scott Pilgrim, run don't walk to the nearest copy of the book and buy it. If more than 3 of the above references tickle you personally, checkout the book out of the library. Everyone else? You were probably one of those boring people who didn't even smile when you got to the end of my final exam and discovered that the last question on the exam was: "What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen tree swallow."


Travelling with Baby: A few tips

From Europe 2012 Selects
This European Trip was the first extended trip that we had with Bowen. During the trip, we went on planes, taxis, cars, gondolas, trains (lots of trains), buses. Pretty much everything except boats, and I was tempted to take him on a canoe ride. At this point, we have enough experience traveling with Bowen that I can provide a few tips for similarly ambitious parents:
  • Leave the full size stroller behind. Use only a baby backpack, or if you can't use a backpack, get an umbrella stroller. Matt Hiller recommends the Maclaren Volo as being suitably light weight, but I haven't tried one. If necessary, just buy a cheap stroller at your destination and ditch it when you leave.
  • On planes, book ahead to get a bassinet. If you think that all you need to do is to put the baby in there and then let him sleep, you're wrong. On planes, you pretty much have to hold him, rock him, burp him, etc to get him calm. Do what it takes. We had lots of fellow travelers come up to us after the flight from CDG to SFO thanking us because while demanding, Bowen did not fuss or cry during the flight.
  • On trains in Europe with a rail pass, book first class. Cynthia asked me if I'd gone insane, knowing how cheap I am, but it's worth the nominal extra cost, since you get a lot of room, and fantastic service from the train staff. Bowen got gobs and gobs and gobs of extra chocolate from the staff. Once in the car, look for the handicap area which will take both wheelchairs and large strollers, if you ignored my advice and brought a large stroller.
  • Buses in the summer are hot and almost certainly a disaster during rush hour. It will get very warm, and the Europeans don't run air conditioning in their buses. The metro in Paris unfortunately isn't much better.
  • If you do have a large stroller, German-speaking cities have very nice U-Bahn and S-Bahn systems. Those will take strollers and generally have elevators for handicap access which you can use. Avoid cities in non-German-speaking countries if you're going to bring a large stroller.
  • The best deal is the tram. Many cities have trams which are air conditioned and those will take almost any vehicle, stroller, etc. On one particularly hot day in Vienna, we rode the tram all day with a day ticket, which cost very little and gave us the city sights in air conditioned comfort. We discovered our favorite ice cream place in Vienna as a result.
  • On Gondolas, remove your backpack carrier and carry onto the Gondola rather than just stepping onto the Gondola. I forgot to do so once and gave poor Bowen a knock on the head.
  • Be as fit as you can be. It's really nice to be able to backpack with Bowen on hikes. Not only do you get admiring looks from other families, the smile on his face during and after a hike is great. It really is worth getting fit enough to do this.
  • When renting cars, pre-book a child seat. There's no point carrying a child seat all over Europe if you're doing train transfers. It will just slow you down and add stress to your transfers. Just rent one as needed. The same goes for a portable crib. Don't bring one. Just buy one (30-60 EUR at most European chainstores) and discard when done. Most hotels will provide a portable crib if you ask.

To be honest, I didn't expect XiaoQin to be willing to travel with the baby this year, but our doctor told us that if you're going to do it, do it before the baby loses passive immunity from mom (somewhere around the 9-12 month mark is what our pediatrician told us). We did the trip, and baby was fairly happy through out, except for the baby jet lag, which was terrible to behold.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Review: The Story of the Giro D'Italia Volume 2

There's no doubt in anyone's mind that in recent years, the Giro has been the race to watch, rather than the Tour de France, which has tended to be boring, defensive racing. I'm not a big fan of watching bike racing, and from the start, where races were sponsored by newspapers trying to boost circulation, bike racing has always belonged to the written medium. Bill McGann's series, The Story of the Tour De France (Vol 1, Vol 2), and Volume 1 of the Story of the Giro D'Italia proudly belong in this category.

In addition to being an account of the races, it's also an account of the history of doping and drug controls in the sport of cycling:
I spoke to a mechanic who traveled with a top-flight Spanish pro team in the mid-1990s. What he saw frightened him. The racers slept with heart-rate monitors hooked up to alarms. If a sleeping rider’s pulse fell below a certain rate, the alarm went off, the rider was awakened, given aspirin and a saline injection to thin the blood and put on a trainer to get his heart rate up and blood flowing. This was clearly dangerous stuff at the doses racers were using and everyone knew it, but it had a gigantic payoff to the talented and lucky user. As La Gazzetta put it, there was a change in the hierarchy of some teams: the doctor was now more important than the director. (Loc. 1846-50 )

The author does not refrain from speculation about who might have doped and when, and it adds to the entertainment.

Recommended for cycling fans, but read Volume 1 first.

Review: Search Inside Yourself

It's a truism in teaching that the people most in need of the class never show up to class, while the diligent students who don't need to show up for class do so anyway. Search Inside Yourself is remarkable in that while a book in itself wouldn't generally be read by the angry, unreflective people who really need it, Meng managed to get Google to set up a class that would be attended by such people.

While reading the book, I'm struck by how much work meditation is. I'm blessed with a happy nature, so I've never actually needed to meditate. In my younger days, when I was hot-tempered, the section in the book on how to create a gap between stimulus and response would have been helpful, but I found that section in Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and then discovered that aging naturally gave me the calmness I needed to control my emotions.

