Sunday, December 30, 2012

Information Filtering

The corporate computer world is currently all over "Big Data". Companies are collecting all kinds of data. Now they just have to have means of analyzing it in order to help their corporate mission. You can already see how some things are done now. Safeway has a "just for you" programs that offers customized discounts based on an individual's shopping habits. Staples adjusts online prices based on somebody's location and proximity to Staples and competitors' stores. And those are only the cases that get big Wall Street Journal feature articles. There are many other cases that fall under the radar.

There are also many companies struggling to figure out what to do with the data.

But what about individual people?

A few decades ago, the radio pretty much told you what you would listen to. The radio stations played the Beatles. Everyone listened to the Beatles. That was that. If you happened to live close to an indie radio station or indie record store you may get something different. Or you could really scour mail-order catalogs or friends with demo tapes. It took significant effort to find anything unique.

Today, you can turn on Spotify, Amazon, Pandora, or even iTunes and find millions of songs. Finding many obscure artists is not the problem. Filtering through the mass of obscurity is now the challenge. You almost long for the DJs to tell you what to buy.

Specialization and customization have also made things worse. If you wanted to buy a home computer in the 80s, you chose between the Commodore 64, Apple II, or Atari 800. You might have to hunt around town to try to find the best prices, but you knew what each would do. Now you can choose among windows, macs, linux, ChromeOS, Android and iOS. And then there are near infinite variations of each model. Different retailers may have different model numbers (with retailers often trying to have custom version to prevent people from "showrooming" in their store.) The information is now abundantly available. Filtering it has become a problem. (Just try to say "give me the cheapest computer with a Blue Ray, 4 GB memory and 1TB hard drive - and that doesn't even go in to processor, OS, cores, or whatnot.)

Where does this lead us? Will businesses begin to customize their consumer offerings so well that there is an individual model number for each consumer? So much for shopping around.

Even outside of retail, the information glut has a way of overtaking us. Now you can flip on the internet and catch the outcome of every college football game as it happens. There is no need to worry about which games are televised, or what scores the TV announcer feels are interesting. You get everything. You also get the polls as soon as they are available. No more waiting for the Monday paper to see how your team is doing. But, with this media dominated football, you also start to loose the gameday experience. Saturday afternoon games are becoming endangered. Local teams? Why bother. You can just get everything on TV. But, you can now trash talk with fans all over the nation right as the game is happening. You just have to find the right message board - and there are hundreds. Now just try to filter through all these to find things you really are interesting in. Maybe comment #653 on board #203. Or maybe his Twitter feed is the best place to look. Before, it might be difficult to find somebody interested in an out of town game. Now, its difficult to filter through all the garbage to find the intelligent conversation.

How do you deal with the information overload? How do you focus on what data is really needed, and filter out the garbage? In its infancy Google did a great job of showing the most relevant results. Today, the spammers and SEO-gurus are catching up and sometimes winning. A simple query may return page upon page of "junk" results. Is it time for the "new" search engine to help us finally filter through the glut?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game

Lawrence Taylor willed himself to destroy the quarterback via the blind side. This lead to a changing of the way football was played. Unfortunately, there was a limit to Taylor's willpower, and he wasn't able to will himself out of an addiction to drugs.

Michael Oher similarly exhibited strong willpower. He grew up in a broken "family" in the projects of Memphis. He was in and out of school, and bounced around from place to place, trying to avoid being taken away by child protective services. His goal was to become the next Michael Jordan. He continued to work at it, even as his body grew to enormous proportions.

Through a series of fortunate events and coincidences, he was able to attend a private, predominantly white, Christian school on the "good" side of Memphis. There he was adopted by wealthy white family who helped train him on how to navigate the wealthy, "white" world. He was also discovered by the football coach. Oher's size and speed allowed him to become the centerpiece of the team's offense. Would he have had these opportunities if he were not a great athlete? Almost certainly not. However, even if he were a great athlete, if he didn't have the support network, he would never have succeeded in sports, and would probably still be on the streets.

He was recruited by many schools, and interrogated by the NCAA for rules violations. (The dark underbelly of college athletics is well exposed.) He had to a cram in many last-minute correspondence classes to get his GPA high enough to play college football.

For many inner-city kids, sports seem to be the only way out of the projects. Yet they are caught in a catch-22 where success in sports requires you to first get "out of the projects" and perform well enough in school to play for your high school and make it to college before you can finally make it to the pros and get a paycheck. There are so many chances to fail in the process, with the best "consolation prize" often being work as a gang bouncer. Does glorification of the athlete really benefit the community as a whole?

This book does present a nice uplifting story, told primarily from the point of view of Oher's supporters. (Oher is remarkably silent in this book, though he has since written his own book.) It is clear that he was strong willpower and character, but needed some guidance and opportunity to channel it. He knew he would succeed and he did.

Pebble in the Sky

Earth is a radioactive wasteland in the netherworld of the galactic empire. However, some people think it may have been the origin of the human race. An archaeologist is going out there to try to prove his theory that it was the birthplace of humans. Coincidentally, at the same time, the earthlings are plotting to take over the universe, by sending a biological agent to kill off everyone in the galaxy. (Since earth people have evolved so quickly, they are relatively unharmed by this disease that would kill most others.) The earth people are able to do this in part due to a machine that they have created that allows people to rapidly learn and think (as long as they are not killed off first.)

And, just to make sure there is some connection to today, a tailor (Schwartz) walking around mid-20th century Chicago accidentally gets zapped some 50000+ years in to the future by some strange nuclear incident. This guy would end up being the person that helps save the galaxy.

There are plenty of obvious parallels here. Substitute Africa for "earth" and the world for the galaxy, and you could easily have been writing about contemporary events. You could even through something like AIDS in there for the disease. (The book predated AIDS, but there were plenty of other "old world" diseases that have caused problems in the world.) The moderns have spread out of the "old" world, and now see the differently-evolved old-worlders as primitive. They wonder why they stick to there old ways when there is so much new that they are missing out. At the same time, they don't want them to be too closely intertwined in the world system.

The goal of the earth people could be a commentary on Napolean, Mao or many of the other large-scale empire-builders. They often come out in the name of liberation. But in the end, they simply replace one type of despot with another.

It could even be commentary on the black-white relations in the U.S. Rather than seek
"integration", some of the "opressed" would like to become the "opressors". After all, this is the system they are used to. Somebody has to be on the bottom, right?

In addition to the geo-political slant, we also have population control and eugenics. People are supposed to be euthanized when they turn 60. The only exception is for extraordinary talents that must be approved by the high minister (without recourse to appeal.) Why this is needed with such a small earth population is not clearly explained.

With all the politics, there is still room for a story. It was a page-turner, yet surprisingly flat. Schwartz seems to discover new avenues of his powers just as he needs them. Yet, he doesn't use them to his full ability. (If he can read people's minds and force them to do things, why are people still negotiating with him?) The climatic jailing and kidnapping seems to drag out for way to long. Then, after the rockets have been supposedly been launched and the galaxy is about to be destroyed, everyone behaves nobody seems to care. So much for suspense. We just have the good guy inform us that he was secretly controlling people to go bomb the base on his own.

While the writing had much to be desired, it did create an interesting world, and posed a number of contemplative questions. It was also one of his first works, so there was plenty of time in the career for the writing to improve.

college football working right?

Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson are all rookie quarterbacks in the NFL. Luck has lead his team to a huge turnaround and a playoff appearance. Wilson is currently one of the hottest QBs and has helped push his team to the playoffs. RGIII is a rookie Pro-bowler who has his team on the cusp of the playoffs.

They are all hot-shot quarterbacks that have outplayed many of the veteran quarterbacks they have faced.

They also stayed in school longer than they had to. Luck was already considered to be the number one draft prospect before he decided to come back to finish his degree at Stanford.

Wilson and RGIII both graduated from college in three years. They both opted to stick around for graduate school rather than enter the NFL draft.

We can consider these three to be the anti-Cam Newton. They were taking full advantage of the education that could be provided in college. Rather than simply go there to play football, they were attending class also. Perhaps college football is really something more than a minor league for the NFL.


A hero fights a mean monster to help liberate a kingdom. Then, the monster's mother attacks him. He defeats her also. With this great accomplishment, he becomes king and rules for many years before taking on a dragon. He defeats the dragon, but is killed in the battle.

