Friday, September 28, 2012

Malaysia thoughts

The violence in the Middle East due to the video made me wonder about the state of Islam in Malaysia. I did not hear of any protests in Malaysia about the film. In contrast to our time in Bahrain and Qatar when everything was closed because it was Ramadan, many Malays were seen walking about and even working in restaurants in the malls during the day. Is this the norm? Or is there a divide within the Malays with regards to how Ramadan should be observed? Where we were staying there were a lot of Malay stalls that were closed during the time. How would Malays feel about living the life that Muslims lead in the Middle East?

I’ve been away too long but think that these questions have some salience for the future of Malaysia.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Definitions of success

We each have our own and here’s a grab bag of thoughts triggered by books from some authors that I’ve been reading:
For instance, Nikola Tesla:

Lots of people don't know who Nikola Tesla was.

He's less famous than Einstein. He's less famous than Leonardo. He's arguably less famous than Stephen Hawking.

Most gallingly for his fans, he's considerably less famous than his arch-rival Thomas Edison.

But his work helped deliver the power for the device on which you are reading this. His invention of the induction motor that would work with alternating current (AC) was a milestone in modern electrical systems.
He died a penniless recluse in Suite 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel. The mainstream cultural fame of an Einstein or an Edison still eludes him.

Two ways to look at this would be external versus internal success. In the former case, Tesla was a success yet by his own measure he was not.

Push this concept into writers where there seem to be at least two versions of success - commercial and literary/critical. Commercial is pretty easy to grasp (e.g. no one does commercial success like JK Rowling or James Patterson) but the latter is harder to grasp.

From Gawker via Andrew Gelman:

RJ Ellory, award-winning author of crime novels such as A Simple Act of Violence and A Quiet Belief in Angels was blasted by fellow crime writer Jeremy Duns for posting glowing reviews of his own work on Amazon under the pseudonym "Nicodemus Jones."

Gelman comments:

I mean, sure, this is despicable behavior, I won’t deny that, but it’s gotta be harder and harder to make money writing books. Even a so-called bestselling author must feel under a lot of pressure. I was recently reading a book by Jonathan Coe—he’s just great, and famous, and celebrated, but I doubt he’s getting rich from his books. Not that there’s any reason that he has to get rich, but if even Jonathan Coe isn’t living the high life, that’s not good for authors in general. It’s a far cry from the days in which Updike, Styron, etc., could swagger around like bigshots.

  1. Elaine Ford’s Missed Connections was enjoyable and in my mind is what I would consider a literary success - I don’t really know whether it made the bestseller lists (commercial success) but it might have made that crossover. My measure would be some award either from a society of writers or won an award.
  2. Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin - again enjoyable and like Oryx and Crake, Handmaid’s Tale and so forth it is clear that she has managed to straddle both commercial and literary success.
  3. Karen Connelly’s Burmese Lessons and Dream of A Thousand Lives: Without doubt, Connelly is a talented writer and definitely in the critical category. Dream about her life in Thailand and Burmese Lessons about her time in Burma and Thai-Burmese border were entertaining and riveting. These were more autobiographical but the prose carried a sense of polish and finish that made reading parts of them almost lyrical and dream-like.

As Gelman points out it is harder to make money writing books these days and even harder to make a living solely from writing books. Does the author’s sense of self or the author’s goal of being a commercial success that determine the type of books they write?

Unconditional vs conditional probability in burglaries

One of the things we do when we go out of town for an extended period of time is to double lock all our doors, etc. Usually if we’re out for the day - to work, for instance - we don’t bother doing this. Is this irrational?

Yes: If the probability of being burgled is an iid process.

But should I be thinking conditional probability? If the probability of being burgled depends on whether the burglar thinks the house is empty then perhaps this is rational behavior, since the probability that the house is empty is larger when we're away?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Externalities from an unreliable grid

Coincidentally, after this post where the suggestion that there might be externalities from an unreliable grid and that these externalities might be large was dismissed, the following article appeared in the NYT:

To guard against a power failure, they [data centers] further rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust. The pollution from data centers has increasingly been cited by the authorities for violating clean air regulations, documents show. In Silicon Valley, many data centers appear on the state government’s Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory, a roster of the area’s top stationary diesel polluters.
Even running electricity at full throttle has not been enough to satisfy the industry. In addition to generators, most large data centers contain banks of huge, spinning flywheels or thousands of lead-acid batteries — many of them similar to automobile batteries — to power the computers in case of a grid failure as brief as a few hundredths of a second, an interruption that could crash the servers.
Of all the things the Internet was expected to become, it is safe to say that a seed for the proliferation of backup diesel generators was not one of them.