Or so I thought. After reading this book, however, I realized that my thousands of hours riding a bike was equivalent to all of the exercises described in this book. The focus on the now, for instance is required on a bike. And of course mindful breathing is what every cyclist who climbs mountains has to do. And of course, flow comes naturally to any cyclist who's ever enjoyed cycling on a lonely road.

But most people are not as lucky as I am. I know people who can't start or hold on to an exercise program even to save their lives, let alone just improve their mood. Those people would do well to read this book. On the other hand, this book misses a lot of the many practical tips that I think would be useful for most people. For instance, while meditation could help you control your anger and frustration on your long commute, I would consider it better to lose the need to meditate by living closer to work instead. Meng, understandably doesn't cover these important practical tips, which I consider far more useful for most people, because he's wise enough to live close to work.

While I don't consider the book a waste of time, I found myself thinking that Meng's assumption that exercise and meditation are separate to be false, and that for many people, happiness can be found in something as simple as hiking or cycling. Nevertheless, for those who can't (or won't) start cycling or hiking, this book holds hope that just sitting still could also provide similar benefits. I can recommend this book for those people.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Review: Delta Airlines/Air France

We flew this time on Air France because it offered a directly flight from SFO to CDG. With a kid in tow, I did not want to mess about with connections as much as possible. Flying 3 legs in total during the trip (SFO->CDG, CDG->VIE, CDG->SFO), we had a total of 3 pieces of luggage lost. In particular, when they lost the stroller, they also lost the seat cushion, which was velcro'd onto the seat. This requires substantial force to remove, so I have no idea what happened.

In any case, from talking to my brother who flies a lot. He claims that the problem is not Air France per se, but CDG, which is an airport notorious for losing baggage. If this was all, I'd be forgiving. But Air France has serious problems with their reservation and seat management system. Both on the outbound and inbound flights, they messed with our seat assignments. On the outbound, at least we got XiaoQin a seat with a bassinet. On the return though we got assigned seats without a bassinet, and had to wrangle an exchange to get one. On the outbound, we got loads of baby food. On the inbound, we got nothing. It was ridiculous. It's one thing for this to happen if we were the kind of people who show up late and forget to ask for a bassinet, but we asked 3 times!

All in all, we got everything resolved, but I kept missing United Airline's customer service. I don't be flying Air France again any time soon, and certainly not through CDG.

Bordeaux, Argeles Sur Mer, and Cahon

My brothers went to Bordeaux and came back raving about it, so we planned a trip to Bordeaux. XiaoQin hadn't been to the Mediterranean either, so we decided to tack that on, especially when found us a discounted hotel at a really good price.
From Europe 2012 Selects
I'd stayed in Bordeaux at the start of the 2008 Tour Across France, but it was only a stopover before starting our tour, so I didn't pay much attention. This time though, it would prove to be the only time that XiaoQin and I would manage to get to a gastronomic restaurant in France. Unfortunately, we arrived on a Sunday, when most of the restaurants were closed, but we managed to book a place at Solena, and we were blown away by the meal. At 39 Euros a person, we got a 3 course meal where everything was cooked superbly. It's a very small restaurant and an intimate dining experience, but I can highly recommend it.

The next day, we took a city tour and looked around for food and found a nice seafood restaurant that XiaoQin had spotted earlier in the day.

This was my first time driving on French freeways, which was occasionally a frustrating experience, but also frequently set up more sensibly than American freeways. For instance, speed limits are enforced by traffic cameras, rather than cops chasing you down to give you a ticket. Now this means nothing if the cameras are randomly placed, but what happens is that the location of the speed cameras are well known, and most GPS units will tell you where they are. This is a sensible way to do things if your goal is to keep everyone safe: what you do is to place the speed limit cameras at dangerous locations so people slow down. The dark side of French freeways is that the toll booths are annoyingly placed, and not all of them take credit cards, so you have to carry quite a bit of cash just in case. Near Argeles-Sur-Mer, the freeway switched between 130 and 110 speed limits a few times, and unfortunately, one of those times confused me and I ended up with a speeding ticket (that was also unfortunately addressed to my host, something we cleared up once we got home).
From Europe 2012 Selects
I'd never been to Cote Vermille in the summer, and it's a good thing. The beaches were packed. What's worse is by around 1pm, the sand is scorching hot, burning your feet! We spent a couple of mornings at the beach, each time packing up by around 2pm to avoid the worst of the heat. We also visited Colliure, and rented kayaks for a little bit.
From Europe 2012 Selects
After a few days at the beach, we drove home, stopping in Cahon for a night before returning to Chinon. We had one last day in Chinon, where we rented a Canoe and paddled down river. The slow moving river lent a lazy feeling to the trip.

The return to Paris was uneventful, though unfortunately the airline lost half our luggage on the flight back to San Francisco. Fortunately, both pieces were eventually found and returned to us.