This sounds like a stock plot for a contemporary fantasy novel. It even has its own "language" that sounds a little like English. However, the "special language" never stops, so you end up reading the work in translation. That is the first hint that its not your typical fantasy novel. However, setting a novel up as a translation of some ancient manuscript is a fairly common device.

What really lets you know this is not something contemporary is the length. It is short. The hero, Beowulf himself, launches almost immediately in to his first major battle without the long world-building wandering that dulls modern fantasy. His other adventures also happen in quick succession, with only a brief period in the middle when he becomes ruler. Perhaps they actually had decent fantasy editors 1000 years ago. Or more likely, publishers were a tad less willing to publish 1000-page tomes when they had to copy each edition by hand.

The Old English verse is perhaps a tad easier to understand than something written in Norwegian - but not much. Thus, the for non-academic reading, a translation works well. The story is a straightforward epic, so it should not be too difficult to find a meaningful translation, whether trying to hold to the poetry or to prosify. The story is much more accessible than other long ancient works (like those of Homer). However, you have to wonder if it has any strong importance other than the fact that it is really old. (Perhaps 1000 years from now, somebody will stumble across a Robert Jordan manuscript that is the lone representative of today's literature.) For the oldest "English" novel, it takes place almost entirely in Scandinavia. (But that is where English is "from"). The story is a fun battle epic. And it is old.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dryer repair

Our dryer gradually stopped working. This time, we caved in and called the repair guy. Work is crazy busy, it has been raining a lot, and we had a bunch of wet sheets and clothes. And I had not experience with the dryer. (Had it been the summer vacation, then we could have probably made the attempt...

When I fixed the washing maching we ordered the part from and I fixed it myself. (We are now also watching the free films from the prime membership.) Total cost of the repair was under $100 for the part. Add in the prime membership, and it was less than $200 for the repair and a year's worth of videos.

This time, my wife called around for a while before she could find somebody that would come out on Monday. (The dryer broke on Thursday.) The Monday guy ended up with some space on the schedule and came Friday. So, we lucked out. They came, looked at the problem, replaced a $20 part, and gave us a bill for $200. Part + labor + service call charge.

The washing machine part was under $100 on Amazon put retails at places like Sears for around $200. It also looked like a more complex repair job. So, we would have been looking at $300-$400 for the second repair. And that would have come two months after the first repair, which would have been around $200. I think that series would have easily been enough to justify the purchase of a "low efficiency" dishwasher.

I guess this is what we get with the "iPod" generation. Stuff tends to be really cheap. Repair costs tend to be really high. So, instead of trying to get things to work better, we simply through them out and buy something new. Viva la waste. Ughh.

The Sound and the Fury

The first time I read The Sound and The Fury, my reaction was "huh?" It seemed to be nothing more than some random scenes in the life of a dysfunctional southern family. Most seemed to be in Mississippi, but some Boston scenes are popped in the middle. Then it just ended. At first I thought it ended with a murder and escape, but after going over the end again, it was just a fast moving horse. So, again, huh?

Then I started again and it seemed to make sense. There really isn't much plot. Instead we have a number of different character studies told in styles representative of their current mental states. Most is told in a first person stream-of-conscious, though the end goes in a more traditional 3rd person narrative.

The first section is told from the perspective of a "lunatic" who is living in the now, but seamlessly jumps to events in his past, without really observing that they are anything other than current. This narrative weird narrative style works pretty well. However, the quality of the narrative seemed to be a little too strong for somebody with extremely limited mental capacities. At times he seems to be a fully normal adult, but then he drops down to a random event of the mentally challenged.

The second section breaks out of Mississippi and follows the brother at school in Boston. His mind is rapidly streaming everywhere, dredging up past problems with his family as well as issues with the world in general. At times, he has straightforward recollections of his family or live discussions with fisherman. At other times, his mind goes in to hyperdrive, rapidly linking thoughts and ideas and going in every which direction without any semblance of narrative. While this section can't be quickly read like a "plotty" narrative, the stream-of-conscious is done exceptionally well.

The last sections are more straightforward, and focus more on the money-centered Jason. After going through the wild thoughts of the others, this is rather pedestrian exploration of the dysfunctional family. However, storytelling is not Faulkner's strong point. The use of different writing styles to bring out characters is where he succeeds. His work reminds me of Jasper Fforde. It is great reading, but there is no engaging story that keeps you going.

Glass Bead Game

Castalia is an "intellectual utopia" that exists here on earth a few hundred years from now. The intellectual "elect" get to spend their life studying whatever they so desire. (Many often teach - perhaps this is why the government is willing to fund them.) One of the things they do is play a "Glass Bead Game", a sort of high powered pan-intellectual event. (We hear a lot about it, but don't see many of the details.)

The novel has a few sections. It starts with a justification of the novel, which sets up the values of the futuristic society. This society is an intellectual Utopia where educational elite play the "Glass Bead Game" as a great intellectual exercise. It then proceeds to the main story, the biography of Joseph Knecht from early childhood to his rise as the glass bead master. Then, it fairly seemlessly transitions to the "well known" history of the master as he left the position and the entire "Order". After this section ends with his death, the final section of "posthumous writings of Knecht" begins. This section seems to be the author's dumping ground of earlier approaches for the story. These poems and stories contain some of the same themes as the main novel (and even have the same character), yet carry them out in different means. Did Hesse just dump his original drafts here?

It is always interesting to see "future" situations rooted so firmly in the past. In this novel's future, the Catholic church still maintains a primary position in the intellectual lives of the world. The European countries still exist pretty much as they have. But, there is also the intellectual hermit colony that the novel focuses.

Hesse's ideal world is influenced by both western and eastern thought. It also displays a high level of intellectual bigotry. The arts and creativity are heavily muted. The great masters of the past are respected, but little new output is created. The study of "music", however, is very important, and served as the root of the new "enlightenment." (Despite all the time passed, it seems the intellegencia from 17th-19th century Europe remains the focus of most people's intellectual pursuits.)

The Castalians seem to be real intellectual bigots. They look down on others (even when they say they don't). They are also highly obsessed with their own little trivialities, while not willing to respect those of others. Things like crossword puzzles were viewed as huge time wasters in the past. However, their glass bead game is viewed as a great intellectual endeavor. While they try to be "nice" to the rest of the world, they have set themselves so far apart from it, that they really cannot relate. They have created what is essentially an intellectual religion.

The setting of most of the book could easily be a medieval monastery. Women and modern technology are almost entirely absent through the main portion of the book. Near the end, the author apparently realized this and introduces a few women and has Joseph take off in a car. (For a novel that is supposed to take place in the future, this is seriously rooted in the past. World-building is not one of Hesse's strong points.) He also has him exit the "order" which has become too intellecutual snobbish and unfulfilling. (Perhaps he realized that readers would become disgusted with his intellectual bigots and would need an alternative.) While the ending of the story does do something to help improve the book, the "posthumous writings" destroys the goodwill. The character is just too perfect to be believable, while the events are too contrived, and don't seem to be in any "real" world.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Keeping Settings

After taking some pictures on my phone, I noticed that many of them were taken at super-low resolution. I never remembered switching it to the low-res. Yet, somehow it seemed to happen when I take a lot of pictures that I wish were at higher resolution. Similarly, I noticed that sometime, the geotagging would turn off. (And this seems to always be when I am taking pictures to "remember" certain locations. Uggh!)

I think I finally figured out the issue.

The phone was being smart and "remembering" the settings - even when I did not want it to remember.

The low-res issue seemed to occur after I switched to the front-facing camera. The camera is of lower resolution, so the highest resolution is the "super low res". Alas, while the camera switches to low-res after switching to the front camera, it doesn't switch back to high-res after going to the rear camera.

The GPS issue was similar. If I turn off the GPS, the camera seems to see that the GPS is off and turns off geotagging. However, it does not turn it on when geotagging is turned back on.

How could you resolve these issues?

GPS could be resolved by adding an "unavailable" state. If the GPS is off, it just says "unavailable", but leaves the geotagging feature on. When it comes back on, it turns back on. If you explicitly turn off the GPS, then it could stay off.

For the camera, it is a little trickier. An easy way would be to allow each camera to have its own resolution setting. That way you could have one at middle, one at low, or whatever you want. Another simple option would be to allow "max" resolution. That way, no matter what the resolution is, the camera will always take the picture with the best possible resolution.

Are there any better alternatives?