Terry Darton, a former manager at Virginia’s environmental agency, said permits had been issued to enough generators for data centers in his 14-county corner of Virginia to nearly match the output of a nuclear power plant.        

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Crime, boobytraps and zombies

Now that school is in full swing, fear of crime seems to have returned to our neighborhood. In the listserv, reports of strangers knocking on doors, casing the neighborhoods are starting to creep in. Someone pointed out that they are just people looking for manual work e.g. clearing shrubs, etc. As has been said before the biggest victim in any crime is trust.

I’ve been thinking of ways of making our house more burglar proof.

  • Window bars - unheard of in our neighborhood and in danger of becoming rare even in New York City. Then I remember that not only does it keep others out it also traps us inside.
  • Alarm system - does it really help? If it’s a smash and grab as it usually is it won’t do much. The burglar knows he has about 10-20 minutes before anyone really responds - enough time to grab stuff and leave.
What I’d really like to do is to lay down some booby traps - Indiana Jones style, or landmines - unless I trigger them myself.

Another alternative - become a hoarder, i.e. have so much stuff in the house that its hard to find anything and even walk around.

Well, what about a zombie proof house? Definitely - although in a real zombie attack the house needs its own power source. I don’t see one in that design.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Digital woes but a customer service win

So yesterday I finally received the ATT phone that I ordered. I had initially purchased one of those cheap pay as you go phones from Best Buy thinking I could transfer my old number as some carriers (e.g. Boostmobile) allows (or used to anyway) but no dice. I ended up having to get another phone over the web which arrived in the mail and had my old number transferred to it.

The instructions said to power it up and turn it on and the phone would automatically activate. That sounded too good to be true and it was. After a fruitless 15 minute search ATT’s website for instructions I finally broke down and called the customer service number.

Amazingly I got a real life person and a sweet woman with a wonderful Southern accent walked me through the process of activating the phone. After about half an hour I was totally exhausted and decided to call it a day. (Well, not actually but it definitely put me on a lower productivity profile for the rest of the day.)

Now it remains to be seen if VZW will actually stop billing me for that number.

Construction productivity and technology

When Keynes used the analogy of digging up holes and filling them up again as an example of fiscal stimulus he probably didn’t realize that he was describing an actual construction project that has been going on here for the past few months. Some of the jokes that are told about how many men does it take to dig a hole are especially true here.

Since April (I think), there has been a great deal of construction (of some kind) on perhaps a 5 mile stretch of Wisconsin Ave stretching first near the Safeway up to the intersection at Massachusetts near the National Cathedral. The project started up near here at the Safeway in small stretches moving up Wisconsin up to the Cathedral and then back down again and then back up again and so on....

At first I thought I knew what was going on - replacing street and traffic lights. First they tear up the middle two lanes of Wisconsin perhaps to lay some new cables. Then they put on the steel plates - sometime later when they are “partially” done they would lay down some temporary asphalt.  Then they tear up the sidewalk to install the lights - this would be done in stages involving different crews perhaps and on different days. First the foundations are laid - i.e. wiring, base, etc. Then the lights are attached to a temporary place near the old lights. Then the old lights are detached. Then the new lights are moved to their permanent locations. Then the sidewalk is temporarily patched. Then another crew comes in to put down a more permanent sidewalk.

Just when I thought they were done they seem to have gone back to tearing up the middle two lanes of Wisconsin Ave again - and now I have no idea what they’re doing. Is it a wonder that construction productivity has gone down? Or that construction technology has stagnated?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Digital woes

Gripe #1:
Marissa Mayer has her work really cut out for her. After so many years with Yahoo! email that I can’t even remember I am thinking of ditching it. A few experiences in the past few months jarred me.
  1. Yahoo used to link with Zumo drive so I stored some documents on it. I did not create a Zumo account however so I was unaware that it was shutting down its service. One day I logged onto my email and poof - no more documents. I feel that it was Yahoo’s responsibility to inform users of this transition.
  2. Yahoo Calendar and Notes are awful. They seem to disappear and crash for hours/days with no apologies or error messages - they’re just inaccessible.