Chinon and the Loire Valley

From Europe 2012 Selects
We arrived in Chinon in time to get ourselves set up at the apartment, shop for a baby bed, and still have time to watch the sunset. Once we got settled in, we rented nice road bikes from Detours de Loire. "Nice" is a relative term, since the alternatives were clunky cruisers and hybrid Trek bikes. Upon getting it back, I took the bike for a spin down to Montsoreau, marked on one of the bike maps as one of the prettiest villages in France.
From Europe 2012 Selects
Cycling in the Loire valley is boring. It's almost dead flat, with a strong wind that blows up the river. In fact, in the old days, the Loire flat-bottomed boats would raise the sails to go up the river, and then drop the sails in order to get down river. Hence, if you're a cyclist, you are advised to plan your tour up the river. Ina ny case, the bike paths are pretty straight, well-marked, and would go on for miles and miles with the same scenery. So you might have a forest path, and you'd see nothing but forest for quite a while. In between, you might see a sunflower field, or a corn or wheat field, but that's it. And then there are the chateaus, which serve to break up the scenery a bit, but even XiaoQin, who isn't as spoiled by gorgeous scenery as I am found the riding monotonous after a while.
From Europe 2012 Selects
One of the best things about Simon's apartment was that it overlooks the fortress in Chinon as you can see above. This really came into play on Bastille day, when people would line up from 6pm so they could get good seats for the fireworks display, which would start at 11pm! Whatever else you can say about the French, they did amazing things with the fireworks display, making full use of the river (they even had fireworks launched from boats), music, and of course the fortress, which at one point they managed to light up so that it looked like it was burning.
We visited a number of Chateaus, since you could hardly be in the area and not do so. My choice was Parc Da Vinci, which was the last place Leonardo Da Vinci lived in before he died.
From Europe 2012 Selects
Over all, though, the best chateau to visit was probably Chenonceau, which was a chateau built over a bridge across a river. With a fairly rich history and the opportunity to paddle around the river exploring the castle from below, it was fairly good value for money and you could spend the entire day there. We also visited Chateau D'Usse, L'Abbey Fontrevaud
From Europe 2012 Selects
While cycling around, I noticed signs for various concerts in Montsoreau. One concert caught my eye and the timing worked out nicely for us. It would feature music by Rachmaninoff, which sounded good to me. The old churches in Europe have excellent sound, and I've never been disappointed whenever I attended a concert held in one of them. I wasn't disappointed this time either.
All in all, we had a good time in Chinon. It's a beautiful area and worth 3-4 days of your time. A week, however, might be too much unless you're a wine and chateau aficionado. For cycling, I would not recommend a visit unless you are very out of shape or more interested in chateaus and wine than in actually finding beautiful places to ride. If you do ride in the area, stay away from the bike path: the country roads while frequently filled with annoying traffic are also more scenic than the bike paths.
From Europe 2012 Selects

Thursday, August 16, 2012


We took the train from Interlaken Ost to Basel, and then in Basel caught the TGV to Paris. The TGV in 2nd class was definitely a cattle-class. There wasn't nearly enough room for all the passengers to have a couple of luggage cases. People were sitting in the stairwells, in the aisle between cars. The reason why we had a 2nd class ticket for this leg was that all the first class seats for the Eurail passes were already taken. Given how packed the train was, I shouldn't have been surprised.
From Europe 2012 Selects
In Paris, XiaoQin's parents met us at the apartment, which relieved XiaoQin and I of childcare duties, but also added to our burden: neither of her parents spoke English or French, which meant that we had to arrange all the logistics of the trip and manage them as well. None of them could handle the baby backpack carrier as well, and given that the Parisian metro is much less stroller friendly than the Vienna U-Bahn, I would end up carrying Bowen whenever he needed to be in the carrier. Since the grandparents hadn't seen him for a while, they were however quite eager to carry him, so they snatched him away from the carrier as often as they could.
From Europe 2012 Selects
Bad weather in the Alps means relatively cool weather in Paris, so we lucked out there. We visited the Eiffel, the Musee D'Orsay, the Notre Dame, and took a boat tour. The piece of bad luck we had, however, was that no matter how hard I tried to find gourmet restaurants, things never worked out. We went to L'Ami Jean, for instance, but it was closed the one day we went there. Another restaurant was fully booked by the time we showed up. And one restaurant we called unbeknownst to us until showed up had shut down and another restaurant had taken its place. XiaoQin was very bummed, and so was I. But c'est la vie, as they say.
From Europe 2012 Selects
We met up with the couple we were exchanging homes with in Chinon, and traded phones and keys. Well, they gave us keys, but since our home has Schlage Keypad Locks, we just gave them a code. I can't recommend those enough if you're going to do home exchanges or even AirBnB rentals.

The departure from Paris was an involved affair. Since the stroller couldn't get onto the metro but could take the bus, we ended up taking the bus to Gare Montparnasse, which took an hour and a half. We were also to discover later an unpleasant surprise: our land lady on AirBnB had unreasonable expectations of cleanliness, and would hit us with a cleaning charge for what would have taken us 5 minutes to clean up if she'd bothered to talk to us before we left. I was definitely learning to hate Paris, and would hate it even more when we departed through the airport several weeks later.



We took the train from Vienna to Bludenz, and then from Bludenz to Zurich, Zurich to Luzern, and then Luzern to Meiringen. This was my first time using the rail pass, and the process was more involved than I thought. First, you validate the rail pass at the opening train station. This requires lining up at the train station ticket counter even though you actually aren't going to buy train tickets. Fortunately, I allocated an extra hour or so as standing in line took far longer than I thought it would: 20 minutes. You have to show the passports attached to the rail pass to validate it, and once you've got it validated you have to fill in the dates when you use it, as well as the trains you're actually taking.
From Europe 2012 Selects
With all that settled, we got onto the train into the first class compartment. In my past adventures in Europe, I'd never paid for first class tickets, but with a child and a wife in tow, I figured the minimal extra expense was worth it. The nice thing about first class is that most Europeans think like me, so they never bother paying extra and so you have a lot of room to yourself as a result. And the staff is also more free. So much so that the staff members started playing with Bowen! We would later discover in Switzerland that all the other passengers in first class were also rail pass users from the US. This explains why when I was in Munich, I never met anyone who bought first class tickets on a regular basis: it's the foreigners who use it!
From Europe 2012 Selects
Alas, we arrived in Rosenlaui in the middle of a storm, which meant that our time in Rosenlaui was mostly spent indoors, or in the town of Meiringen, or in Grindelwald. In a fit of optimism, I bought a Berner Oberland Regional Pass for both XiaoQin and I, betting that over the next 14 days we'd find 5 good days on which to use it.

