Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Never Eat Alone

Friends and social relationships are the key to business success. You should not "hoard" friendship capital, but seek to offer people things that can help them, without expecting anything in return. You should also be willing to ask for favors from others. These key points are brought out early in the book. If it would have stopped there it would have been great. However, it rambles on for a while giving examples and all sorts of details. The additional text is not bad, but it doesn't add much to point he is making.

The Stranger

Camus. An existential work about a Frenchman in Algeria. He does what feels good. He kills a guy. He gets the death penalty. It was first written in French. It is short and easy to understand.

The History of the English Language

These lectures spend a long time covering the origins and evolution of the English language. The emphasis is on the various dialects and languages that "compete" to become standard English usage.  The attention paid to "pre-English" history is well done, and makes this one of the better histories of the language. There is also interesting discussion on some of the various dialects of English and how they grew in to being. There is, surprisingly, very little coverage of the British empire and English as a global language. However, this is somewhat of a relief, since it allows the focus to be on the language itself.

Independent BYU football

How will BYU fare as an independent footballs school?  The schedule seems fairly manageable and respectable, with a wide range of possibilities.

Will Win:
New Mexico State - They did beat New Mexico and San Jose State last year
Idaho - They did beat 5 FBS teams last year. Those teams averaged 3 wins each.
Idaho State - They are an FCS team with one win last year (against an NAIA team)
San Jose State - They won one game last year, a narrow victory over an FCS team.
Utah State- Utah State won last year. That keeps them on track for their one win per decade.

Could Win:
Hawaii - Hawaii can be tough on the islands. However, BYU has historically had no problem there.
TCU - This could play out like the last few seasons of Mountain West conference games.
UCF - UCF is traveling cross-country to Provo, which should give the Cougars the advantage.
Utah - This is the rivalry game coming off of Utah's visit to USC (and BYU's trip to Texas.) Utah has the next week off, but BYU has the game at home.
Oregon State - This comes in the middle of OSU's conference play. The Beaver's next game is Washington State, while the Cougars follow with Idaho State. Both teams should be focussed here.
Texas - They are coming off of a bad year, and may be beatable. However, Rice should enable the Longhorms to get their opening day jitters out; and with the following games at UCLA and Iowa State, Texas is not likely to overlook BYU.
Mississippi - This is the first game for both teams. Mississippi is coming off of a mediocre year. However, the net games are vs Southern Illinois and at Vanderbilt, so this could by their early season focus. BYU may be caught looking towads Texas.

Worst case: An off game at Mississippi zaps their confidence causing them to lose all of their 'big' games and limp to a 5-7 record.

Best case: They go undefeated and squeak out wins over all their opponents. Hawaii wins the WAC, UCF wins CUSA, Texas wins the Big12 and Mississippi wins the SEC and Oregon State and Utah face off in the Pac-12 title game. Ohio State has the best record in the Big-10, but gets banned from the post season, leaving a two-loss team to win the championship. The ACC and Big East pummell each other as usual. BYU plays Boise State in the final BCS championship game.

Reasonable case: BYU knocks off a few of their big-time opponents to finish 10-2, and declare their first year of idependence a success.

The Selected Stories of Philip K Dick Volume 2

This collections contains the following stories:
Upon the dull earth
The short happy life of the brown oxford
Faith of our fathers
The days of perky Pat
The variable man
I hope I shall arrive soon

Many of the stories deal with a post-apocalyptic world.  The Variable Man is the longest. In it, earth is planning to use a special faster-than-light bomb to defeat some intergalatic overlords.  The leaders depend on an odds machine to calculate the chance of winning. Unfortunately, another experiment accidentally brings a man from the early 1900s to the current day. This throws the odds all out of wack. The leaders try to have him destroyed. However, the scientist in charge of bomb-making "saves" him to assist him in the effort. Unfortunately for earth, this causes the bomb to fail to detonate, and the earthlings lose the battle. Fortunately, this also unlocked the key to faster-than-light travel, and now the earthlings can span the universe.