About the only thing Yahoo mail has going for it is its interface which is something Google really needs to learn. Hate the Gmail interface. I realize that they are trying to streamline its look with the other products and I am willing to live with this as part of its ‘growing pains’ - for now.

What I might be intrigued about is a possible Yahoo - Zoho combination. Intriguing only not necessarily a winning combination though.

Gripe #2 and 2a:

Ordered a mobile broadband device from Virgin Mobile but no confirmation e-mail was received.
Bought a payGo phone from ATT website for $19. The claim was that this POC was originally $180. Meanwhile a close cousin retails for $20 which I also bought and activated but no confirmation email from ATT about an activation. These guys need to figure out customer service but then again telcos and customer service is probably oxymoronic.

Gripe #3:
Android really really sucks.
  1. Apps that work on one tablet but not another - possibly some problems with Android versions but this really sucks. Flipboard works on the latest system on Nexus but not on the Galaxy Tab which is just one decimal version behind: 4.1.1 vs 4.0.4. App download says anything above 2.0 should work. What gives?
  2. Downloaded an MP4 to be played later - again works on Nexus with 4.1.1 but not on Galaxy Tab with 4.0.4 with the default video player.
  3. No privacy/multi-user login. Sheesh. I’m hoping that Windows 8 in tablet mode will allow for multi-user login. I can’t believe I’m actually hoping it will crush Android as far as the tablet market is concerned because incompatible apps are driving me nuts!
  4. Greader gives me a full feed on one tablet but only a few in another tablet. It must be in the settings somewhere but I've already spent waaaay too much time trying to fix this. I end up unsubscribing and resubscribing.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Retail woes

Best Buy has been blaming its problems on showrooming. My feeling is that it’s a little more than that. I remember when the Dell, Gateway, and so on used to brag that there was no longer any need to go to a store to buy a computer. The Internet would allow customization and customers would be willing to buy electronics sight unseen. How far we’ve come since those days. Dell and Gateway are reeling - in fact Gateway is no longer selling computers online at last check.

The Internet drove prices down and computers and perhaps electronics in general have become very commoditized but it remains true that we still want to see what we are getting. I go to Best Buy more than I probably should but my recent experiences have left me wondering if there is any hope for specialty big box store such as Best Buy.

  1. I ordered something online and got an email to go pick it up at the store I chose. Except when I got there they couldn’t find the item! Inventory control seems a little out of control.
  2. The store layout is confusing and I can hardly find anything. I was looking for a no contract broadband and I expect it to be with the phones and wireless carriers but it isn’t there.
  3. DVDs and Blu-ray selections are fairly good but could be improved - again things seem to be arranged according to the middle word of the movie title or something like that.
  4. In general, selection isn’t great. I went to get new speakers for the computer but all they had were two or three models. With that much space I expect a better selection. The aisles are fairly wide and I see a lot of room for more stuff - again I expect that this really is an inventory control problem which has carried into the floor.
I can’t help but compare Best Buy to Apple stores although I don’t think that its the way for Best Buy to go. In general I think they need to enhance the shopping experience rather than to retain the warehouse feeling that seemed cool back in the 90s and early 2000.

Electricity reliability

The Washington area prepares for yet another storm and yet another potential loss of power. On our recent trip back to Malaysia I commented that in general we prepare for at least 1-2 power losses per year - by which I mean losses that extend beyond 12 hours. (I was met with raised eyebrows - as in, really? In USA? The supposedly most powerful nation in the world?)

These power losses need to be managed better. A suggestion was made here which if I understand correctly places the burden on the consumer: If the consumer values reliable power then he pays more. Unfortunately, it assumes, in the parlance of economics, that power restoration is infinitely divisible. I pay more but my neighbor doesn’t so I get my power back before he does. Maybe I understood it wrong but in any case, my understanding is that power restoration doesn’t work that way - it may work that way in the future with the so-called yet to exist ‘smart grid’ but as of now there is nothing but unreliability.