Rosenlaui is always gorgeous, and I've recommended this place to many people, but most people are too unadventurous to visit. For one thing, the rooms don't have ensuite toilets or baths, so all bathrooms, and toilets are shared for each floor of the hotel. What those people are missing is the amazing four course dinners that Andreas prepare, and the amazing service that Christine will provide: you're not staying at a faceless hotel chain, you checkin directly with the owners and they care, deeply about you as a person. For instance, when Tracy's flight was delayed and she missed the last bus from Meiringen to Rosenlaui, Christine sent a Taxi to pick her up at 9pm. When we were running out of diapers because Tracy's baggage with the extra diapers were lost, Christine had the post bus bring up diapers for us! I rarely repeat the same trip year after year, but Rosenlaui is for me a must-do when I visit Switzerland. (You won't find it in Lonely Planet or Rick Steve's, so the place has very few Americans)
From Europe 2012 Selects
For the first time this year, I stayed at Rosenlaui on a Tuesday night, when they had a special music night. After 3 days of rain, the sun finally came out on the day we had to leave to transfer to Murren. Since the weather was clear, we took advantage of the rail pass to go up Kleine Scheidegg (rather than the boring Meiringen/Interlaken route). Neither XiaoQin nor Tracy had been up to Jungfraujoch before, so they bought tickets to that train station. I would go with them to Kleine Scheidegg, but I had plans to take Bowen hiking instead. Cynthia and Kekoa had decided to hike around First instead, so got off the bus at Grosse Scheidegg with their backpacks.
From Europe 2012 Selects
If you ever want attention, hike a mountain trip with your baby on your backpack. First of all, Bowen was just as happy to be out and about after being cooped up for days. Secondly, he smiles at everyone, and so groups of hikers going the other way would stop to say, "Wow, that is the cutest baby we've ever seen." I don't know whether it's because they hardly ever see Chinese babies in Switzerland, or whether the good weather after 3 days of rain put everyone in such a good mood. At the end of the hike, I took the gondola down to Wengen, and then hopped back up to Kleine Scheidegg in time to meet up with everyone else and then take the train to Murren.
From Europe 2012 Selects
I was last in Murren in 2008, and the memories of the beautiful area near it always haunted me enough to jump at the chance to come back. I was not disappointed. Over the next few days, we hiked several trails, and even XiaoQin was impressed by the fields of wildflowers and beautiful, easy hiking.
From Europe 2012 Selects
About the only place in the world with better hiking would be the Coast to Coast in England, and that's only because I'm insane and enjoy getting lost. One consequence of buying the regional pass is that we felt obligated to use it, and use it on the expensive trains in the area. Fortunately, I already had a list of recommendations from Jobst Brandt about which steam trains are particularly great to ride on.
From Europe 2012 Selects
First was also included, so I took XiaoQin and Bowen hiking over to Bachalpsee, which was as pretty as I remembered. I also tried the First Flyer, which was a zip-line type flyer between one gondola station and another. That was a bit short but I guess it was worth it, since I'd never think to do it the rest of the time.
From Europe 2012 Selects
The Brienzer Rothorn on the old-fashioned steam train was also a lot of fun, though it was hazy the day we visited so we did not always have the clearest views. Nevertheless, it looked like the hike would be quite easy and pleasant if we had had the time. Unfortunately, traveling with Bowen mean that we couldn't always quite catch the earliest trains up or risk missing the last train down.
From Europe 2012 Selects
I would be remiss if I did not mention the daily, gorgeous views from Chalet Boeb's in Murren. I could and did stare out the window for hours, especially when it rained, since whenever it rained, since that created waterfalls that put anything you could see in North America to shame.
From Europe 2012 Selects
By far the prettiest of the expensive trains was the ride from Wilderswil up to Schynige Platte. From Schynige Platte, we had not just classic views of the mountains, but a complete panorama of the Thunsee and Brienzersee, which were the two lakes that the well-known town of Interlaken straddles.
From Europe 2012 Selects
The short Panorama trail was so pretty that it inspired XiaoQin to declare that she would like to come back and do the 6 hour hike from Schynige Platte to First some day.

The only trip that we thought wasn't worth it was the trip up Harder Kulm, but the reality is, even for XiaoQin, Murren was so pretty that she thought she would like to come back and repeat the visit and do more hiking. As for myself, I'm still missing the hikes I wanted to do last time, so it's definitely on my list. 15 days just isn't long enough in a place as beautiful (though expensive) as Switzerland. Nevertheless, given a choice between cycling and hiking, I know which option I would choose.