In Perky Pat, most of the earth has been leveled, with a few people left. The adults spend all day playing a "doll" game, Perky Pat.  Some people discover that a nearby group has a different doll. They compete and win, but from that they are shunned out of town.

In Colony, a planet is seen to be perfectly benign. Then inanimate objects start to attack. A local lifeform disguises itself as these objects to then consume humans. They think that the solution is to either annihilte themselves and the planet or try to escape without any inanimate objects. Since they will be naked, they ask for an unmanned spaceship to rescue them. It comes earlier then expected and they all board. Later we hear of the real ship coming and not finding anybody.  (And we wonder - did the lifeform sneak back to earth on the ship?)

"I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon" deals with a man who cannot fall asleep during a long-distance space journey. He becomes tourmented with his childhood memories of persumed animal cruelity.

"Upon the Dull Earth", a girl is "taken" too soon. She comes back, but then consumes everyone else, destroying her universe.

In "Faith of Our Fathers", the great leader turns out to be an alien form that most people see as an old man. The main character takes an anti-hulucinatory drug to see him as who he is. It is not pleasant, and he thinks of him as good and evil.

In "The short happy life of the brown oxford", an "animator" is used to turn inanimate things alive. A shoe is turned alive, and then uses the machine to turn a girl shoe alive for it.

While the stories seem to espouse many sentiments of the time they were written. However, the stories provide some interesting fodder for thought - especially in the realm of human relationships.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Ancestral voices: Decoding Ancient languages

This book goes through some of the major "decipherments" of ancient language. It covers them in the large historical basis, with stories starting centuries ago with the first hints of the "lost language". (And it is good that they start a while back, since the book itself is a few decades old.)

The author can be verbose, with a chatty, flowery language (even though it is a rather short book.) I have read better books that cover most of the same basic matter. However, this one does go in to more detail of the "long-range" history of identifying and then cracking ancient languages.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Garage Full of Bikes

Our garage is full of bikes. Is the expense worth it?

We went many years without a car, and now have only one minivan, so for car-obsessed California, the answer would probably be yes. (In spite of having all sorts of "fancy" bikes we still haven't come close to spending as much on them as on the car.)

But are bikes the most economical way to travel?

At Stanford, biking easily beat out driving. (Even with the added expense of replacing a stolen bike.)

Cost of commuting to Stanford:
"A" parking permit: $747/year
or "C" parking permit: $291/year
Gas: ~ $4/day ~ $800/year

Thus, if there were a "freely available" car with no additional expenses (oil, maintenance, depreciation, insurance, etc.) the yearly cost to drive would be somewhere between one and two thousand dollars.

Bikes can park next to the building, while "C" permits are a 15 minute walk, and A permits can be a couple minutes walk away. A high-speed bike ride during rush hour can easily be faster than "C" parking, and even competitive with "A" parking. During off-peak times, however, driving can be faster. However, biking leaves you a bike on campus which allows for fast trips to other areas of campus (as well as journeys in to Palo Alto.)

Overall, the convenience of biking is similar (or perhaps better) than driving, with a significantly lower cost. It also provides exercise.

However, it is not the cheapest means to get to work. It requires purchasing a bike, along with maintaining it. Stanford also provides free bus and train passes. If timed right, a walk to the bus stop + bus + train + bus can be somewhat competitive with driving or biking. However, there is typically only one "fast" timing per day, with a few other "somewhat acceptable" timings. However, every few months a schedule change can change this timing (and sometimes, there is no good timing. A late bus can also throw everything off.

Thus transit is low cost, and can be comparable timewise - if you are lucky. But also provides limited options.

Now I'm working closer to home with free parking. Cost to drive to work would be around $1 per day in gas. Driving is a little faster, but not by much. (Stop signs and lights are more of the limiting factor. A fast bike ride during AM rush hour could easily be faster than driving.)

Biking's main advantage is in physical activity. In addition to biking to work, it makes it easier to go to the nearby gym (there is plenty of bike parking, but car parking can be hard to find.)