This suggestion assumes that power losses generate negative externalities e.g. data centers are unable to provide internet service, traffic fatalities from non functioning traffic lights, electric cars that aren’t able to charge up, etc. (A bit of a stretch perhaps.) Like all externalities it needs to be taxed (or fined) which utility companies don’t seem to have to bear at this time. The analogy here is on-time airline arrival when airline companies were fined for late arrivals (or something to that effect) which in turn led to more accurate (some would say conservative) estimates of expected time of arrival.

For the first 12 hours (an arbitrary cut-off) the utility company doesn’t face any penalties if power is fully restored. After that penalties kick in at 12-hourly or perhaps 6-hourly intervals at an increasing rate. (If you’ve ever called a plumber you’ll know what I mean - e.g. the first half hour might cost me $75 and then $50 for every 15 minutes thereafter.) The penalties go into a fund that can be used either to rebate affected consumers or as a fund for insurance payouts.

In the case of insurance payouts (I know lots of asymmetric information problems here) the customer doesn’t claim from the fund directly. He claims from his insurance company as he would if he were in an accident. It might affect his premiums or it might not depending on how much the insurance companies can claim back from this fund.

Right now utility companies do not face any real incentives to improve on electricity delivery. Apart from the direct costs of power restoration there is very little incentive to redesign what may be a flawed system. So they do the minimum - e.g. tree trimming, replacing equipment after it blows up rather than before, etc. This idea is to coerce them to bear some of the private (customer) costs. I use insurance companies here only because they may have a larger influence on the outcome than customers themselves.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Confusing action with accomplishment

Whenever I’m in some kind of rut I tend to over do things.

One of the first things I do is to look around for “productivity” tools to organize myself. Tried out Evernote, Tomboy Notes and reQall. Gave up on all of them within a week and went back to what I was doing before - a combination of Google Docs and pen and paper. Nothing works as well as the latter.

Signed up for courses at Coursera - I probably bit off more than I could chew - five courses. I had planned on doing one or two but the courses looked real interesting and I was afraid they wouldn’t be offered again. It was more of a kick in my butt to really try to learn R, Python and NetLogo.

I may end up having to drop a couple of courses. I’d really like to see some courses on Bayesian data analysis and big data.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Origins of us?

I had the opportunity to read Delta Willis’ Hominid Gang (now out-of-print) as well as Don Johanson’s Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind a few months ago. Without a doubt Johanson’s book is more readable and I felt that Willis’ book was written as a sort of a obtuse rebuttal to Johanson although if it were a rebuttal it wasn’t clear what it was. Despite claiming to be a book about the group of Kenyans (the so-called Hominid Gang) that were instrumental in unearthing archaeological finds in Koobi Fora, this book was more about Richard Leakey and the Leakeys in general.

It is clear that there was some tension between Johanson and the Leakeys regarding Lucy and possibly the Turkana Boy but Johanson’s book does a better job of explaining humanity’s time line and the search for the missing link. Willis and by extension the Leakeys seem to have some doubts about the direction of the direction of this search and whether some of the finds in the past have been been a distinct line in humankind’s descent (or ascent, however you prefer to look at it). Willis’ book does a better job of showing the ambiguity in archaeology/anthropology in contrast to Johanson’s more authoritative tone - the lumpers versus splitters debate.

The recent news about Turkana Boy (if I am reading it correctly) seems to have vindicated the Leakeys’ point of view:

Researchers studying fossils from northern Kenya have identified a new species of human that lived two million years ago....

The finds back the view that a skull found in 1972 is of a separate species of human, known as Homo rudolfensis....

For a long time the oldest known human ancestor was thought to be a primitive species, dating back 1.8 million years ago called Homo erectus. They had small heads, prominent brows and stood upright.

But 50 years ago, researchers discovered an even older and more primitive species of human called Homo habilis that may have coexisted with H. erectus. Now it seems H. rudolfensis was around too and raises the distinct possibility that many other species of human also existed at the time.

This find is the latest in a growing body of evidence that challenges the view that our species evolved in a smooth linear progression from our primate ancestors.

Instead, according to Dr Meave Leakey of the Turkana Basin Institute in Nairobi, who led the research the find shows that there was a diversity early on in the evolution of our species.
"Our past was a diverse past," she told BBC News, "our species was evolving in the same way that other species of animals evolved. There was nothing unique about us until we began to make sophisticated stone tools."

The research was published in Nature. Image from BBC.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Decline of American and Japanese manufacturing?

