29 September 2010

Movie roundup

Some movies I watched recently, in approximately decreasing order of enjoyment. Warning: includes what you could consider to be a spoiler for Moon.

Back to the Future. There isn't a single throwaway line in this film. I consider it one of the best screenplays ever written. Michael J. Fox's character is just so likable. You really want him to set things right. And the friendship between Marty McFly and Doc Brown is heartwarming.

Incidentally, it speaks volumes about human nature that we are so gripped by the idea of traveling to the past and righting wrongs.


Inception. I really enjoyed this movie. And I think what drew me in was its treatment of mind control. (Nora Jemesin puts it well.)

The plot driver of the movie (that in order to succeed, the protagonists have to inject an idea at a level beneath the target's conscious awareness) hints at something that every writer and teacher has wrestled with. The problem with our minds is that they are not wired to process evidence in a rational way. Planting an idea in someone's head is not just a matter of laying all the facts out in as lucid a manner as possible; it can require a bit of indirection, underhandedness, trickery, and elbow grease. Which is part of what makes writing (and teaching, and the art of persuasion) so intriguing, at least to me.

Also a very good screenplay, one of those technically well-constructed films where everything comes together at the end in a very satisfying way. Recommended.

Moon. I was looking forward to this movie. A cool premise and a set of interesting ideas are spoiled by poor execution. The major twist is exposed less than halfway in, and every potentially suspenseful development thereafter is deflated in an anticlimactic way (you can guess most of the developments after and possibly including the first big reveal). There is no rising action. The film just didn't work for me.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Clichéd and bland and mildly entertaining.

The Expendables. Lord knows, I love explosions as much as the next guy, but I actually found myself bored during the middle of this movie.

The American. Too much brooding. Incredibly slow and boring.

22 September 2010

Pita chips

I previously shared my hummus recipe, so I would be criminally negligent if I didn't also convey how easy making your own pita chips is.

Homemade pita chips are a snap to make and are far cheaper than the stupidly expensive stuff you find at the supermarket.

These chips are merely salted (to maximize your appreciation of the hummus). Despite their simplicity I am pretty sure they are more addictive than nicotine.

Instructions: buy some pita bread (both regular and whole wheat pitas make good pita chips). Separate the two sides of each pita by cutting along the circumference with a knife or scissors. Cut each into triangular segments and place them on a baking sheet, rough side (inside) up. Brush or dribble olive oil onto each. Sprinkle with sea salt. Bake at 350 degrees for 7 minutes. Turn the chips over and bake for 7 more minutes.

Try and eat just one. I challenge you.

Adapted from The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook.

19 September 2010

The Elements of Investing

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book.

The Elements of Investing, by Burton Malkiel and Charles Ellis, is a fine (and very concise) book with basic principles of investing.

Burton Malkiel is also the author of the (much longer) book A Random Walk Down Wall Street; if you have read that book, you may not be surprised to learn that the core of the advice is this: Buy and hold index funds.

Malkiel and Ellis lay out the arguments that suggest you should keep a substantial chunk of your assets in broad index funds (or index-tracking ETFs, which have similar characteristics). Foremost among them, individuals are not very good at picking stocks or at timing the market, and fund managers are no exception. (Having your assets properly diversified can help you sleep at night, and that's probably worth something to you too.)

There's other good advice as well, such as how to take advantage of 401(k) plans and IRAs.

I consider the advice presented here to be a good set of defaults for most people. Those who are exceptions (or are in exceptional situations) will need to consult sources other than this book, but those people ought to know who they are. Meanwhile, if you have already read A Random Walk Down Wall Street, there is little truly new material presented here (same goes, probably, if you are already just generally well read in personal finance). However, you may still find it convenient to have a bunch of essential actionable elements in a single short book.

09 September 2010

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, by neurologist Oliver Sacks, is a collection of case histories of his patients.

The book is divided into four sections, corresponding to categories of brain (dys)function: neurological deficits, neurological excesses, visions and altered perceptions, and mental retardation and savants. There are 24 stories in all, varying in length and style. Both the clinical accounts and Sacks's personal reflections on each case are very interesting, though some of the shorter chapters left me wanting more.

One of the most unsettling cases, "A Matter of Identity", is about one William Thompson, a patient with Korsakov's syndrome. He can only remember things for a few seconds, so his mind is continuously forced to improvise ad-hoc stories to explain his surroundings. When Sacks introduces himself, Thompson (mis)identifies Sacks as a customer, and himself as a butcher (which he was, before he was institutionalized); then, noticing Sacks's white coat, he figures him for a fellow butcher; eyeing Sacks's stethoscope, he assumes Sacks to be a mechanic (for some reason); then a doctor; then a customer, again; and on and on. Thompson switches from one explanation to another fluently, never showing any hesitation or uncertainty. He is totally oblivious. Sacks muses, wondering whether Thompson, who has consciousness but lacks continuity, can be said to have an identity, or even a soul. And though Sacks can do little to mitigate Thompson's condition, he does notice that when Thompson is left alone in the garden, he finds a peace that he's not able to obtain anywhere else.

So it is with many of the accounts in the book, that Sacks shows his resourcefulness as a healer. Some of his patients have disorders that make them seem almost hopelessly walled off from the rest of the world. And yet Sacks is often able to break through somewhere, to help patients get in their element—to find some context or activity in which their disorders fade or seem to disappear entirely. It's through clinical accounts, surprisingly, that one sees the human and compassionate side of both the doctor and his patients.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat has many beautiful and wondrous tales, and it really gets one thinking about what it means to be human. Recommended.