Transit would cost $4 per day and still require between 1.5-2 miles walking per day. (Or for $6/day you could get it down to less than a mile walking, but at the expense of a transfer and a much longer trip.

Walking the entire distance (without a bus) is also fairly reasonable, and only takes about as long as the drive/bike to Stanford. (But why walk if you can go faster?)

Walking would lead to shoes getting worn out faster. Biking would wear out pants faster. This would offset some of the cost savings. Add in a couple slices of bread to account for the extra calories consumed, and the cost advantage from not driving is almost totally eliminated. (The other costs from driving would probably not significantly impact costs. The extra 1000 miles driven would probably not impact insurance rates, registration costs, depreciation or maintenance.)

If I already had a car, but didn't have a bike, driving would win out in the strict monetary calculation. A decent low-cost bike well equipped for commuting (lights, fenders, rack, etc.) could cost a few hundred dollars. Add in rain gear and you are looking at years to earn back the investment.

Reverse the equation, however, and a bike really wins out. Adding a car would cost thousands of dollars in purchase cost, insurance, etc. If a bike can eliminate the need for a car, the savings pour in.

But do the bikes eliminate the need for a second car?

It would seem to be yes. However, looking at the past year, most of the trips could have been accomplished with one car and no bikes. It would, however, have required a great deal of shuttling people around and dropping then off at different places. The shuttling would result in increased gas and parking cost, and would probably be sufficiently large to have a small impact on the other costs of car ownership.

As for the few times that couldn't be solved by excessive shuttling, a rental car could probably be used. (Though this would require some advanced planning and expense.)

If we span these extra costs over a few years, we probably come close to the money we have spent on bicycles. However, bicycles are much more convenient than overloading car use.

Thus, the garage full of bikes is either a break-even proposition for a similar level of convenience, or a money saving alternative to a second car. Physical activity, exercise, easy communication and stress reduction? Well, that's the free bonus.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Martian Time Slip

Martian Time Slip is a 1960s psychological novel that happens to be set on mars. The characters have a general outlook of unlimited personal freedom, often at the expense of others. However, there is sufficient collectivism to have a self-sustaining colony on Mars. The planet was not uninhabited when the colony was founded. However, the martians are a dying race, seen as inferior, and reluctantly supported.

The primary gimmick is psychotic characters that slip into and out of this world. They cannot tell if they are experiencing reality or some altered state. However, with some, the "altered state", may in fact be reality - just at an alternate point in time. Thus, one kid is fearful of his future reality of himself in a nursing home, and retreats back to his prior reality in the womb.

A black market operator commits suicide. His primary customer decides to take over his business, while also getting involved in Martian land speculation. The predictive abilities of the kid seem to be of great worth. However, the ability also seems to be able to alter the reality. He decides he doesn't like somebody connected with the opposition inland speculation, and decides to kill him at the first instance he meets him. However, instead he gets killed. Luckily, this was an alternate reality. However, he instead gets shot by a rival black marketeer (though he thinks that it was also just an alternate reality.)

What is real, and what it not? And does it matter? If we could see the long-term impacts of our short-term advantages, would we still undertake them?

A Passage to India

Passage to India feels like "Jane Austen goes to India". Some Brits are concerned about their manners and society. There is a wedding planned, but the girl is not too enthusiastic. Then some women go on a trip to some caves, an Indian is unjustly accused of accosting a woman. He is later set free, and Indians take that as an opportunity to be more Indian.

It is clearly India from a British perspective. The pacing is rather slow, with a tone of condescending respect for the Indians. For fans of the Bronte/Jane Austen type of stuff, this would probably be a good book. For me, however, it was not my cup of tea.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A crib mattress on a bike

Today, we had crib mattress to pick up. Only problem was that is was about two and a half miles away. I tried some test fittings of a mattress using the various bike trailers. However, it didn't seem to work. Then I tried placing it on the triple.


It fit well balanced over the back two seats and handlebars. I added a rope around the mattress and a bungee cord connecting it to the seat. It seemed nice and stable, and didn't have any issues on the way back.