Cynthia's Trip Report for Switzerland



Eva, who rented us the apartment in Vienna, offered to let us visit her in Hungary for a traditional meal in Tata, where she lived, which was also close to Budapest, so we opted for a 3 night stay. I rented a car at the central station in Vienna, which came with a car seat. Baby car seats in Europe in general don't seem to be built as sturdy as the ones I've seen in the US, and people seem to have a cavalier approach to them: our taxi driver, for instance, said it was OK for mom to just take the baby out of the car seat and hold the baby if he was crying.
From Europe 2012 Selects
It was incredibly warm as we drove to Hungary, and by the time we got to the Tata hotel, we were ready for ice cream. This was Bowen's first experience with ice cream, and of course he loved it. From then on, we could no longer eat ice cream in front of him without him clamoring for it.
From Europe 2012 Selects
Eva's house turned out to be a gorgeous home they built themselves set into a hill-side. All around us were quiet, pastoral farmland, and it was a relief to be away from the big city of Vienna. The family was planning to move into Vienna in a while, however, because the schools there were better.
From Europe 2012 Selects
Eva had twins, and the daughter, Sara, loved playing with Bowen and gave him lots of toys as well. As with typical of many Europeans, by the age of 6, she spoke English, French, German and Hungarian!
From Europe 2012 Selects
The next day, we visited Budapest by car, where we visited the town center, the hero's square, and other scenic areas. Our impression of Budapest was that not only was it cheap even relative to Austria, the food was quite excellent. What we would have to pay 15 Euros for in Austria we would pay half in Hungary and we would get better food. Our friends, however, told us that the Danube river bike path from Vienna to Budapest uses busy roads rather than dedicated bike paths, and advised us to end such a tour in Vienna if possible.
From Europe 2012 Selects
We spent our last day in Hungary visiting the Hilltop Winery. It had the prettiest and most cleanest pool we'd seen, as well as excellent food. By the time it cooled off enough, we went back to town and rented bikes, turned the Chariot into a bike trailer, and towed Bowen around lake Tata.

My thoughts about Hungary is that it's definitely worth a visit if you're visiting Vienna anyway, and very much worth the 3 days we spent there.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Eva's apartment turned out to be at the outskirts of Vienna, away from any U-Bahn station, but with a tram line serving the big street that was 20 minutes walk from the apartment. The tram ran every 6-7 minutes, but unfortunately, it was impossible to predict how often the modern tram would run, versus the old-style one. The baby backpack would pose no problem on the old trams, but the Chariot required the new style tram. Once we connected to the U-Bahn, the entire city would be easily accessible, so it was no big deal. Unlike an U-Bahn station, however, the trams don't sell tickets, so you'd have to buy them from a tobacco-shop or train station before you tried to use them. In reality, if you screw up and forget to buy the ticket, it's unlikely that you'll be checked: I never saw a conductor during our stay in Vienna.
From Europe 2012 Selects
We visited the near by Lainzer Tiergarten. It's huge, including restaurants, playgrounds, and there was no way we could walk all of it. Downtown Vienna looked a lot like other big cities, and I found it unremarkable. We did find time to attend a concert, but discovered that the city's music hall and the tourist concerts are completely different. That's not a bad thing: if you're not a classical music fan, the challenging pieces are less interesting than what the tourist concerts get you. These musicians pretty much play every day and so are quite practiced. On the other hand, if you want true classical music, you'll want to do your research and buy tickets in advance.
From Europe 2012 Selects
We visited Schloss Schonbrunn, which was close to where we stayed, and adjacent to the zoo. We also visited the Hofburg, which shared a ticket with the Schonbrunn. While the gardens were beautiful, the days were extremely warm, so we could not spend too much time inside. The indoor museums, unfortunately, were also not air conditioned, and while better than being outside, after a while would also get very stuffy.
From Europe 2012 Selects
By the time we got around to visiting Schloss Belvedere, we were pretty much museum'd out, and chose to spend our time walking around outside enjoying the gardens rather than visiting the inside. We thought about doing a Danube river tour, but the reviews were so poor that we thought better of it.

My impressions overall of Vienna is that it's a nice town, but much smaller than Munich and with less variety. On the other hand, it's quite a lot cheaper, and has easy access to Hungary. We did find what our taxi driver claimed was the best ice cream shop in Vienna: the gelato at Schwendenplatz. With the delicious Hazelnut ice cream, it was excellent and worth multiple visits, especially if visiting Vienna during the warm days of summer.


We flew on June 13th from San Francisco, flying through Charles De Gaulle before landing in Austria. Air France screwed up twice: first, it split XiaoQin and I in the seat assignments, which was fortunately rectified when one woman gave up her seat so that the two of us could sit together and take care of the baby. Secondly, they lost our stroller in Charles De Gaulle, which meant that we were forced to take the taxi to the apartment we rented, since there was no way to carry our two backpacks plus the baby onto the train easily.
From Europe 2012 Selects
Upon arrival at our rental apartment, our host, Eva met us and gave us the keys and an overview of the apartment. We were too tired to cook, but fortunately we had arranged (with Eva's help) for a baby sitter, Zsanett, who took care of Bowen while XiaoQin and I went and grabbed dinner at the local restaurant which Eva recommended (which turned out to be a Chinese buffet place, common all over Austria).

When we got back, Bowen was asleep, so we managed to get a shower and then turn ourselves in. But of course, we were all jet-lagged, including poor Bowen, so he woke up during the night and had a hard time going back to sleep afterwards, a pattern that would recur for a few days.

Europe 2012

Europe 2012 Selects

We just got back from a 6 week trip in Europe. Unlike previous years, this was not a cycling-oriented trip. We visited Vienna, Hungary, Switzerland and Paris. It was my first time traveling with the baby, and my first time using the rail passes. It was also our very first home exchange.

6 weeks of city-oriented traveling would be incredibly boring for me to describe (and for you to read), so rather than my usual day-by-day trip report, I intend to provide a high level summary to give you a taste of what it's like. As usual, this would be the index page that collects the various trip segments together.

Stay tuned over the next few days for the detailed segments.

Cynthia wrote a report about her trip around the same time to Switzerland.