Lords of Finance

While the shooting of the guy with the funny looking hat may have helped launch World War I, it was a decision made by a central banker that helped start the second World War. This very readable narrative covers the "economic" history of the western world, focussing on the time between the two world wars. (Though it does cover the periods before and after.)

In this time period, central banks were just starting to become formal institutions. They were just beginning to understand the importance and power of their policies and positions. A wrong move, and they can destroy an economy or even start a global war. However, the degree of power can vary significantly. Even those with keen insight may be overruled by political expediency.

After World War I, the allies insisted on reparations from Germany. American bankers insisted on war loan repayments from the Europeans. In the end, the Europeans got Hitler and the Americans got the Marshall plan. (Only Finland ended up paying up.) In the process, the German currency was destroyed. Britain's desire to maintain its position as the world's banked and return to the gold standard ended up killing the economy - and setting up the US as the world's banker. France's ineptitude ended up allowing its economy to boom while everyone else was suffering (and then suffer later.) The Great Depression was even caused in part by the US government giving a lukewarm attempt to help support overcome a bad British economic decision.

The real story, however, is of the individual characters. Much sympathy is given to the German central banker who shows great expertise, despite navigating a difficult political situation. (He even allies himself with the Nazis in order to push his policies through.) Keynes is also portrayed as being one of the few people who "has a clue" on how the economic system works. (But alas, he has little political power, and ends up sitting by and watching as bad decisions are made.)

Could some of these problems be similar to today? Is the massive Chinese current account surplus similar to the excess gold that seemed to exist in the US (and at times France)? Are bankers causing problems by keeping rates too low now? The book never addresses any of these questions directly. However, the engaging narrative of the central bankers allows readers to pose many questions of their own.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Roughing It

Mark Twain published this travel book in 1872. Perhaps due to his use of humor, he was able to make observations that put him way ahead of his time. The premise is a supposed three month trip to Nevada that turns out being a multi-year exploration of the west. The trip was done long before interstates and airplanes, and even long before trains made the trip easy. (In one portion, he quotes a train travelogue to mock how easy the trip has become.) His journey was on horse-drawn stagecoach across the mostly undeveloped west. He has observations about the conditions of the plains and the mountains as well as the people that inhabit the area.

The first large civilized area that he encounters is Salt Lake City. He calls it the only true monarchy in America, and presents stories about Brigham Young and his "power" in the area. He had plans of trying to "expose" the Mormons. However, he came away with a fairly balanced view, which seemed much ahead of his time. He acknowledged that he would hear stories from "gentiles" about the Mormons that always seemed to have a different set of facts. He even took time to read the Book of Mormon, and quotes parts of it in his book. While he does manage to jumble a few facts of doctrine and history, his end opinion is to just let the people be. (He acknowledges that they are the hardest working people in the west, and free from most vices. And, being a humorist, he can get away with saying that the women are so comely, that the mean are doing a huge service by taking on multiple wives.)

For Indians, he also had a balanced view that was ahead of its times. Some Indians he would see as ridiculously lazy, in comparison to others that are hard working. He would also acknowledge some of their good attributes and compare them favorably to the "American" inhabitants. Similar positive treatment was given to other ethnic minorities such as the Chinese.

In fact, just about all his observations were presented well from both sides. Even when he seemed to be strongly opposed to something, he would present the other view, often using exaggeration for humor. About the only thing that I remember him taking a strong one-sided stand on was jury trial. He thought it was ridiculous that we try to field a jury of embacels that had never read about a case. Instead, we should have more upstanding citizens that could better dispense justice.

In Nevada he seemed to make and lose fortunes a few times. However, the consistent income he produced was working in journalism. Being a newspaperman he was regularly given "gifts" of interests in mines, often in response to his reporting. Even mention of a mine would often be enough to help drive up the share prices. (Seems a lot like the dot-com bubble.)

In addition to keen historical observation, Twain takes a turn at weather forecasting. San Francisco is 70 degrees year round. Precipitation, however, can be ascertained by looking at a calendar. 4 months of the year raining during the winter, and 8 months of sun during the summer. Sacramento, on the other hand is Summer year round.

Twain also made a voyage out to Hawaii. There he learned of the natives more laid back style (and regularly got cheated out of horse rentals.) He marveled at the natural wonders of the island, but spent more time describing the locals. White men were missionaries, sailors or government officials. The natives originally thought Captain Cook was a god and treated him royally. He, in return, abused them. When they realized he wasn't deity, they promptly executed him. Missionaries later came to clothe the natives and dissuade them from their crude traditions.

Eventually Twain returns home, ending an entertaining lesson in history and human behavior.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Fresh and Easy

I've noticed construction on the corner of Fremont and Mary in what used to be an Albertson's grocery store. The store has been closed for over ten years, yet the you can still catch a glimpse of the Albertsons sign.

There were plans a few years back to bring a Fresh and Easy to the location. However, those were stalled due zoning and recession issues. So, perhaps they were finally moving in to the location?

Sure enough, after a few weeks, a big Fresh and Easy jobs banner popped up there. Could they finally be getting a grocery store back at the location?

Then a few days later, the financial press reports Tesco may be pulling the plug on Fresh and Easy.

Talk about great timing. Right when they finally seem to be getting something at the long-vacant location, the company decides that the US just isn't its cup of tea.

On other grocery store business, there has been a sign on the former Albertsons near McClellan and De Anza in Cupertino indicating a transfer of liquor license to 99Ranch markets. Yet, there has been no noticeable work on the site. There is also another Ranch99 a couple of miles away on Wolfe and Homestead. (Not to mention Mariana Foods less than half a mile away from the site.) Could the area support that many large Asian supermarkets? (Not to mention the medium size Japanese market and the many smaller sized markets grocers.)

Being that it is Cupertino, the answer is probably yes. The old Tin Tin Supermarket site on Bollinger and Blaney is still closed. Maxim market popped up and closed down the road at De Anza near Highway 85. Does this mean there is insufficient demand, or does it show the need for more high quality grocers?

Saturday, December 08, 2012

If it can break...

Washing machine plastic pipe broke, then gasket broke. (See a couple recent blog posts.)

The dishwasher heating element broke. The dishwasher would start to go through a cycle, then stop with a flashing light. The manual didn't have much to say. However, after pulling off the service panel, I found the "secret" manual that described the code as meaning a "heating problem". I started looking for fixes online. Some described a jostled out element. So, I went to look, and lo and behold, there was a crack in the element. here we come. (Now why can't the dishwasher just be "dumb" and continue to wash without the element? Stupid smart machines.)

The laptop computer wont power up. It was acting flaky, and would need a few tries to finally get it to start. I finally pulled it open and found the vents were totally clogged. Cleaning these out greatly improved the fan performance. (Now we could leave it on without it turning in to an oven.) However, it did not do much to help the startup problem. It was especially bad on hibernation. The computer had recently complained about low disk space. I had finally connected the two and thought "hey, I should delete the hibernate file and just disable hibernation, and we could just leave it on." Alas, my wife shut the computer, and accidentally started the hibernation. It apparently went in to a deep sleep from which it will never recover. We decided to replace it with a chromebook for general use, and nettop for windows stuff.

Dental filling fell out. Again. These "front of teeth" feelings just do not stay in. It often seems to be after eating nuts or something then brushing my teeth. Off to the dentist. Again.

And the pipes clogged up. It seems a couple times each year we have to call the $15 sewer and drain guys out to snake the line. (It costs a lot more than $15... I think $15 is there "service fee". Then there is fuel surcharge and a fee to do the snaking. Adds up to somewhere around $90)

And the shower trap needs a good cleaning. The trap does prevent the gunk from getting stuck in the pipes. But, it still is a lot of work to clean out.

And the dryer is making weird sounds. Time to get a new one?

And I didn't mention the bikes. The triple has been to two bike shops to "tune up". It would be nice if the gears actually worked. (The high "hub gear" seems to work. Only it doesn't like to stay there, and I sometimes have to ride holding it in the gear. Not fun!) Neither seems to know much of what they were doing. The second one has not even returned my call. The Japanese bike has a flat. The attempts to repair it have not "taken". The bikes all need lights. The schwin, Trek and Giant bike are all in not-quite ridable condition. (Ugghh. Thank you bike doctor.)

Washing Machine Take 2

A month ago, when I was fixing the washing machine, I had initially suspected a gasket problem. I was grateful when I started doing it, that it was only the plastic detergent intake pipe. This was a cheaper part ($15 vs $95) and an easier repair job.

Then this month water started accumulating under the washing machine again. D'oh!