Rude Awakening by Maryann Keller was an entertaining read of the decline of General Motors and the automobile industry in general during the 1980s. While trying to be gentle to Roger Smith, the book actually ends up giving the impression that most of the problems of GM lie with him. It also highlights the difficulties that all companies face - how much to centralize and decentralize. In GM’s case, its mistake (with 20/20 hindsight) was too much centralization within the 14th floor. Executives and MBAs aimed for the boardroom knowing they could retire comfortably with little regard for how the company in general was performing. While he realized that this was the problem, Roger Smith did not act forcefully enough - the division of GM into its different models was confused and lacked coherence. In some ways the book is timeless in that it provides a microcosm of the decline of American manufacturing during the 1980s and perhaps even today.

In contrast Sony vs Samsung by Se-jin Chang was a more academic look at the differences between the two companies. Written in a dry manner, it raises more questions than answers about the decline of Sony and the rise of Samsung. The root of Sony’s problems lie in leadership (or lack thereof after the retirement of Akio Morita) and its organizational culture (as a result of the leadership of Akio Morita). So in some ways, Morita planted the seeds of Sony’s demise by favoring a movement toward content and autonomy of various divisions that led to fierce internal fights that distracted the company from its markets. Samsung in contrast is a dictatorship and had a laser-like focus in displacing the Japanese in all the markets it was competing in. The author raises the correct question in terms of Samsung - can its dominance continue given its leadership structure?

In both cases, the question of how much centralization versus decentralization should a successful or soon-to-be unsuccessful company pursue? It also points to organizational difficulties as a possible reason for decline of companies and in turn industries. This is especially true if companies in the same industry pursue the same policies and organizational structures in their rise to the top.

Moreover, the books show that the much vaunted model of Japan, Inc. of the 1980s is susceptible to competitive pressures today just as American companies were at the time although perhaps less susceptible in terms of collapsing.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Was someone at O’Reilly actually reading my blog?

In an old entry I said that I should be entitled to a free e-book after I’ve purchased a print version. Well, I guess O’Reilly sort of listened.

The Little Book on Coffeescript is $8.99 for the print and $9.89 (as of today) for both print and e-book. Javascript The Definitive Guide is $49.99 for the print and $54.99 for both.

Penang food: malls versus hawkers

One of the biggest changes this trip back to Penang was the apparent demise of many hawker food stalls aka street food. Certainly many of my high school haunts have disappeared - casualties of property development, rising incomes and perhaps the trend toward celebrating Penang’s (or rather part of Georgetown’s) status as a UNESCO cultural heritage site.

The trend is apparent in malls where many local chains or otherwise have set up serving the same types of (but alas) mediocre food e.g. Old Town, etc. It seems that Penangites have partially given up good food for air conditioning and wi-fi. Perhaps this is just a result of wandering the malls on weekends when street food stalls are more likely to be closed but I can’t help wondering.

Does how the EFC is calculated penalize savers

This is probably not a revelation to many people but with K1 approaching the age where we need to start thinking about college, this has been bugging me.

EFC is the expected family contribution calculated by colleges as well as the feds when applying for financial aid for college.

Family A: Household income of past 5 years of $100,000. Hand to mouth consumers who spend on luxury goods and expensive vacations. Savings = 0. Net worth = 0.

Family B: Household income of past 5 years of $100,000. Saves for college. Savings = $100,000. Net worth = $50,000.

All else being equal.

Will Family A’s EFC be the same as Family B’s EFC? True, Family A’s kid might graduate with more debt but it is also likely that they will also qualify for grants so that the net price paid will be lower than Family B.

Websites such as this one make the calculations even more stark.

For Bowdoin college, I used household income of $170,000 with AGI of 120,000 and zeros for almost everything else except primary residence and savings. For Family A I assumed net worth in residence was $500,000 and had savings of $100,000 $10,000. For Family B I assumed net worth in residence of $100,000 and savings of 0. Family A's EFC was about $16,000 per year while Family B's was $6,000.

Update: Found an Atlantic article with the same theme.
Update: I also assumed entering college in Fall with an additional child not yet (but going to be) in college.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bureaucracy and visas

One of the problems M had when trying to get into Doha was obtaining a visa. Since she was a Thai citizen residing in the US she tried getting one from the Qatari embassy in Washington DC.