Trip Report

Review: Existence

Existence is David Brin's latest science fiction novel. While Brin's best known for his UpLift novels, this time he returns to a more relativistic universe in the near future, where FTL travel is not possible (or rather, not known to be possible, which is the current state of affairs in physics), but still aims to resolve the Fermi Paradox, which is: if we're not alone in the universe, why the heck haven't we heard from Alien civilizations?

Brin postulates that if interstellar warp travel was not possible, that the cheapest way for alien contact is through spam. Yes, spam: the interstellar equivalent of the special offers you receive continually in your e-mail. The reason is that while continually broadcasting information is power hungry and expensive (and unlikely to survive the end of your civilization), solid state information storage that's encased in a protective slab (say, an asteroid) can survive for eons, consumes next to no power while in transit, and is infinitely patient, able to survive in orbit around a sun while civilization develops.

The story starts with the discovery of such a carrier, which then leads to a sequence of events which reveals competition with spam, Von Neumann probes, Berserkers, Seeders, Seekers, and answers to why we have yet to meet another alien civilization.

As side plots, we have a science fiction author who's trying to help return us to the days of aristocracy (along with a few pokes at the current 1%ers who've successfully taken over the Republican party), an enterprising reporter whose adept use of SmartMobs managers to thwart a terrorist plot, and of course, the alien message carriers themselves.

One weakness of the book is incoherence. Many threads tie together and then are largely abandoned once they've fulfilled their purposes. As with many science fiction authors, Brin is not great at character development or even writing compelling characters and dialog, and in this novel, those flaws become even more obvious.

While this book wasn't a complete waste of time and worth the time to read, I think it could have been much shorter (as in 50% shorter) and still gotten everything said. Brin has great ideas and an expansive list of interests, so he crams everything he enjoys into the book (there's even a reference to his Uplift novels, but that reference is lost by the middle of the book!), but in the end, one ends the book feeling a bit let down.

I'm a fan of David Brin's blog, but I can't help but wish he'd written another Kiln People, even if he won't give us another Uplift Nove for a while.

Mildly recommended.

Weird Al at the Mountain Winery

Weird Al at the Mountain Winery
Xiaoqin told me that she'd never been to the mountain winery for a concert, so I resolved to take her, as it's one of my favorite venues in the Bay Area for one. (The other nice places are Villa Montalvo, the Warfield Theater, the Orpheum, and the Greek Theater) When I looked at the concert schedule, I saw that Weird Al was playing. How could any self-respecting geek not take his wife to a Weird Al concert?!

Attendance was surprisingly light, with only about 75% of the theater filled. But the show far exceeded my expectations. Weird Al has got to be the most hardworking performer I've ever seen on stage: nearly every song had its own stage setup, its own costume(s), and an accompanying video. The stage setup between songs would have been boring to sit through, except that he also had videos designed to entertain you between songs, as well as videos that would introduce the song or set it up for the audience.

I'm not up to date with all his song parodies, but highlights were: "Smells like Nirvana", "I bought it on Ebay", "Eat it", "Amish Paradise", "Craigslist", "I'm Fat", and the encore was the Star Wars themed, "The Saga Begins", and "Yoda."

It was a lot of fun, and I laughed hard throughout the show. Highly Recommended

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Review: Quiet - The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

I'm always suspicious of books that stereotype people. Quiet did not get off to a good start with me. For one thing, it's definition of introverts lacks substance, and pretty much boils down to: "If you feel like you're one, then you're one." It even describes Guy Kawasaki as an introvert, and having met the man, I'm pretty sure he's not much of one, if at all. (Do I consider myself an introvert? I don't usually need down time from interacting with people, but I also prefer small gatherings to large parties. And I'm definitely not shy)

Luckily, the book gets better from there. It explores the difference between temperament and personality, and then dives into how introvert's brains are different. From there, it explores how introversion can be spotted even at 4 months (introverted babies are sensitive and therefore react highly to new things shown to them). It then discusses Asian culture, which is much more introvert-oriented than Western culture, and then discusses how introverts cope with the broader world, including coping strategies for work, and coping strategies with partners.

The subtitle of the book is "The Power of Introverts", and in many places in the book, Susan Cain describes how the introverts' form of thinking is superior: they understand more deeply, work well alone, and don't sprout nonsense. I'm reminded of a friend of mine who complained at Cal about how Western people ask stupid questions in class --- questions they could have answered themselves if they'd actually bothered to read and learn the material. This introverted man went on to become one of the most successful people in the business, but even then everyone knew how smart he was.

The discussion of coping strategies, however, show how painful a true introvert's life appears to be: there's the need to withdraw from people, to spend time relaxing at home, as opposed to doing things in the world. I'm not sure Susan Cain is helping the introverts' case with these description of coping strategies. On the other hand, the section on how couples where one's an introvert and another's an extrovert rings true: the extrovert gets angry, which makes the introvert withdraws, which makes the extrovert even angrier as she thinks that the introvert's shutting her out. This chapter of the book should probably be required reading for couples of mixed temperaments.

The most heart-breaking chapter is the one on parenting. She shows one case study where extroverted parents are determined to fix their introverted son. She also shows another case where the extroverted parent is accepting of the introverted child, but does not provide statistics or studies about how common that is. Certainly, American culture celebrates extroversion and outspoken-ness, and frequently people with "high leadership skills" exude poor judgement because they don't seek feedback from the deep-thinkers but surround themselves with extroverts who'll agree with the leaders.