The first though was that the pipe might have broken or come loose. So I started the "take apart the washing machine" procedure again. Alas, I am getting pretty good at it now. As I started to work, I picked up a couple legos on the floor in front of the washing machine. I took off the bottom panel and looked for signs of water. There weren't "up high" signs common with the detergent pipe. Hmmm. As I continued to work, I noticed a little gash in the gasket. That couldn't be good. But, I continued on to check the pipe, make sure it wasn't cracked, then tried running a load.

The load seemed to go well until water came in. It came in the machine, then shot straight out through that little gash. D'oh! I tried placing a bit of bicycle intertube there, but that didn't seem to work. Just a little piece of plastic missing, and we now have the replace the whole thing. The chunk missing seems to be right where water gets shot. It could be natural wear, or it could have been some legos that broke it. Anyway, it would be the long repair.

My wife signed up for the Amazon prime again to get the fast shipping. (And we got a new computer to try the instant video...) It came in a couple of days. I went through the initial part using the "picture site" in my previous blog post. However, I got a little stuck on removing the gasket from the machine. So, I took a look at a
YouTube video. (I still can't quite place the guy's accent.)

I realized, you only have to unscrew the inner-gasket thing a little bit. (I had gone a ways and almost undid it the whole way.)

Also, the inlet pipe just "pops" out. The picture page takes about soaking it in water and all this complicated stuff. None of that is needed.

The picture page also suggests removing the bottom counter-weight. Don't do it! Yes, it does make it a little bit easier to put on the gasket. But, putting the weight back on is a bear. It is not worth the effort.

The video has a good suggestion of "lubing" the gasket before attaching it to the machine. And what would you lube a laundry-machine gasket with? Why laundry detergent, of course.

My first try putting the gasket on seemed too easy. Then I noticed the arrows were not lined up. So, I tried again. This was also pretty easy. I guess the lube does help.

Then it was off to put everything back together and try a load.

Did I mention that there was a pile of dirty diapers in the machine as the "final load"? They had been sitting there a few days, and I finally pulled them out before working on it. Since they take a couple hours to wash, I decided on a shorter "towel and washcloth" load so I could actually get to sleep tonight. (I am still tempted to go back to a "low-efficiency" washing machine. We may have given up too soon on the old one. This supposed high-efficiency machine takes forever to run, and seems to have had no positive impact on energy or water bills. [They may have even increased the bills])

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Worst BCS team ever?

ESPN had a cow about Northern Illinois being a disgrace to the BCS. How dare they play in a big came when other "more deserving" schools are shut out. Northern Illinois did not exactly come out of nowhere. Less than 10 years ago (in 2003), they had been ranked #10 in the BCS, and had a victory over Alabama (in Alabama) under the belt, as well as a victory over Iowa State and a top 20 Maryland team. Alas, they lost a couple conference games and "only" finished 10-2. Their bowl reward? They got to stay home.

Now we have people complaining that they go to the BCS after winning their conference when teams like Oklahoma and Texas A&M are "stuck" in the Cotton Bowl. At least they get somewhere after going 10-2 and not winning their conference. That's much more than you can say about the 2003 Northern Illinois team.

Perhaps Northern Illinois is used to deflect the true "worst team" to make it to a BCS game, Wisconsin. They have five losses, and only managed to get in because two teams in their 6 team division were not eligible for the post-season. They blew out Nebraska in the title game, so they do appear to be on a roll. But, by their record, they are the worst the BCS has seen.

Wisconsin and Northern Illinois have also both recently had their coach leave for another job.

The other tragedy of the bowl season is "bad teams" making the bowls over good teams. 6-7 Georgia Tech will be playing USC. Middle Tennessee finished 8-4. They beat Georgia Tech (in Atlanta) by 21 points. They will not be going to a bowl.

9-3 Louisiana Tech will not be going to a bowl. They lost by 2 to Texas A&M. Alabama lost by 4, and get to play in the national championship. 6-6 Mississippi lost by 3 to A&M and gets a bowl game.

The biggest knock on the two teams is that they played in the WAC and Sun Belt. Had they been in a "BCS" conference, they would surely be bowling. Even Conference USA or Mountain West would have likely sent them to a bowl. Looking at Sagarin rankings, #88 East Carolina, #107 Air Force and #103 Rice finished lower than #84 Middle Tennessee and are both going to bowls.

Those ratings also can help us objectively identify who may truly be the worst BCS team ever.

Wisconsin, in spite of its record comes in at #21. Northern Illinois looks pretty pitiful down there at #34. (They are even behind WAC schools Utah State and San Jose State.) At 34, they must be one of the worst teams ever, right?

Nope. Not even for this season. Way down at #52 (5 spots below non-bowling Louisiana Tech) sits Louisville. Yep. The candidate for true "worst team" ever is the Big East representative in the BCS Sugar bowl against Florida.

Lets see how the games turn out.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

One guy falls in love with a girl, then he likes another girl who his buddy likes but can't have. His old girl gets mad and is disguised as a boy. We get letters to self, presumed sword fights and eventually every on gets together and lives happily ever after.

This is one of Shakespeare's earlier works. It follows a lot of the common elements that are established later. I still find it tough to really get in to.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Nobody can deny that Genghis Khan was a great warrior who conquered one of the largest empires in history. This book attempts to portray him as an enlightened ruler who adopted many modern liberal policies long before they became popular in the west.

The book starts with the kidnapping of a woman and the birth of her son Temujin. The boy had a challenging childhood on the Mongolian plains. However, he would grow up to conquer great territory and be known as Genghis Khan.

The book describes many aspects of the nomads life through the experiences of the young boy and his family. Then it goes in to details of the military campaigns, conquests and administration of the warrior. The mongols were portrayed as honest, benevolent conquerors. If a city surrender, they were left in a fairly good condition (especially compared to other conquerors of the day.) However, if they dared rebel or cross the Mongols, they better watch out. They may find useful professionals carted away, but warriors and aristocrats would be slaughtered, and others may be put to use as human battering rams or other similar tasks. The mongols were highly skilled and mobile (being on horseback.) They also readily adopted and synthesized the innovations of others.

A little over halfway through the book, Genghis Khan dies. We then get stories of his direct descendants and legacy. Some of them were severely lacking in the skills of their fore-bearer. Some could also be downright cruel. Genghis Kahn's grandson, Kublai Khan was portrayed as a young playboy, who's lifestyle was very far removed from that of his grandfather. However, he was an astute leader, uniting a great Asian empire primarily through diplomacy. He did also attempt to bring in nearby islands in a to the empire, but his large navies fell victim to the "divine wind" and he abandoned these conquest attempts. In China, he helped unite China under his rule, in part by "becoming" Chinese. He established paper currency, and also brought many other areas in to his realm. However, political intrigue in his family as well as the plague caused this empire to be fairly short lived. However, other descendants did maintain leadership positions in other areas up until the 20th century.

The Mongols were portrayed as great synthesizers and administrators. They were somewhat similar to Apple today. They don't invent very many big new things. However, they take many existing things from different areas and combine them together in to have something "innovative". Genghis Khan did just that, uniting his empire, creating an administration, and even establishing a written language.

In ruling, the Mongols had a decentralized government that largely retained the local policies and customs. They encouraged plurality, allowing freedom of religion and limiting capital punishment. They encouraged trade throughout the empire and beyond, and made sure routes and currency were readily available. They often preferred to avoid warfare, but if they had to fight, they had the best weapons and could destroy anybody they wanted to. Hmmm... It does sound a lot like the modern day ideals.

The Mongols here are presented from a Mongol point of view. This focuses on the good points while presenting explanations for the negative views. (The Mongols encouraged people to write exaggerated tales of their conquests to help allow them to conquer with fear. They also had disdain for aristocracy, so the elite appeared to be treated especially poor.) The author states that one of his purposes of writing is to help inspire greater interest in the accomplishments of nomadic people. In that quest he succeeds well in showing that looking past the "barbarian" appearance showed strong cultural ideals - just not ones that force wholesale changes in society.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Currents of Space

A scientist discovers that a planet is about to be destroyed. When he tries to tell the authorities, he is hushed up and eventually "brain-washed" in to a village idiot. His prediction leads to a great deal of political intrigue. The planet (Florinia) he predicted would be destroyed is currently the only place in the galaxy where a valuable cloth can be grown. The trade, however, is controlled by another planet (Sark), that has made the Florinians in to virtual slaves. (They have even gone so far to take all "exceptional" members of society and move them in to positions of responsibility - but prohibiting them from reproduction.) After a lot of politics, it turns out the planet will be destroyed. But, this knowledge provides the insight needed to grow the cloth material elsewhere in the galaxy. Most everyone is evacuated and people are happy.