But, to keep things interesting, before the trip, we wanted to go drop off some cookies to some people who would be moving soon. It was about a and half miles there, plus 3 miles to the mattress pickup. And we had the matter of the cookies. And four kids that wanted to go.

The car would have been the easy way out - but nobody wanted to do that.

So, Joe tried out the middle seat of the triple. He seemed to fit, barely. The other four rode their own bikes. We had the cookies in the pannier (one plate in each.) And the trailer was attached to the back. Everyone road the first bit, then for the last two miles, Joe sat in the trailer (and had a brief nap.) Nearly 9 mile trip on little kids bikes? No problem. I think we really underestimate the riding ability of the kids.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


After struggle for a while, I finally creating my own box2d.js getting started page. I made some slight tweaks to the most recent standalone 2.1 version of box2d.js to allow it to run on IE 9 and IE 10. (The updated box2d.js is available there also.)

Box2d is a physics engine that is used to create games (like Angry Birds) as well as animations. The javascript version seems to hold a lot of promise, but good simple examples with the newest version were hard to come by. The examples are the result of a few days digging through google and examples to get a simple demo fully rendered in a single canvas.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The problem with US healthcare: childbirth

We just got a >$22,000 bill from the hospital for the birth.

The services provided:
1) A private delivery room for about 2-3 hours
2) A shared recovery room for about 36 hours
3) shared nurse service for the duration of the stay
4) some baby diapers, a water bottle, a baby outfit
5) meals

The charges don't include the services of a midwife, hearing test or the pediatrician.

The insurance company negotiated rate for this was around $3200, and our cost was another order of magnitude lower. We have this wonderful system where charges are nearly an order of magnitude greater than what is really "paid". The main "advantage" of insurance companies is that you get a real rate, instead of this sky-high rate. (Perhaps they are hoping to catch un-aware PPO patients. If a PPO paid 70% of the charges at a non-participating provider, the patient could be on the hook for over $6000 - assuming the insurance company even considered the rest to be reasonable and customary.)

Why don't hospitals actually charged the $3000 rate to normal people to everyone, instead of playing this game with insurance companies?

Even this reduced insurance company rate seems extreme.
An alternative to get the same cost (though with a much higher quality of service):
1) Two nights in a high-end luxury hotel: $1000.
2) Six meals at high-end ultra-luxury restaurants: $600
3) Private nurse: $1500
4) Very nice supplies: $100

Good luck getting the insurance company to pay for that.

A home birth would not have any of these hospital expenses. The charges for the home-birth midwife would likely be similar to the hospital midwife. Thus, the overall charges would be much cheaper than the hospital birth. However, since the "insurance" plan doesn't cover homebirths, the patient would have to pay for everything out of pocket. Thus the "cheaper" homebirth costs much more than the "expensive" hospital birth.

Don't you love the US system?

The Life of Language

This book attempts to provide a layman's guide to the evolution of words. It seems to be fairly well written, with concise chapters. There are also plenty of examples. Alas, I'd recently read a number of similar (and slightly more academic) works, so it seemed very repetitive. After a skimming a few chapters, I didn't seem to get much out of it, so it got put down.

The Man in the High Castle

The book takes place primarily in post-World War II San Francisco. Only things are a little different than the San Francisco that we know. Most critical is the fact that it is under Japanese occupation as the "Pacific States of America". The Axis had won the war and divided up the US, with the Japanese getting the west and the Germans the east, with the middle a veritable no-man's land.

The Germans had continued their technological acumen to continue to concur the world and going further to conquer the solar system. The empire even managed to survive a single change in leadership. (Though in the novel, a second leadership change seems to show the roots of the empire's undoing.) They continued their scientific and racial experiments, which unfortunately lead to the virtual annihilation of Africa.

And this is just the background where the story is set.