Response: You have to be a US citizen. Please go to Thailand to get a visa.

Given that our flight was from the US to Thailand via Doha with a couple of days stop in Doha this was out of the question.

After some hemming and hawing she was finally issued a visa - single entry. We’d have to get another one from Thailand on our way back or perhaps the hotel in Doha could help.

Staff at Hyatt Doha was very gracious in trying to secure a visa - access denied.
Tried again Bangkok - access denied.
No reason was given which is customary. We had to detour to Bahrain instead.

Given that it was Ramadan, maybe someone was just extremely grouchy.
As a note, the Economist reports:

.. it [Arab countries] employs twice as many bureaucrats per head as the global average

But is this really a numbers problem?

A relative of M’s who was studying in England was planning to visit Europe this summer. She tried to get a Schengen visa from the German embassy in London.

Response: You are a Thai citizen. Please go to Thailand to get a visa.

Fine. She was going back to Bangkok anyway and then returning to England before school starts and was planning to go around Europe before hand.

Response from German embassy in Bangkok: You are residing in England. Please get your visa from London.


What next - city based visas?

Paying for stuff on our trip back home

Before we left on our trip I came across this article:

The US explosion in skimming has been driven, in part, by the low-tech nature of most US credit cards, which are still tethered to the same technology used for nearly 50 years: the magnetic stripe. Credit and debit cards in other parts of the world still use the magnetic stripe, of course, but in many places only as a backup to “smart” chip systems commonly referred to as “chip and PIN” or “EMV” (for EuroPay, MasterCard, and Visa, the companies driving cryptographically equipped smart cards in Europe and elsewhere).

We had difficulties using a non-chipped credit card on our last trip and was also trying to cut down on the credit card fees so I thought I’d do something different - I’d transfer some money to my sister’s account in Malaysia and have her ‘pay’ for all our expenses. I initiated a wire transfer from our bank and back came a message:

Due to compliance regulations concerning Malaysia, we will require some additional information before we are able to process this transfer.
At your earliest convenience please provide the following details:
·         Your Nationality
·         Beneficiary’s Nationality
·         Detailed Purpose of Payment
·         Ultimate Destination of Funds

It reminds me that a lot of enforcement and compliance is voluntary. I fail to see what this ‘additional information’ really serves. If I were to use the money for nefarious purposes surely I would not announce it?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

YA summer reading

Did some summer reading - partly inspired by the kids'reading lists.

1. Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamilo - enjoyed though felt somewhat flat and everything seemed expected. Good voice.

2. Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge - appealed to the Tolkien in me. Would make a great movie if someone could figure out how.

3. Scott Westerfeld - Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras - take one aspect of society - in this case teenage society’s obsession with looking good and getting noticed and turn it into a story. In a lot of cases as with this one it works okay although it felt overdone. By the fourth book I was skimming.

4. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. A series of vignettes told through the eyes of a young girl living in a poor neighborhood. Thought provoking. May have to return to this many times before getting it. It feels like a book that needs to be got rather than flipped through which was what I did. K1 is reading this for part of the term.

5. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson - phew! This one was raw. I’m not quite sure what to make of it as an 8th reading assignment. I got this from DCPL. MCPL didn’t seem to hold any copies of it (why?). Part of me wants to say that it is definitely not 8th grade material but ...

6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I had similar feelings about this one. Not the rawness part - this book felt like it was written to shock and in some ways achieved it. Masturbation, alcoholism, racism abounds. The apparent easiness of his acceptance into the ‘white’ high school was somewhat surprising.

The last 2 books were award winners. I can see it for Speak but I felt that the latter was an award for writing content to shock parents particularly the masturbation. I didn’t really see any point to it. The alcoholism and racism I thought were well introduced. 

7. Divergent by Veronica Roth. This was enjoyable in the way Hunger Games was enjoyable. It’s targeted toward the teen crowd. I say this because in both series have the protagonists making life changing decisions when they are 16. I don’t really find this to be a realistic age to be making these decisions especially if these kids are our direct descendants who have been helicopter-parented. The choice of age feels more like a marketing gimmick than anything else. Both these series seem to have written with a movie in mind and in the case of Hunger Games - voila!