The story was interesting, but the story-telling had much to be desire. The story consisted of a number of overlapping narratives, told from different points of view. The last part of one narrative would be described again in the second narrative. At first, I had to check to make sure I didn't go backwards. I knew how it would turn out. Why do I have to go through it again.

The story also became fairly predictable early on. Sure, there were some twists, but it was fairly easy to predict what was going to happen. The multiple narratives also ruined what could have been suspenseful twists.

Conference Hierarchy

With all the shuffling around of conferences, a clear hierarchy is being established among conferences:

1) First Tier: Schools come to these conferences to stay:
Big-10 [Has taken new members from Big-12, ACC, Big East]
Pac-12 [Has taken new members from Mountain West and Big-12]
SEC [Has taken new members from Big-12]

2) Second Tier: Conferences have some issues. Some teams may want to leave, but teams from lower tier would love to join.
Big-12 [Has taken new members from Big-12 and Big East/Mountain West (TCU had planned to move to Big East, but was still in MWC when moved)
ACC [Almost exclusively raids Big East]

3) Big East
Has historically been the transfer station from Conference USA to ACC. Recently has sent some teams to Big-12 and Big-10 as well. Now is getting desperate and taking teams from just about all the conferences below.

4) Mountain West and Conference USA
Picks the cream of the MAC and Sun Belt crop. (MWC has historically raided the WAC, but there is not anything left to raid.)

5) MAC and Sun Belt
New teams to the FBS ranks are likely to land here

6) WAC
Dead to the football world now

On field performance somewhat mirrors the hierarchy, though with a few changes.

1) SEC: Unless there is a very compelling reason, they'll play in the championship
2) Big-10, Pac-12, Big-12: A team from here would be a credible champion
3) ACC: If there is no one better above, they'll make it
4) Big East: They have a chance if there are no better options
5) Mountain West: If everyone else is having a down year, and a team here has fewer losses than everyone else, there is a chance they can go.
6) Conference USA: Same with MWC, but slightly lower
7) MAC and Sun Belt. Good luck. Perhaps if everyone else has a couple loses and a team from here goes undefeated with a victory over Alabama, there may be a chance.

Pac-12 schedule

The Pac-12 title game was this Friday. UCLA played Stanford. 6 days before, they also played each other. Who could have ever seen this coming? I mean, UCLA only played in the title game last season, and Stanford was second in their division. Not a chance of them coming on top, eh? You think they could have avoided them playing each other the last game of the season?

Or, better yet, avoid all cross-division games at the end of the season. Even a Washington State-Colorado game could potentially be a rematch game. (Maybe they both turn it around next year.)

The Pac-12 championship game has a lot to be desired. The conference plays a 9 game schedule with 12 teams. With 5 games against division opponents, that leaves 4 games against the other division. 4/6 means there is a 2/3rds chance that the championship game will be a rematch. Ugghh.

In the current Big-10 and ACC, they have an 8 game schedule. With 12 teams and 5 conference games, that leaves just 3 games in the other division, so a 1/2 chance of a rematch. The SEC (and future fourteen team ACC/Big-10) have 14 teams. 6 division games + 2 in the other division games leaves 2/6 or 1/3 chance of a rematch.

As for scheduling, the SEC has a "rivalry" game the last week. Most of these are non-conference games. The Pac-12 is instead trying to "create" a rivalry with Colorado and Utah. Why not let them play their natural rivals (BYU and Colorado State) on the last week? Then we can have all teams playing their natural rivals the last week.

As for the Notre Dame game? Well, they have the ACC deal now. Let them play a Boston College or someone like that in the final week and restore USC/UCLA and Cal/Stanford for the last week.

I wonder if the days of college football are numbered. They seem to be reaching too far for money, and alienating most of their core constituents. What happened to the good 'ol Saturday afternoon games? (I remember going home from games when it was still light outside. Now there are few games that even start with light in the sky.) And there were once local rivalry games you cared about and could actually travel to. Now, it is all about TV and money - until the NFL decides they should just make a development league and shut the colleges out altogether.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Conference Realignment

College football has now aligned itself to five major conferences of 64 teams:

SEC 14
PAC-12 12
Big-10 14
Big-12 10
ACC 14

On the football field, the SEC is the clear champion, in terms of on-field performance and attendance. The ACC is the laggard of the Big-5. (Though it is pretty good at basketball.) Looking at football attendance as a barometer for school programs, there is a clear separation of the "big-5" conferences and the "little-5".
The top 50 major teams are all independents or in major conferences. The bottom 35 teams are all in "minor" conferences. The Big-East was always a borderline AQ conference in the BCS. With all the poaching that has been going on, it is now very clearly in the "lower tier".

Are there many big-5 conference teams that shouldn't be there? There are not many teams that are in big conferences, yet are not in the top 64 in attendance. Duke, Northwestern and Vanderbilt are all the "academic" powers in their conferences and are located in major media markets. Duke also has a pretty impressive basketball record TCU's attendance numbers are an aberration due to stadium construction. The most recent attendance would put them closer to the 50s. (They are also sitting in the #5 media market.)

This leaves Washington State, Wake Forest, Baylor and Syracuse as the outliers. Baylor and Syracuse are "right on the border" of being top 64. Baylor also has Texas politics to thank for its position in the Big-12. They both have pretty good basketball programs. This gets us down to just Wake Forest and Washington State as "questionable". Both have had a pretty ugly recent history in football. However, they both have been long term members of their conferences and have well established rivalries.

What changes would you make? Notre Dame and BYU are the two big outliers in the "have nots". Notre Dame already has a non-football membership with the ACC and an in to the "big bowls". (They also have a current "BCS automatic inclusion" clause, but they didn't need to use it due to being first in the standings.) Notre Dame's attendance also exceeds that of all ACC schools. BYU is trickier. The Pac-12 would be a logical place, geographically and attendance-wise, but there are some politics involved. A Big-12 partnership may also make sense.

Beyond the independents, there are no "slam-dunk" options. South Florida is #52. However, it tends to draw a local Tampa audience. Florida State (ACC) and Florida (SEC) both draw from the entire state. Low-caliber academics would exclude the Big-10 or Pac-12. It could be an option if the Big-12 decided to make a run for Florida. However, the quality of the overall sports program lags behind other schools.

East Carolina is in a somewhat similar situation. Geographically, they would fit in the ACC. However, the conference is already loaded with North Carolina schools. East Carolina would lag behind many in academics and non-football sports. SEC lacks schools in North Carolina. However, East Carolina could probably not compete well with the SEC schools. Another Big-12 option?

Connecticut seems like an ideal expansion target. They are in an untapped market (and they could probably claim part of the New York City market also.) Basketball is excellent and football has spurts of quality. Academics are also decent (but lack of AAU membership would turn off the Big-10) AAC would be a logical place to go. However, you get the impression that the AAC is waiting for somebody to get poached before grabbing UConn.

At #61, Central Florida has the same problems as South Florida. At least Orlando doesn't have a pro football team. Hawaii at #63 is in Hawaii. Its a nice vacation, but it is a long way out there. Academics would also be an issue. After that you get Air Force, Fresno State, Navy, UTEP and Boise. Perhaps the national audience of the service academies would appeal to a conference. (The ACC could look at Navy to replace the Maryland market.) Fresno is an academic lightweight in California's central valley. The Pac-12 wouldn't dare go near, but maybe the Big-12 trying to break in to California? (Though of late, #76 San Diego State is out-drawing.) UTEP is in El Paso, which is pretty much the middle of nowhere. Boise has had a lot of football success and is in a growing city.

"Non-Big" Outliers
Notre Dame - 15th in Attendance
BYU - 27th in Attendance
South Florida - 52
East Carolina - 55
UConn - 60
Central Florida - 61
Hawaii - 63
Air Force - 65
Fresno State - 67
Navy - 70
UTEP - 71
Boise - 72
Cinncinnati - 74
Army - 75
San Diego State - 76
Southern Miss - 78
Memphis - 80
Houston - 89
Marshall - 82
New Mexico - 83

"Big Conference" Outliers
Duke - 84
Washington State - 79
Northwestern - 77
Wake Forest - 73
TCU - 69
Vanderbilt - 68
Baylor - 66
Syracuse - 64
Indiana - 62

source: or

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

The moon is an oppressed penal colony. With the aid of a supercomputer, some residents plan a rebellion. A lot of time is spent discussing the details. Through some chance events, the revolution gets started. Then they attempt to be recognized by earth. Their "recognition" comes in the form of an attack. They defeat the invaders, and launch an attack on earth. After this attack, earth countries recognize the moon's independence as legitimate.