One of the key protagonists is a dealer in kitschy historical American memorabilia. The Japanese are obsessed with old historical American things, whether they be old Micky Mouse watches or Colt guns. Another protagonist (who is geographically separated from his wife) had been involved in the production of "fake" historical goods and is now working on machine-engineered jewelry. His wife is in Colorado, and has a run in with a nazi hit-man who is sent to destroy a "banned-in-Germany" novelist.

The novel created by the novelist provides a "counter-counter" history. In this history, the allies won the war. However, things were not quite the same as they were in the "real" history that we know. The woman ends up killing the hitman and tells the author about her experience. The author had lived with some security, but now decides that he will just be open and take life as it happens.

Also central to the story is the "oracle", an ancient Asian work that is used to gather omen's for the future. The oracle, in fact, had "written" the novel with the "alternate" history, and had provided various omens in the course of the novel.

The story is concerned primarily with the everyday life and worries of people in the occupied America. The prominent "officials" involved tend to have some influence, yet be outside the realm of movers and shakers. This also provides a somewhat sudden ending, with the characters just continuing on with their lives in an Axis empire that may be on the verge of collapse.

The use of a novel in a counter-historical novel provides a nice means of provided an alternate view to history. How would people have alternately constructed history if the main course was different?

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Treasure island

In spite of "knowing" much of this novel, I felt lost in narrative. I found other books like Robinson Crusoe to do a much better job in the "sailing" genre. Well, time to go to Long John Silver's and get some fish.

Big Brilliant Book of Bart Simpson

As an animated show, the Simpsons could be an ideal candidate for comic books. Here, the stories have much of the charm of the TV show. The stories share some of the biting humor of the show. The drawing style is very similar to that of the TV show. It attempts to use some of the visual humor. However, it is not quite as funny as the animated show. (And it is missing the audio component.) The stories here also seem to end on a minor "moralizing" message.

The comics are worth a quick read and chuckle, but not much more.

Mo and Jo Fighting Together Forever

Mo and Jo are constantly bickering siblings who happen to share a love for a great superhero, "Mojo". As it so happens, his secret identity is as the local mailman. He is ready to retire, so he gives his costume to the two kids. They fight over it, and eventually it breaks in two. Luckily, their Mom fixes it and transforms it in to two costumes. Mo gets the stretchy arms, while Jo gets the magnetic boots. They are still bickering. At a parade, they run in to a bad guy who is trying to spread his badness. Mo and Jo finally learn to work together and are able to defeat the bad guy.

This comic is lighthearted and humorous. Sure, they save the world, but being kid focused, the more important message is that they achieve peace with each other. The best part, however, is the stretchy plastic-man type stretchy superpower.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2

This sequel is a bit darker and more realistically animated than the original. It also features a lot more kung-fu. The plot is a tpyical kung-fu one. A panda is predicted to be the destruction of a bad guy. The bad guy tries to kill all pandas. However, our hero was left in a radish crate. he eventually finds inner peace and saves all of China.
The movie uses simple animation for telling history and back-story, while CGI animation is used for the real story. This is a nice touch I have not seen before. There are also some landscapes that look "real" rather than animated. Even though the movie was mostly set at night, the visuals are still good and visible. It also has a lot of action, but is still good for kids.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Spiderman, Hulk and Ironman

In this book, Hulk is always Hulk, though tends to be more "stupid" than mad. Hulk, Ironman and Spiderman are buddies who have a few random adventures. They babysit Cerebrus, they save the world by participating in "intergalatic xgames". Their adventures are geared towards children, and don't have the heaviness and vulgarity of modern comic books. However, they also lack some of the advanced characterization in those books. If only we could get something in between those extremes.

Skrulls vs. Power Pack

This new Power Pack series is aimed at children. This provides stories that seem more like the "classic" comic books than the edgy modern books. Power Pack are framed for a crime and hauled back to another planet to stand trial. On earth, skrull shape-shifters take their place. Eventually, their bowling buddy, Franklin Richards (son of the Fantastic 4) uses their spaceship to help rescue them. They eventually discover that those stolen treasures contain an import message that says that the defenders (and destroyers) of the universe may in fact be them.