Middle-east impressions

We stopped in Qatar/Doha (2 days) and Bahrain/Manama (3 days) on the way to and back from Asia.
1. Things are really brown.
2. Humidity much much higher than expected - even more so than in Penang and Bangkok
3. Hot
4. More flashy cars in Doha than Manama Porsches, Audis, MBs.
5. No solar panels.
6. Security tighter in Manama. Security guards at the hotel waves a metal detector wand over us every time we enter. Parking in front of the hotel was restricted.

7. More visible American presence in the hotel in Manama - military and construction/oil? worker types.

Stayed at the Hyatt in Doha. In a word - opulent. To the point that I felt guilty. It made me think of Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone for some reason. Most expensive breakfast ever - $100 for some doughnuts, pastry and coffee. The exchange rate was just incredible.

In Manama, we stayed at the Residence Inn - most comfortable bed and pillows ever. (Update: Best scrambled eggs ever as well for breakfast.) It was a large place - more space than we needed although the interior walls and shelves were somewhat spare. Well stocked with dishes and cooking utensils though.

It was Ramadan so things were very quiet. Hard to find food at the Hyatt - only one restaurant was open so it was a good thing we were only there for two days. The plan was to use the stops to gradually adjust to the time difference but it really made no difference. I was just as jet lagged without the stops, if not worse. It was good to recharge though - we would probably not stop for so long next time though I doubt we’d be back in the region.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Angle of Repose

Managed to wade my way through it during our vacation. My thought was: This is a Pulitzer?!

I have serious doubts that it would ever get published today with plagiarism charges running amok. From Wikipedia:

The novel is directly based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, later published as A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West.

Stegner's use of substantial passages from Foote's actual letters as the correspondence of his fictional character Susan Burling Ward was and remains controversial among some scholars. The controversy is somewhat tempered since Stegner had received permission to use Foote's writings, implying as much in the book's acknowledgements page.

Still - the acknowledgement was bare. It did not say that it was excerpted from actual letters just that the story was based on her life.

Terminal 21

This was probably the only place we visited when we were in Bangkok. It was across the street from where we were staying - convenient for food (Food court and restaurants) and groceries (Gourmet Market). Each level has a different ‘theme’ - e.g. Paris, Istanbul, San Francisco, etc.

The big draw here seems to be the bathrooms, also with its own theme.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Skeptical of skeptical environmentalist and the improving state of the world

I decided to make a go these two books: The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg and the Improving State of the World by Indur Goklany.

My skepticism lies not so much with their presentation nor the statistics. My skepticism is whether I should be skeptical about all the optimism. Lomborg attacks Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute and specifically about how data is presented in its annual State of the World reports. Lomborg claims that the reports presents statistics in a biased manner since it does not take the ‘long view’ into account.

I am sympathetic to this point of view - we can say that things have gotten worse by picking two points in time that make our case for us - the peak and the trough and then hide everything that has gone on in between. Alternatively we can pick some other two points in time that supports the view we are trying to make. Some comments on the web have pointed out that is possible to claim that the earth has simultaneously warmed and cooled by picking out any two points between 2000 and 2010.

I think that both books misses the larger point. (Goklany’s is a more interesting book but pretty much has the same thrust as Lomborg.) The point is not to thump our chests about how great things have been since neanderthal man walked the earth - but how much the recent past says about the future. To paraphrase someone it’s not how much better off you were than your forefathers but how much better off you were four years ago and how much better off you will be four years from now.

So all the points that are made in the books about the warming climate and pollution etc misses the larger view by appealing to the long run view. In the long run we’ll all be dead, the sun is going to go nova and we’ll be swallowed up by a black hole. I don’t care about the long run. I caer about what’s going to happen 5 or 10 years from now.

P.S. I thought the Goklany book was interesting in that it attempted to calculate I = PAT. None of the calculations were very convincing but I thought it was a valiant attempt. It also had a fairly balanced (I thought) coverage of GM crops, although this is because I’m already biased toward GM.

Update (9/4/2012):
Here are some headlines that essentially ask the relevant question - what does the recent past say about the forseeable future:

  1. Summer’s record heat, drought point to longer-term climate issues
  2. Wonkbook: Climate change may be to blame for extreme weather events now
  3. Hansen,'s Perception of climate change studyAlso covered in the Economist and Think Progress.
  4. Cover story of September's National Geographic Magazine.