While the plot can be easily explained in a paragraph, the real purpose of this book is for Heinlein to describe his libertarian philosophy. The moon society operates largely without formal laws. The experience as a colony with limited control has lead the residents to act in their best, societal interests. Family structure involves complex, multi-generational families. While there are no formal marriage laws, the structure dictates what can be done. Similarly, other "crimes" are often punished by elimination rather than formal rules.

Heinlein sees government as an entity that usually mandates what had previously been permitted. Instead, he would like for government to create a constitution dictating what the government could not do, rather than what it could do. Its those "do-gooders" that keep trying to inflict their will on others that cause all the problems.

It makes anarchy seem nice and dandy. However, the revolution could only be carried out with the help of a quasi-sentient computer. The computer rigged the elections, "made speeches", launched the missiles, and pretty much did everything else that needed to be done. It seems that what Heinlein is really after is a "computeraucracy". Luckily, Heinlein's computer seems to disapear as soon as the revolution is "won". Philip K. Dick has written similar stories about computers that "control" the life of humans long after the battle is over. Alas, that would have ruined Heinlein's libertarian utopia.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Zero history

A plot set in modern times. Twittering and iPods. Vulgar language. Something about copying clothing and military fashions.
And really nothing to make it worth reading.
Nueromancer has been on my 'list of books that I want to read' for some time now. However, after reading Zero History, I think I'll remove it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Star Trek (2009)

Hmm. This seems to be a simple formula. Take some popular old movie with a built in audience. Fill it with a young cast and make sure it has plenty of action.
Thus we get Star Trek, stripped of most of its Geekdom, and made in to another teen movie.
Like many "reboots", this one is an "origins" movie. It follows Capitan Kirk and Spock as they are young kids who find there way to the USS enterprise. We also see many of the other Enterprise Crew (such as Scottie) as youth. Does this origen fall in line with what is in place with the other movies and TV show? It doesn't matter. Conveniently, the opening of the movie is a time traveling Romulan ship that appears and ends up leading to the death of Kirk's father, right before Kirk was born. History has been altered, so the the movie is free to do whatever it wants.
This Romulan mining ship saw the destruction of its world. The captain is mad at Spock because he wasn't able to save the world. So, he drills to the core of Vulcan and drops something to destroy Spock's world, while forcing Spock to watch. Then he will try to destroy earth. And that and the time travel paradox is about all the science you have. Not much here in area of nerd fest. However, we do have lots of fist fights. Kirk gets beat up, choked, and falls multiple times in the movie. If he were a football player, he'd be forced to sit out the rest of the season. So much for using modern technology.
While a Trekkie would probably tell you this is not "real" Star Trek film, the movie itself is not all bad. It is fairly engaging, though the characters do appear a little flat, with the plot turns seeming to be forced rather than following naturally.


Two lovers are walking home one night when the guy is murdered. He ends up as a ghost. He discoers that a cat can see him and that a psychic and hear him. He tries to the girl that he saw the murderer stop by. Eventually he finds out that one of his coworkers was laundering money and that the murder has just an attempt to get the banke codes. So, we get a lot of action, and eventually, the ghost learns how to move items. This comes in handy when chasing the bad guys. We get another dose off action and some strange "love" scenes. It all makes for nice escapism. As for deep meaning? Well, maybe you should say you love somebody before its too late. Or perhaps, don't be a bad guy so you are not taken away by demons? The whole "ghost" thing is fairly confusing. (Good guys can't "really" die until they have the bad guys that killed them die?) Oh well, its just supposed to be escapism.

Zues and Roxanne

A dog and some dolphins. Do you even need a a plot to have a popular kids movie? The plot has someting to do with some scientists, some kids and some adults getting together. There is some hokey ending where a woman gets trapped in a little submarine and a man goes to rescue her. (Why didn't he use one of the scuba tanks? And why did she try to open the lid?) Oh well, it makes for some drama. The real point of the movie is all the dolphin and dog shots.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

How Markets Fail

This is another analysis of the general factors that caused the economic collapse of the late 90s. It provides a general history and critique of "Utopian" economics and shows other case studies where markets failed to provide the correct outcomes. Sometimes, an entrenched player has network effects that prevent a market from working properly. Markets are also controlled by an indirection, where a herd mentality prevails. If you bet contrarion and lose, you are fired. If you go with the herd and lose, then nothing happens. Similarly market gains can be had by predicting what people will do, not necessarily what the underlying businesses will perform.
The book provides critiques for numerous other aspects of the efficient markets hypothesis.

Alan Greenspan gets a lot of criticism for his policies. The monetary policies during the housing boom were set excessively low for the current financial conditions. This, along with government policies to encourage homeownership (especially among minorities) helped to further fuel the bubble. On top of this came the moral hazard of those giving the loans not being responsible for their long term health and you have a huge bubble. (I recall a friend who went in to mortgage brokerage work during the bubble. He didn't like dealing with people with "real money". He got much better commissions for exotic loans to people that should not be able to afford what they were getting.) Instead of letting the market work things out, the FED was creating some of the moral hazard itself. The book presents thoughtful analysis, even acknowleging that it is much easier to see the problems in hindsight.


The Hulk is a very different movie than some of the modern comic book movies like Dark Knight or Spiderman. Instead, it seeks inspiration from the likes of the old Batman TV show. Instead of a Dark, brooding scores of other movies, we get a light, yet ominous score. Rather than hide from its comic book origin, the Hulk embraces it. From the opening credits, to the scattershots, this one feels like a comic book.

However, is this a good thing?

The "lightness" of the movie makes it more difficult to be engaged. Sure there are some big action scenes, but you feel that these are mere bullies fighting. You don't feel a strong attachment to the outcome.

The relationship between Bruce Banner and the "token love interest" brings back memories of King Kong and the girl. The big green monster cares for the puny girl. But its hard to feel much fear or involvement in their actions.

I did like the style of the movie. However, it didn't quite fit the content. Hulk is a dark, scary figure. The style Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would have been better suited for this movie. Perhaps that's what the producers were expecting when they picked the director.

Nanjing Metro

The Railway Technology site has some information about the Nanjing Metro. Though, I'm not sure how much of it you can trust. They obviously didn't fact check the Nanjing city information. (Second largest city in China? Hmmm, does that mean that only one of Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong is bigger than it? I don't think so. And it also says that it is 1 kilometre away from Beijing... Hmmm. Maybe a kilo-kilometre. But this is major digression.)

Yesterday, on going up towards the Yangtze River, we saw plenty of construction on this new 3rd line. It goes through an area that is fairly run down. We saw some places where walls had been knocked down, and nothing put up. However, there are some new construction towers replacing some single-story dwellings, so things may be prepping for the new line. (Nearby, there is also one neighborhood that looks like a "Chinatown". Imagine that, a chinatown in China.

The existing metro line is pretty well done. They have a lot of the "little" features that make subways nice. The stations has displays of the next few oncoming trains. The inside of the train has little signs showing the current stop and the next one. The stations also have maps of the local area with all the exists shown. I find the numbering of the exists especially useful. At some stations, the numbering goes past 20. It is nice to be able to say. "Go to stop X, exit Y" and be able to find the exact location you want. The platforms have floor-to-ceiling "gates", making it impossible to end up on the platform if there is no train there. The escalators slow down to a crawl if nobody is there, but then speed up when you step on. (this saves energy, but still lets you know what direction it is going.) All in all, it is a well designed subway. It will be nice to see if they complete the entire metro blueprint.

Getting from Shanghai Pudong to Nanjing

Nanjing is a big city in China - just not big enough to get direct flights to the US. (Though there are flights to Frankfort Germany.) A typical option is to connect through another Asian hub. You may be at the whim of the schedules. (Right now, you can theoretically connect on Asiana in Seoul to go from Nanjing to San Francisco - as long as you want to spend a day in the airport.)