The story was very engaging. However, the end was predictable, and not up to the caliber of the remainder of the story. There is also an additional "lite-feature" of the fantastic 4 saving the world from skrull invaders. This is drawn in a more cartoony fashion and good for a few laughs.

Dr. Carbles is Losing His Mrbles

The My Weird School series is aimed at young children, and doesn't go much beyond that audience. The principal and the school board chair are both skateboarders, though the principal still maintains his quirkiness. He is fired due to a runaway turkey. Dr. Carbles takes over and remakes the school with military discipline. However, when he finds out the former principal mentioned his toupee, he challenges him to a skateboarding duel. And who should walk in after they crash, but the county school boss, who fires Carbles and restores the superintendent.

The book is filled with puns and misheard words (including many that are repeated over and over and over again.) There are better kids books out there.

Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe was the inspiration for Bike Friday, so it must have something going for it. The story reads a lot like the Victorian adventures of Jules Verne - only Defoe wrote his work a couple centuries before Verne.

Crusoe denies the advice of his family and takes to a life at sea. He runs in to trouble but manages to come ahead. Eventually, he is the lone survivor of a shipwreck on a deserted island. He luckily is able to get some provisions from the hip and live off the bounty of the land. The bulk of the novel concerns his quarter-century adventures on the island.

Eventually he notices cannibals using the island to consume captives. He eventually chooses to rescue one, and this fins his faithful servant Friday. They later rescue Friday's father and a Spanish shipwreckee from similar fates. Eventually some English mutineers arrive. The island crew return the captain to his post and eventually exit the island.

The return to Portugal where he checks the state of his estate and eventually travels overland towards England. In this travel they have the last adventure fighting wild animals.

DeFoe spends a good deal of time in the head of his main character. His gradual increase in religious faith and optimism help him through what appear to be great challenges. Even with the heavy moralizing, the story moves at an effective pace.

Crazy English

Crazy English could make a good "bathroom book". There is almost no narrative in the book, and each short chapter stands on its own.

Many of the chapters are lists of items, or pretentious attempts at stuffing every single instance of some oddity in to a "story". There is a dialog where a person responds entirely in palindromes, and another where somebody makes all plurals "irregular". Some of these chapters can be extremely tedious, while others are worth reading. This makes it a good candidate for a quick skim.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Way With Words I: Writing, Rhetoric, and the Art of Persuasion

Way With Words

This is an introduction to rhetoric, with balanced coverage of both spoken and written communication. It starts with a brief history of rhetoric, then goes on to the "big picture" areas of organization. (It even advocated the structure of the "5 paragraph essay".) It then goes in to some details, covering logic, some tropes and scheme, and some examples of good and bad speeches.

The section on logic was easy to understand, and provided a great basis for identifying logical fallacies in arguments. The grammar section provided a balanced view of grammar rules which boiled down to "know your audience". It doesn't matter whether or not some "authority" views something as appropriate, what matters is that it will be seen as appropriate by the audience.

There was also a quick introduction to various rhetorical devices, including when to use them and when to avoid them. It left me eager to further explore the details of rhetoric.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Cat's Eye

This tedious book dealt with the childhood reminiscences of Elaine, a popular, controversial Canadian artist. She traces back her experiences growing during World War II and going to school in Toronto. Her big concern seemed to be the relationship with Cordelia, a friend who used to tease the narrator, but later had struggles of her own.

The novel occasionally bounces from the past to present, but seems to have an odd "remembering" structure. The earlier parts of life seem to be in much greater detail, while the later parts of life whiz by quickly. The narration is fairly easy to follow, and has fairly vivid pictures of post-war Toronto. Cordelia plays the role of Citizen Kane's "rosebud", representing the lost youth that is difficult to reclaim.

Elaine has had challenges in her life, never quite fitting in with groups, yet not forcing herself to be a victim, or altering her beliefs to conform to groups at any end of the spectrum. Alas, the book is slow moving, and not very engaging. The characters change, but don't seem to grow. This is not a book I would recommend.