07 September 2010

Plush Tux Penguins

Edit, January 2011: also see the next generation of Plush Tux.

As a Labor Day weekend project, Santhosh and I made plush Tux penguins (in honor of our favorite kernel). Neither of us had done a major sewing project before, so it took the two of us about 16 hours to make two penguins.

We obtained free (as in speech) schematics from free-penguin.org. That site is somewhat light on instructions, but the patterns came out very nicely. Each Tux stands (er, sits) about 11 inches tall.

More assembly pictures…

02 September 2010

Review: Mercier Galaxy and other bike gear

Having completed a tour with my bike (my first road bike) I can now make a few comments on it and my other equipment, and pass on some of the many tips people have generously shared with me along the way.

The Mercier Galaxy is a good first road bike, and a good touring bike for its price. I bought mine on bikesdirect.com for $496 and it has since been discounted to $396. The price is right! In addition to taking mine on tours, I've also been commuting to work on it.

The Galaxy's frame is all steel, so it's not light, but it's also nothing that will fall apart on you.

If you are looking to buy a bike online, you do, of course, have to know your frame size. This can be a little tricky if this is your first road bike; I won't go into the details here.

The bike comes "mostly" assembled. All you need to complete the installation is a set of Allen wrenches and a tube of grease— just put grease on every metal-metal interface before you put the parts together. I put my bike together without adult supervision in a couple of hours. (The manual is both unhelpful and unnecessary.) Having a second person around during assembly is helpful. The only tricky part, I would say, is getting the derailleurs adjusted right. I don't have a good sense for visually figuring out how the derailleurs should be positioned, so it took me a few edit/ride cycles to get it adjusted to something usable. I imagine that if you took the bike in to a professional (or really, anyone who knows something about bikes) they would be able to fix this sort of thing for you in no time at all.

I installed the following parts for the tour. These were pretty quick changes: most elements took under 30 minutes to install (first time trying). The Galaxy is nearly ready to go on a tour.

Tires: Continental Ultra Gatorskins. Around town I'd mostly been riding around on 25mm racing tires. For the trip, I installed the Ultra Gatorskins, which have a Kevlar strip in them so they are more resistant to flats (I made it through the tour with no flats). I used 28mm tires since we were traveling loaded. The Gatorskins are heavier but having the extra peace of mind is invaluable. In case you want to install still wider tires, the brakes and frame do even fit 32mm tires, so you do have that flexibility.

Rear cassette: Shimano 11-34 8-speed cassette (HG40). The Galaxy comes with an 11-30. Having that last gear be so much lower really helps on steep grades. (With these gears, Redwood Gulch, a 21% grade at its steepest part, turned from something I dreaded to something manageable.) Often, with a 34-tooth gear, one needs to make sure that the rear derailleur can actually reach that far. The derailleur that comes with the Galaxy is just fine, in fact, though I had to do a bit of fine-tuning so I could access the last gear. You will need some more specialized tools (not just Allen wrenches) to replace the cassette.

Brakes: Kool Stop Salmon brake pads. These brakes are nearly silent and perform well in the rain. There's not much more to say about them! Buy a set already.

Bike computer: Sigma BC1606L. It's light and does the job. A single coin cell powers it for months. Additionally I borrowed a GPS unit for the trip, but closer to home I don't usually need a GPS.

Pedals: Shimano pedals, and Shimano M086 shoes (mountain bike shoes). I also have a matching pair of road bike shoes (R086). The mountain bike shoes have treads on the bottom so that the cleat is partially recessed; the road bike shoes do not, so they have a totally smooth bottom except for the cleat. If you intend to race, then every gram matters, and you want the road shoes. You also want the road shoes if you enjoy the feeling of being afraid of slipping and falling on your back every time you take a step on asphalt or tile. Maybe it makes you feel more alive. Otherwise… just start with mountain bike shoes.

Fenders: SKS Race Blades. I wasn't able to find fenders before I left, so I bought these in the middle of the tour. When riding in the rain, getting a thin stripe of mud down the middle of my back doesn't really bother me, but getting my socks wet from the splashback can be really miserable. The SKS Race Blades are nice because they attach with rubber straps, so they are easy to mount and unmount. (Also important, they go behind the front fork rather than trying to fit through it, so they actually fit on the Galaxy and other road bikes.)

Light: Planet Bike Blinky Superflash Tail Light. (I also had a cheap no-name front light that was anemic enough that I won't endorse it. Fortunately we didn't need to use our lights extensively.) Two AAA batteries power the Blinky Superflash for weeks or months of commuting.

Bags: Carradice Nelson Saddlebag and Carradice Bagman Quick Release (rear) and an Ortlieb Ultimate5 Compact (handlebars). The Ortlieb detaches easily and has a shoulder strap, so I left my valuables (camera, phone, passport) in there and brought it with me whenever I had to leave the bike. Extremely convenient. The Carradice Nelson fits a shockingly large amount of stuff, and the quick release mount is useful for commuting as well as for touring. Both bags are waterproof.

Fully loaded bike

Update, Mar 2012: a year and a half later, this bike has seen about 4,500mi of riding on three additional tours, and I have no plans to retire it. I am still using everything on the list above except for the Sigma (I've upgraded to a Garmin Edge 800). More info about my recent tours here or here.