Beijing offers frequent connections to Nanjing. However, the Air China and United planes from the US to Beijing do not provide the greatest flight experience. (They are old!) Cancellations seems to be frequent on Beijing-Nanjing route. (However, you can take a 4 hour high speed rail ride from Beijing to Nanjing.) Also, the two terminals in the airport are a long bus ride away. I thought I might have boarded the wrong bus, as we seemed to go through a neighborhood before we got to the other terminal. Air China and United are in one terminal, while China Eastern is in another. China Eastern has lots of flights to Nanjing, while the other two have many flights to the US. (Air china also has some flights to Nanjing, but they tend to be the most cancel-happy.)

I prefer to fly in to Shanghai. United flies more modern planes on the route with better timings. There are also multiple options for getting to Nanjing.

The options:

1) Plane. You can book one-way from China Eastern for as low as 100 RMB. If you book from major travel sites (like Expedia) it will probably be greater than $150 one way. Unless you are traveling on a SkyTeam Airline (like Delta), you will probably be transferring from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1 for this flight.
There is only one flight per day, currently leaving at 9:30pm and arriving Nanjing at 10:30pm. It is a small plane, so larger carry-ons will probably need to be checked. (Though, they do occasionally "buckle" the carry-ons in to empty seats.)
The Nanjing airport is a ways outside of the city. If you take a car into the city, you can probably expect to arrive a little before midnight. There is also a bus, but it may be a close call to catch it from this flight.

The return flight from Nanjing to PVG currently leaves at 8:00AM.

2) Train
There are frequent high speed trains from Shanghai to Nanjing. At times there can be a high speed "G" train leaving every few minutes. However, you have to be careful when looking at schedules. There are two main high speed stations in Shanghai and two main high speed stations in Nanjing. Some of the high speed trains run nonstop, while others make a number of stops (nearly doubling the travel time.)
In Nanjing, Nanjing station is on the old station on north side of town. It is closer to the city center. Nanjing South is big gleaming new station on the south side of town. In Shanghai, the Shanghai station is the crowded old station in the center of town, while Hongqiou is the big new station next to the domestic airport. All stations in Shanghai and Nanjing are on metro lines. While there are trains between all the stations, most trains from Hongqiou go to Nanjing South, while most from Shanghai go to Nanjing. The fastest G trains take just over an hour, while the ones with the most stops are almost 2 hours. There are also slower trains and "overnight" trains that are even cheaper. High speed trains tend to run around 6am~9pm. You do have to watch the internet because there seem to be a lot of "bogus" or outdated schedules out there.

Once you decide on the station, you need to get there. There are numerous discussions explaining how to get there.
Here are a few that I have used or seen:
From PVG, you can go down to the Airport bus level and get a bus to Shanghai Station of Hongqiou airport/train station. 30 RMB ~ 1 hour. The airport has well-labeled signs directing you to the airport buses. Then you can stand in an island next to the bus number. (There is also a chart in the airport explaining where the buses go.)

The cheapest way is to take the metro from the airport. <10 RMB 2 hours to Hongqiou. You just take line two all the way. (Though you have to transfer from a smaller train to a larger one at one stop.) To Shanghai station, it is a little shorter, but requires an extra connection. (It can be confusing to figure out which way to go on the loop line.)
For the true "Shanghai" experience, you can take the Maglev, and transfer to the metro. This shaves some time off the trip, but it does make the 180MPH of the high speed trains seem slow.

You can buy train tickets at the ticket counter. If you don't speak Chinese, you can probably still get them to show you a list of trains just by saying "Nanjing".

In Nanjing, if you arrive before 11:00pm, you can take the metro. It is about 2 RMB to most destinations (it is a little more if you go further)

Drafts cleanup

I've been cleaning out the 'drafts' queue of the blog. Thus, there have been about a gazillion posts coming out. Some of the drafts were nearly complete, and just had not been published. Others had the start of some thoughts. I tried to finish up the ones that I could while, some were left in a somewhat "incomplete" stage. (Its hard to remember your reaction to a book you read a year ago!) I will try to get things published quicker so I don't run in to it again.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises is ostensibly a superhero movie with Batman. However, he only makes a few token appearances. You could got out a few of those scenes, and it is just a dark gangster movie. The big bad guy can be hard to hear at times, but he is bad and strong. He gets people to follow him. They proceed to kill and maim people in the name of "liberating" them from the oppressors. Some people like this because that allows them to start doing the oppression. Batman eventually saves the day.

This is not as good as the previous Dark Knight. Parts of it seem to drag on for too long. (You could probably cut out an hour and still have a good movie.) It does have a good ending, and the supporting characters (such as Anne Hathaway) are well developed and add a lot to the film.

Oops, forgot to start the movie

We had gone to see Kung Fu Panda 2 at the dollar theater. (Well, actually $5 theater - this is Silicon Valley). The theater was filled with families and kids. The "you are waiting" adds were playing. Then the start time came. The adds were still playing. And still playing. Finally, somebody went out to tell the movie theater personnel.

Oops! Sure enough, they had forgot to start the movie. It was promptly started. Now if only they would give extra snacks to make up for everything consumed while waiting....

"Make everyone miserable" retail development

The Sacramento area seems to have a thing with making retail developments as inaccessible as possible.

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The Woodland Gateway shopping center has big long roads whose only purpose seems to be to get people to drive more. The only entrance is on the west side. However, the main big-box retailers are situated on the far north and eastern sides, behind a big parking lot. Now if you switched the stores to the east side, you could still have the big parking lots, and car accessibility would be similar. But it would make things much more accessible for pedestrians.

An irony is that they do attempt to be some pedestrians facilities in, but make them very unusable. There are your typical sidewalks to nowhere, and one sided pedestrian crossings. If a resident of an apartment complex across the street from In n Out has a hankering for a burger, he would need to go on a long detour, because they chose not to put an official ped crossing there. (Though they would probably be safer with the illegal median crossing.)

You would think that all this inconvenience for pedestrians is the name of making it convenient for cars. But alas, you would be mistaken. To get to the In-N-Out, they would need to go down to the intersection and make a U-Turn. (Or slog all the way down towards Costco and around.) Getting out is more problematic. Medians block most of the logical ways, forcing you to make a right turn on to the main street. Ok, you think you can just make a u turn? You would be mistaken. The next few streets are signed no U-turn, forcing you to cross over the freeway and go a ways out of the way just to turn around to get back home. The other alternative is to go way out of the way back to costco (but make sure you don't hit a median).

I had thought this was just one aberration in bad shopping center design. But alas, this is not so. We stumbled across Notomas crossing in Sacramento, which has a similar layout. The design principle seems to be:
1) Set retail as far as possible away from people, thereby preventing pedestrians from accessing.
2) Funnel all cars through a single chokepoint, thereby increasing congestion and making it more annoying.
3) Limit options for cars. You don't want them to think. They need to go on a the long route to ensure they don't do anything bad.
4) Put up lots of grassy medians and trees to give it a faux-natural look - and help others to conform to the approved behavior.

If the shopping center is so evil that it needs to be drastically separated from the surroundings, why build it in the first place? And if cars cannot be trusted to make simple turns, why allow them there at all? Why not just provide a bus for everyone? (That would keep all the cars out for you.) But, who would expect rationality in zoning? Instead, we have have blind NIMBY appeasement, with everybody worse off.

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau is an organization that makes sure that people "conform" to the proper behavior. They do this by encouraging minor events that change chance encounters. (Such as spilled coffee.) If for some reasons, that doesn't work, they intervene themselves. (But they threaten a brain wipe if you dare try to tell anyone about them.) A typical PKD story. The movie seemed pretty good, but I fell aslepp during a chunk of it.

Iron Man

Comic book movies are popular today. Perhaps comic books are akin to the serials of days past.
As the first Iron Movie, this one spends time covering the origin of the super hero. Tony Stark is a playboy genius who owns a large arms manufacturer. He is nearly killed, but saved with s special implant. Some terrorists ask him to help build is super-weapon for them. Instead, he builds his iron man suit to destroy them. He gets away and attempts to make his company peace-loving. However, the bigwig in the company who had organized the original hit is still after him. Eventually there is a big Iron Man fight, and everything is good. Tony is supposed to give an alibi at a press conference, but instead admits that he is Iron Man.

The story is ok. There is some love interest thrown in, but it is really about action and technology. While superheros of the past were often portrayed as getting their powers through some fluke. Today, they tend to have more scientific explanations. IronMan, already being fairly scientific, can be even more so today. The science is just plausible enough to make all the action work. Tony Stark is an "ok" character who grows in the story, yet still seems a little shallow.