In any case, while I don't like how the book doesn't have a good definition of introversion, and frequently provides only anecdotes with no statistics to back it up, it's good reading and the science seems solid. Mildly recommended.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Price of Free Advice

I've been running my Negotiation Services for quite some time now, and it's been very interesting (and rewarding emotionally) to help engineers raise their compensation when negotiating with startups or even large corporations. It turns out that while sales types, managers, and product types negotiate almost all the time, engineers do not negotiate as a matter of course, and I truly add quite a bit of value to engineers who call me.

One interesting thing I've noticed is that there's a certain group of people who call me or ask me informally for advice, either as long-time acquaintances or friends. I don't feel good about charging these people, so I usually just provide advice for free. However, what I've noticed is that these free advisees by and large do much worse than the people who pay for my services up front. Given that I by and large provide the same advice either way, I attribute the difference to two factors:
  1. Those who don't pay feel bad about interrupting me and hence don't ask as many questions or talk to me at as many critical junctures during their negotiation process. By contrast, the people who do pay call or send me e-mail after every interaction with the corporations they are negotiating with. The ability to provide feedback and response in nearly real time helps a lot.
  2. People who pay for my advise are much more likely to take it! This is huge. Taking half my advise is occasionally much worse than not having my advise at all. This is a lot like taking a doctor's prescriptions: don't expect great outcomes from talking to me if you're not prepared to take what I say seriously. While $360 is not a huge amount of money, it's enough that the people who pay it think hard before doing so, and then actually followup with tough action.

In any case, one thing I've definitely discovered is that I've been pricing my services too low. Almost all my clients have realized at least $5,000 worth of additional compensation due to my advice. If you could find an investment with an average ROI of 10X, you'd be jumping at any opportunity to invest. The average ROI I'm providing for most of my clients is well over 100X. The flip side of pricing my service so low is that some smart folks have realized that I'm cheaper than the typical investment adviser, and so have paid me by the hour to do that sort of work. Well, that's not really why I set up my business, so I'm going to try to curtail that.

As a result, I'm raising my price to $1,000 per hour. This is still a bargain for those job hunters, but is no longer a screaming deal compared to an hourly financial adviser. If you're an existing customer, I'll grandfather you in at the old $360 rate provided you pay me at least this much every year (i.e., keep me current with regards to what's going on). Obviously, if $1,000 still feels like a bargain to you feel free to pay me at my new rates.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Long Term Review: Kelty FC 3.0 Child Carrier

I reviewed the Kelty FC 3.0 just before leaving on a 6 week trip of Europe. On the trip, we had our Chariot Cougar as well.

The Kelty FC 3.0 has been nothing short of amazing, out perform the cougar in every respect. First of all, it's compact compared to the cougar. That meant I could carry Bowen on and off trains, trams, buses, and any transport option. Using the stroller, by comparison, meant that in Vienna we had to wait for the disabled-compatible trams, which came on an unpredictable schedule compared to the regular trams. It also took up less space during rush hour.

Obviously, on hiking trails and the mountain trains in Switzerland, there was no choice but to bring the Kelty. Others have suggested the Ergo Baby as an alternative, but here's the thing about the Ergo Baby: it only carriers the baby. The Kelty will carry diapers, formula, disposable wipes, toys, pillows, your wallet, cell phone, keys, and other items as well! I frequently hung a water bottle on a carabiner on the Kelty for the long hikes.

I'll admit that the Kelty ends up being heavier as a result of all the stuff I put into it. However, it meant that I could relieve XiaoQin of a lot of the stuff she would otherwise have to carry, and the carrier also acted as a central point of carriage for all things baby, so I rarely had to hunt around for stuff that the baby needed. As a result, I was always organized. The various compartments are also well designed, with the top compartments with pockets that were perfect for holding the milk bottles upright.

Most important of all, Bowen loved the carrier. Midway through the trip, he started protesting about being put into the stroller/trailer for any reason whatsoever: he'd gotten used to being up high and being able to interact with people at eye level, especially when using public transit. He could reach out, play with people, make eye contact with strangers, and interact in a way he wasn't able to do in the stroller.

Finally, lugging around 17 pounds of baby, 6 pounds of backpack, and another 10 pounds of miscellaneous stuff definitely made me workout. It's definitely all the weight bearing exercise my doctor ordered and then some. I definitely became fitter as a result.

All in all, the carrier is highly recommended and came through long term daily use with flying colors. Before the trip, I did discover that the instance of the carrier I had slipped the hip belt every so often with the baby in it. Fortunately, I'd bought the pack from REI, so a visit to the store and an exchange later, I had an instance that did not have the problem. If I had the trip to do all over again, I'd leave the stroller behind (and buy cheap strollers whenever I needed them), and just bring the backpack stroller.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Review: REI Flash 18 backpack

I walked into the REI store and asked for the lightest weight daypack they had. I was very surprised to discover that it was an REI product, the Flash 18. REI's well known for having fantastic customer service and a nearly lifetime warranty, so in the past their products have always been on the heavy side.

This pack is light and collapses very nicely. So much so that it can fit inside another pack or suitcase and take up next to no room. You can even fold it inside out, remove the foam backing, and thus use it as a stuff sack if you were so inclined. It even features a bladder pouch so that you can drop in a hydration bladder and not have to carry water bottles. For Europe, I didn't bother with a hydration bladder (no way to keep those from gunking up on a long trip), but the back of the backpack has a row of loops so I could hang a carabiner with a water bottle attached to it.

Inside, the backpack features one zippered pocket, and one velcro'd pocket where there's a foam backing in case you stuff the backpack with something sharp and it wants to poke you in the back. The velcro pocket is useful for stuffing big long items like envelopes or pieces of paper. The entire shebang is closed by a drawstring loop enclosure, which is the weakest piece of the entire bag: it frequently jams, and when it jams you have to take your time to tug on the draw string just right so that it untangles. I expect the drawstring enclosure to be the first to fail on this backkpack.

In daily use, the backpack excels. You have to think about it when you put items in, since everything is mostly in one big chamber. But I had no hesitation about putting our valuable documents like rail passes, passports, etc. into the drawstring enclosure, and my wife didn't think twice about sticking her wallet into the zippered compartment. The backpack is essentially theft proof. It's light, and has the requisite hip-belt, sternum strap, and twin backpacks, so that no matter how heavy the load, you're not carrying it just on your back. Because it is so light and so versatile, we found ourselves using it for daily shopping on the trips.

Once home, I found myself reaching for the backpack for an unexpected reason: to run errands on the bike. Because the pack is designed so that I can hang the backpack low on my back, it's actually comfortable to use it to buy a few things and quickly get home. I'm well known for hating to wear backpacks when cycling, and that I'm willing to do so with this pack is no mean recommendation.

If you'd asked me if I'd be willing to pay $35 on a lightweight backpack 3 months ago, I would have said no way. But this pack has changed my mind. Highly Recommended.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Review: The Newlyweds

The Newlyweds belongs in that category of mainstream fiction known as the immigrant woman's narrative. It's considered an important literary art form, though unfortunately it's become so cliche that you can list the tropes as a series of checkboxes and watch the author clicks through them one at a time.

This book is a typically cliched example of the genre. The protagonist is a Bangledesh woman (about 10 years ago, it would have been a Chinese woman via Amy Tan or Maxine Kingston Hong) who marries an American engineer and comes to the USA to start a new life. There's the culture shock moments, there's the clash of religions/expectations, and there's the woman itself: she has next to no skills, and arrives penniless, and is wholly dependent on her software engineering husband. How about once in a while we get a protagonist who's capable of getting a green card all by herself for a change?!

The narrative revolves around the woman (for a change, I would also like to see someone write about the male immigrants, but I guess they're all too busy being successful software engineers for someone to bother writing about their experience), and the discovery that her husband-to-be had lied to her before the wedding. In the grand scheme of things, these are small lies, and they're lies of omission, rather than lies of commission. I've heard of much worse stories in the Asian community. But in this genre, the smallest thing can be blown up into the biggest issue, because that's how the genre works. More importantly, the book is predictable right down to the ending: at no point does the protagonist make an attempt to effect her life in a positive way, or gets over her sense that she's at the center of the universe.

Towards the end of the novel I found myself flipping pages forward out of boredom. I was not surprised that at no point did skipping entire chapters cause me to lose sight of the plot --- that's how slowly the book moves, and how many worthless digressions are woven into the story.

If you enjoy this genre, I suppose this book might be interesting to you: the author is capable of putting together decent prose, and has a good grasp of Bangladeshi life. I can't tell how authentic this is or how well the author's done her homework without putting more effort into this book than it deserves. For all others who've read at least one book in this genre, I suspect that the book will feel ridiculously familiar.

Not recommended. Go read some science fiction instead. At least that's one genre where competent women protagonists are not excluded.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Review: The Gathering Storm

The Gathering Storm is book 1 of Winston Churchill's epic 6-book fantasy novel about a war that engulfed the entire world from 1939 to 1945. The 6 volumes are enormous, each weighing in at about 800 pages, including appendices, notes, and so forth.

Wait, did I say fantasy novel? Well, if you had no knowledge of history, you might well imagine it. Here, we have an unmitigated bad guy (Hitler) who wants to take over Europe. The amount of stupidity in the back story makes many fantasy stories look like shining examples of realism. You've got a guy who repeatedly breaks his word, makes promises that later turn out to be empty, yet everyone except Churchill's immediate acquaintances bend over backwards to appease him.

Moreover, even though Churchill was in his own words, "in the political wilderness" during these years, he was still given plenty of access to defense information, enough for him to put together detailed critiques of the government's strategy when dealing with Germany and Italy. That would not be conceivable in today's political climate.

Of course, Churchill had vision and clarity far beyond many of the same period, and he provides ample documentation through his letters, writings and other forms of communication. When he describes the battles of the period, it is accompanied with diagrams, order of battle, and other detail, including diagrams of ship engagements. This is an amazing amount of detail but probably too much for non-WW2 enthusiasts. Fortunately, you can skip these details without losing sight of the over-arcing plot and insanity of the people involved at the time.

The book ends with Churchill getting to be Prime Minister. At no point does he gloat over Chamberlain's mistakes, and in fact, frequently states that Hitler under-estimated Chamberlain: once he realized he'd been had, he devoted himself to fighting the war.

One cannot read this book without coming away feeling like World War 2 could have been prevented or pre-empted with a much lower cost in lives. The context, the detail, and the perspective that Churchill provides cannot be matched. I have only a few complaints: first, the diagrams are barely readable on the Kindle edition of the book (the only version I'd consider since the paper copies are unmanageable). Secondly, the Kindle formatting loses your place at times, because there's no distinction between quotations from letters and the main text. Finally, Churchill's best speeches occur in the next volume, so if that's the only thing you're looking for, you should skip this volume.

Recommended. Even if your'e not a WW2 aficionado. At the very least, unlike George R. R. Martin's books, you know that this story eventually ends, and that Churchill won't fill a book with nothing happening.