Today, we attempted to tallk a walk to visit some old Nanjing walls. From the map, we just needed to head east on Zhongshan road. We would pass a view of the metro stops, and then make it there. So, we headed out on Zhongshan, saw a few metro stops, but then got to train tracks. Huh? Well, it turns out, we were at the intersection of two Zhongshan roads. The one we wanted was "Zhongshan East Rd", but we were on "Zhongshan" road. D'oh! Since we were already far north, we decided to continue and ended up heading towards the Yangtze river.

We walked along a road where they are building a new subway line. At first, we ended up in an industrial port area. No good view there. So we walked through a neighborhood that actually looked Chinese (instead of "Chino-western"). Then we got to the area under the bridge. We saw a lot of people walk towards the river bridge, so we started to walk. We were told that we needed to pay 15 RMB. (Though it looked like only 7 on the sign.) We still saw lots of other people just walk through, so it seemed a little weird. They did tell us we could walk out another way to the river. As we were walking out, a lady told us that we could just walk around and enter at another entrance without paying. The Chinese approach to rules. We walked around there and saw a bunch of people going through that entrance. At the end of the street we found a place where we had a great view the river without going through the park, so all was good.

On the way back, we followed the train tracks. At one time there was a set of stairs to climb up to "something" (a train lookout and guard?) There was a little back path that lead down, that eventually took us back. At the top, we tried to ask a guy for directions. He told us it was a long way, and we should go back by the bridge and take a bus. At least, we think that is what he said. We were in a walking mood, so we just continued walking. (We also were not sure what bus to take or even how to take it.)

On the way back, we stopped at some streat vendors. I got some doughy-taroy thing that was priced by the kilo and way to expensive. (I'm sure I was ripped off.) Then there was some spicy fried (on the spot) meat and vegetables that were really cheap and good.

In Taiwan nightmarkets, I've had 西瓜牛奶 (Watermelon milk) which is a sweet smothie concoction with ice, milk, watermelon and some secret "stuff". 木瓜牛奶 was the papaya version, and equally yummy. So, I tried to hunt it down in Nanjing. I finally found it at drink shop in Nanjing. It was suspiciously under "healthy drinks". However, I was still ready for something yummy. Alas, they took it really literally. It was simply papaya and milk, lightly blendy (thus, chunky.) Not the filling drink I was hoping for.

Illustrious Dead

Illustrious dead is a nice history of the Napoleanic Invasion of Russia with an emphasis on the role that disease (especially typhus) played. It also has plenty of background on how typhus works and is caught.

From the intro, I thought it would focus on the disease. Instead, it presents a chronology of Napolean's Russian campaign, spending time to emphasize how typhus was a prime factor in Napolean's defeat. The Russian leaders were portrayed as largely incompetent generals who mostly got lucky. Napolean's army was one of largest assembled. This lead to some logistical problems. However, more critical was the dying off that occurred, mostly due to typhus. Typhus spreads via lice. War provides the ideal situation for them to spread, as it keeps people in close quarters under harsh conditions. Typhus and cellular mitochondria arose from a common ancestor, and have both been around for millions of years. Typhus has been very resilient through years adapting just enough to survive without causing too much damage. Today, it can be treateted with antibiotics or a vaccine. However, it still is prone to third world epidemics.

The book strikes a nice balance between war and medical history. Without the disease Napolean may have taken over all of Europe. Without Malaria, he may have taken over all of America. How would the world be different today if it were not for the diseases?

Friday, November 09, 2012


I have been using the Memrise website for foreign language learning. It allows you to "plant" words and grow vocabulary. For chinese it allows you to practice both characters and pronunciation. It is currently in beta, but it works pretty well. (I actually like the beta version better than the "preview" 1.0 version.)

It is best for learning new words. When trying to review words that you learned outside of memrise, you have to go through a slow learning process. (However, this does work well for words that you learned a while ago and have forgotten.)

Red lights bikes sunnyvale

Ugghh. It is annoying when a road has a bike symbol painted on it, yet it doesn't actually trip the light. (Or even more annoying when it trips the opposing red, but then doesn't trip your green.)

How do you resolve?
1) Provide feedback when a light will turn green.
2) Always provide green lights (fixed time cycle). This benefits bikes and pedestrians.
3) Do the Idaho and let bikes run red lights.
4) Have a button to press.

In some cases, there are buttons, but they are usually pedestrian buttons. And the rage is to have only one crosswalk at less-busy intersections (precisely the ones that bikes and peds like to use!)

Making the sensors too sensitive can be a problem.  There are some intersections that trip a turn light, even though cars are in the opposite lane. D'oh!

The old-fashioned timed lights would probably be cheaper, and nicer for everyone, as long as they are timed decently.

Feedback could be a good solution, especially at some of the annoying long lights. (But, why not just make them less long.)

Sunnyvale has, alas, been going backwards. At the intersection of Mary and Fremont there used to be a button to press. Now there is a bike symbol on the pavement. Alas, this is right where right turning cars go. If you go there with a bike, you are likely to either annoy cars, or have cars try to turn right in front of you. If you don't go there, you may not get a green light.  A lose-lose situation.

Selected Short Stories of Philip K Dick

Philip K Dick short stories are popular fodder for movies. He has an innovative mind, and explores bizarre situations that have some relevance to the current life. This collection had a few stories. Alas, it has been a long time since I started to write this, so I can't remember some of my original thoughts, but here we go.

Electric Ant
Novelty Act - jug blowing, furry animal make feel good. When you get by with a crutch, you also get in trouble when it leaves.
The Last of the Masters (aka Protection Agency) - ruled by "company" of robots. They try to do whats best for people, but that isn't what the people want. Oh, and their usefulness expired years ago.
A Little Something for us Tempunauts - time Travel closed loops
The Exit Door Leads In
The War with the Fnools - I think these were people-like things that infiltrated earth.
The Preserving Machine - a shoe?

God Wills It!: Understanding the Crusades

Understanding the Crusades gives a history of the crusades. There were a bunch of ragamuffins that needed something to do. There were some relics of an old empire that needed some help. So, a bunch of people went out on a looting expedition, or something like that. While we often read about multiple crusades, it was really more of a continuous effort of people seeking to better themselves through conquest and church indulgences.

Football 2010

And in the name of cleanup, here is the old football post from the 2010 season.  Some of the same teams are around here, but the conferences have changed a lot.


Oregon - They have been decimating opponents. However, they have only faced one good team (Stanford). The remaining games are all against teams with legitimate bowl expectations. If they win out, they should see a nice boost in computer rankings and human rankings. However, winning out could be a challenge. The Ducks should be favored in the remainder of their games. They tend to play well at home; however, road visits to Oregon State and USC could be especially challenging.


Oklahoma - The Sooners blew out Florida State and Iowa State. All the other games have been close, whether against good teams like Air Force, or not-so-good teams like Utah State. They have only left Normon twice this season (against so-so Cincinnati and the Red-River rivalry against Texas. Unfortunately, their two biggest games remaining are on the road against Missouri and Oklahoma State. It is hard to know what to make of them. However, if they win out, they should be legitimate.

Missouri - They beat San Diego State thanks to a botched call. Other than that, their showcase victory is an opening victory over Illinois. The next two weeks they will be underdogs against Oklahoma and Nebraska. Win those and they should show up on the BCS radar. However, they would still have to beat Kansas State and the Big 12 south champion to have a shot - and hope some other teams lose.

Oklahoma State - Like Missouri, the Cowboys have beat up on a lot of mediocre teams. (The marquee non-conference game was a nailbiter against Troy.) The next two weeks get Nebraska and Kansas State. They also have games against a now rejuvenated Texas and the closer against Oklahoma. Like Missouri, they face long odds of making it unscathed through the season - and then they have to hope for some falls above them.

Big East:
Um Yeah. Maybe if every other FBS team has 2 or 3 losses, the one win West Virginia may make it in...

Florida State is the only team with an outside sliver of a chance. The chance looks a little better than West Virginia's, but not much.

Boise State should be looking good. Their biggest danger would be letting their guard down in a game. The trip to Nevada in late November should be the biggest challenge (and hopefully provide a computer boost.) Fresno and Hawaii should not be disregarded, and the "final" trip to Idaho could unleash some venom. However, the biggest challenge may be overcoming a "WAC bias"

Mountain West: