Wednesday, February 21, 2007

February News Dump

Random Notes:

  • I just heard that my friend Dan will most likely be moving out to the Bay Area to perform his residency at Stanford! Hooray! This is super awesome, not only because this is a great area and I'm sure he'll be happy here, but also for my own selfish reasons I'm trying to get all my friends to move out here.
  • On the topic of the Valley, I read a really good article in the New York Times about the unique place Silicon Valley holds in the world economy. Unfortunately, I've procrastinated in putting up the link, and now it's behind the Times Select wall. It isn't SO good that you should spend money on it. The idea, though, is that there is a curious contradiction at play in the world today: while the world is getting flatter, and technology is doing amazing things to erase the importance of physical distance, there is no real substitute for having a geographic region where creative people congregate and bump into one another. Silicon Valley still attracts a shockingly large percentage of startup funding and company headquarters, and will probably continue to do so for the near future; the article talks about all the times in the past where the valley has seemed to be in trouble (the collapse of the memory chip industry in the 1980s, the dot-com bust in 2000, etc.), only to come back stronger than ever each time (the rise of the microprocessor giants, the current wave of biotech and green energy startups). Anyways. It made me feel good about being here.
  • Hey, let's make it a three-fer: as has been well documented on this blog, I ride a decent amount of transit for someone who owns a car. Earlier this week I took part in a focus group organized by the VTA - that's Valley Transit Authority, the folks who run all the public transit in Santa Clara County. It was pretty cool... we spent some time talking about our impressions of transit in the South Bay, evaluated a new website they're working on, got free food, and walked away with $75 in cash. They never said not to talk about the website with others, so I'm interpreting that as permission to blab about in on my blog - you can visit it at Also, if you live in the South Bay and are interested in making a little extra cash, you can register with San Jose Focus and maybe they'll give you a call.
  • I'll try not to be annoyingly partisan or anything, but Obama's my man. I dropped a fairly modest contribution when he was in his exploratory stage, and now I'm on the mailing list for the $250 a plate fundraisers. I don't know whether to be honored or bothered.
  • I love living in Northern California. Wearing shorts in February because it's 76 degrees out? Yeah, I could get used to this. Actually, I have.
  • The second annual Amgen Tour of California is under way. Last year I wanted to go, ended up not, and then spent the next year regretting it. This year I made it out to the Prologue in San Francisco and the start of Stage One in Sausalito. It was a lot of fun; I don't follow bicycle racing all that closely, but know enough to track what's going on, plus it's great to be in these beautiful locations surrounded by enthusiastic people. If you'd like to track the excitement vicariously, the official tour web site has some amazing live coverage on race day. They switched from Google last year to Yahoo this year, I'm not sure why. Anyways, the technology is quite astonishing. Also, my trip up to Sausalito was the first time I've been in the North Bay since moving out here, and I must say, I was impressed. That's beautiful country up there.
  • As for books, I'm most of the way through Obama's The Audacity of Hope. I'm biased, but I think it's quite good, especially for a campaign book. It won't be as timeless as Dreams from my Father, given the references to topics of the moment such as Terry Schiavo; actually, it already seems a bit less relevant given the change in control of Congress four months ago. Still, the strength of the book is that it is topical strictly for illustrative purposes; Obama is mainly interested in talking about the principles of our government and its role. I don't think enough people talk about his background as a professor of constitutional law, and while he isn't "professorial" in this book, he has a firm grounding in and respect for the traditions of our country.
  • I came scarily close to filling up my work computer's hard drive earlier this week. It's only 50 gigs, and I hadn't had to delete any of my source repository trees before, so I had a lot of low-hanging fruit. Anyways, along the way I found a phenomenal tool that Windows users might want to grab if they are thinking of doing a similar cleanup. WinDirStat will analyze your drive and divide it into trees, so you can see just how much space each folder takes up. You can sort your folders in order of size, and drill down into subfolders to find where the big offenders are. I'm really glad I found this because it's sort of a practical example of the 80/20 rule... the biggest improvements can be found in relatively few places, so it's important to find a tool that will help you find those places. For example, early on I'd naively assumed that the Program Files and my music collection would be big targets. However, one of my build directories was twice as big as the entirety of Program Files; I could have spent an hour picking out programs to uninstall, and not come close to the amount of space I reclaimed just by deleting old temporary files.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Adventures in Customer Service

Wow... I usually don't do this, but I feel like I have to share a great experience I had.

I've had an account with DuPage Credit Union for... hm, probably around a decade now. They've handled all my checking, and until I switched to ING they did all my savings as well. Keep in mind that I haven't actually lived near a branch location for about seven years. I've happily stuck with them, partially due to inertia, and also just because I really like the bank. They don't have annoying fees, everything is really transparent and open, and they've had a simple-but-effective online interface for quite some time. My only complaint is their absurdly low interest rate on savings account, but I'll gladly accept the package.

Anyways. Like I said, I live far away from DuPage County, but that hasn't been a big problem. I do direct deposit with them, and on the rare cases when I need to cash a check, I'll just mail it in to them or wait until the next time I'm visiting home. I do almost all my bill payment and stuff online, so it doesn't really matter where they're physically located.

I had hopped online this morning to see if my latest transfer from DPCU to the Apple Bank (my new savings account home - 5%+ interest!) had gone through. I saw it had, and was just about to close the window when I noticed something wrong. I have an automatic payment plan for my car loan, and this month it had been deducted twice from my account. Argh!

People who know me will understand that this instantly clouded my day. Not only do I like things to go smoothly, but I get flustered when I need to deal with people in order to fix things. I'll gladly spend an hour poking around a website to figure out how to do something rather than spend a few minutes on the phone talking with someone. I'm not entirely sure why this is, and am sure it's a sign of some neurosis, but it has the effect of being self-perpetuating; the less I do it, the harder it gets to do.

Anyways, it was pretty clear in this case that I would need to once again pick up the phone to solve this (or let it slide and be out a few hundred bucks - not in the mood for that after finding out how much I owe the IRS this year). So I sort of groaned, went to lunch, came back, and called.

The actual procedure was blissfully painless. I had a single automated prompt before reaching a service representative, explained to him what the problem was, was put on hold for all of a minute or two, then he came back on the line and explained what the problem had been, and told me that it would be fixed within minutes.

So all that was wonderful. Looking back, I can identify a couple of things that helped this go especially right:
  1. Quick response time. If people are kept on hold for a long time before they ever speak to someone, the whole transaction starts off on the wrong foot.
  2. Friendly contact. The person I spoke with was pleasant. Even if it's a short contact, the attitude of the person on the other side of the line has a huge impact on my overall impression of the experience.
  3. Good use of technology. It was obvious that the representative had access to all my account information; almost as soon as I explained what I was seeing, he knew what I was talking about. This helps maintain the impression that the organization is competent and on top of things.
  4. Respectful and knowledgeable. I really appreciate that they didn't just say "We fixed it," but took the time to explain what had happened. It gives me a sense of closure and, once again, shows that they understand what's happening in their organization.
  5. Able to fix the problem. Ultimately, this is what I want to get out of the transaction, and they passed with flying colors.

As usual, this incident got me thinking about things. While DPCU isn't geographically local to me, they are local to a particular area, which can yield huge benefits to them and their customers. All their representatives and records are in the same place as their management and facilities; because of this, they are integrated in a way that's still very hard to do with far-flung operations. On my call, the representative was able to walk over and talk with a financial person who had the knowledge and authority to recognize the problem and order the fix. Compare that with a massive call center; the problem still could have been resolved, but would have required multiple escalations and transfers to get to the point where the person on the other end of the line could actually solve my problem. It's sort of ironic, but I think that I got much better service using a small bank chain half a continent away than I would have using (not to pick on them) Bank of America, who is just down the street from me... and just down the street from everyone else in the country, too.

Anyways. Kudos to DuPage Credit Union for doing a great job! I wish there were more organizations like them out there.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Mag a zine

I just signed up for another magazine. This is getting a little ridiculous. When I graduated from college, I had exactly one subscription: Consumer Reports. When my mom visited recently, I noticed that I had five magazines on my coffee table... and that was just the ones that had arrived the previous week.

I'm planning on culling things over the next year. For posterity, though, here are the ones I subscribe to, roughly in order of how long I've been getting them for:

Consumer Reports - I love the idea of this magazine. Their ratings are great, I love how they don't accept advertising, and Consumers Union is one of the best public advocacy groups in the US. That said, my subscription is expiring and I won't renew. I came to realize that I haven't used a single one of their reports in the past year; I just don't buy that much stuff these days, and don't see that changing until I buy a house. Besides, they've been irritating me with constant renewal notices and those infernal subscription cards.

The New Yorker - Hands-down my favorite magazine. I got a gift subscription around Christmas 2003, and have happily renewed it every year. The reporting is original and outstanding, the arts coverage is thoughtful, their profiles have piercing insight... every piece of this magazine is tops. Best of all, the quality of writing is unparalleled, and makes other magazines seem shoddy in comparison. Also, they introduced me to George Saunders, for which I will be eternally grateful.

Washington University - I get this for free since I'm an alumnus. It's mildly interesting, and I enjoy feeling like I'm still a part of the community. Also interesting to read up on what other alumni are up to.

Dr. Dobb's Journal - This started out as a subscription to C/C++ Users Journal, but that magazine went away a while ago and they converted my subscription. On the plus side, I'm a "professional" and so I don't need to pay them, just occasionally fill out a survey. It's all right, not great... since it's less focused than the previous magazine it's less useful to me, and too many articles that do apply to me fall into the "duh" category, but there's just enough good content in there to make me at least flip through it.

XLR8R - I started subscribing to this shortly after I moved to the Bay Area; I love electronic music, but know almost nothing about it, and thought this would be a good way to become acquainted. Unfortunately, I just don't seem to have time to read this... I end up recycling each issue unread (at best flipped-through) when the next one arrives. I may need to resign myself to being unhip, and will almost certainly not renew. On the plus side, each issue comes with an excellent CD sampler, which has introduced me to some artists I really like.

San Francisco - This is a freebie I get from supporting KQED, our NPR station. It's the quintessential coffee table book, with great pictures and short articles. I don't think I'm getting any more issues, which is fine... it's very focused on the City and the North Bay, so it isn't all that useful to me. Still, each issue usually has at least one interesting article, so I won't complain, especially since it's free.

Cook's Illustrated - I've already described on this blog how they sent me a free issue out of the blue. I tried some stuff, was impressed, subscribed, and it may not be an exaggeration to say it's changed my life. Over the past year I've relied on a combination of CI, Joy , the Campbell Farmer's Market, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's to feed me, and I don't think I've ever felt better. Cook's Illustrated has all the best aspects of Consumer Reports: unbiased reviews, no advertising. Its exhaustive and educational recipes have taught me a ton about cooking; while I'm far from an expert, I'm much better off than I was a year ago. That said, I'm letting my subscription lapse. (Why? Read below...)

The Atlantic Monthly - I got a great deal on this, and had been curious for a while - it has a solid reputation for good reporting. I've been happy with it, but won't renew. Why? Because it does largely the same thing as the New Yorker, though with a stronger emphasis on politics, and tends to come up short in comparison: the writing isn't quite as strong, some commentators are too abrasive, there's too great an emphasis on factoids and statistics. Still, if The New Yorker didn't exist, it would probably be my favorite magazine.

Nutrition Action Healthletter - I came to greatly admire CSPI when reading Marion Nestle's What to Eat . Like Consumers Union, they're an excellent public organization that promotes good science and policy. I got a great deal on this subscription as well, and may well continue. Each short issue distills the science behind some nutrition topic into a clear and useful article, plus includes reviews of food, simple recipes, and other useful stuff.

Lucky - Okay, I'm just embarrassed about this. I bought something from Amazon (probably some kitchen thing) and was told I could get a FREE subscription to Lucky. I thought, "Oh, free! I like free!" and gave them my address. My first issue arrives yesterday and... um, yeah. Not exactly what I was expecting. I think I'll try to see if I can cancel my subscription, just because I hate the idea of so much paper being wasted on me.

Cook's Country - I got a sample issue a few months back and was sufficiently impressed that I decided to switch over my CI subscription. Both magazines share equipment reviews, kitchen tips, and essay-style recipes. I think CC is more my speed, though. It has more recipes, and they tend to be simpler and quicker. I've been really impressed by the great stuff in CI, but I need to ask myself if it's worth spending up to five hours cooking a dish that I'll end up eating by myself. I can see myself swapping between the two in the future, but for now, I'll stick with CC.

New York Review of Books - This year's freebie from KQED. It replaces last year's gift of the complete New Yorker archives, not the San Francisco magazine. I've heard great things about this, though I haven't actually read it... I'm hoping it will introduce me to new authors and genres and widen my reading a bit more.

Wow... twelve magazines. That's way too many. No wonder I don't seem to read as many novels these days as I'd like.

House Credit


I've been watching House for three years now. It's a good show, a fine showcase for Hugh Laurie's acting chops, and has been getting better as time goes on. I keep waiting for its formula to become repetitive, but... I dunno, at least for me it hasn't yet. I suppose that there's a place on television for fine episodic content, as opposed to the sprawling serial structure of shows like Lost (which I also still enjoy).

Anyways, I was watching this week's episode, and for the first time I found myself actually thinking about the images that show over the opening credits. This is reaching, but I thought you could make an argument that each actor's image actually corresponds to their character or their role on the show.

Briefly, then:

Hugh Laurie (House). Image: Brain. Obviously, the main aspect of this character is his towering intellect; there's no doubt that he's the smartest character on the show, and his smartness is responsible for both his admirable skill and his despicable arrogance.

Lisa Edelstein (Cuddy). Image: Nervous system. As hospital administrator, she is responsible for connecting House with the rest of the world by bringing him cases and information. She also "feels" things much more than the insensitive House brain does.

Omar Epps (Foreman). Image: Skeleton. Bones convey strength and power. Foreman is the most talented of House's assistants, and the one with the most inclination and ability to oppose him.

Robert Sean Leonard (Wilson). Image: Brain. But it's different from House's brain; the shot here emphasizes the division between the hemispheres. This may allude to House's endless criticism of Wilson, his inconsistency (doing things he doesn't want to, wanting to believe things he can't, etc.)

Jennifer Morrison (Cameron). Image: A discordantly beautiful scene of a boat on a lake in the wilderness. Similarly, Cameron doesn't really fit into the hospital due to her idealism and extreme compassion.

Jesse Spencer (Chase). Image: A spine. Like the skeleton, one would think of strength here, but the angle chosen emphasizes how much the spine's shape bends. Likewise, Chase has the greatest capacity for accommodation among all his colleagues, which allows him to weather bad situations more than people who actually care.

That's that. Again, I doubt any of this is intentional, just an example of me projecting my own thoughts on what's probably a random collection of pretty images.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Mr. Wind-Up Bird

I just finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, another phenomenal book by Haruki Murakami. Murakami is coming up strong in my mental list of top living authors.

Who should read this book? You should definitely try it if you've read and enjoyed Kafka on the Shore. This book was an earlier effort, but it shares a lot of similar traits: the dreamlike logic of the plot, the vivid descriptions of scenes, fascinating characters. You should also give it a try if you've enjoyed psychedelic or paranoid authors like Pynchon, Vonnegut, or R. A. Wilson. (Actually, Murakami is kind of the anti-Vonnegut, but I think their fans could probably appreciate both authors.)

Murakami is such a treasure because he combines fun writing with good literature. This is a trait I find myself valuing more and more the farther removed I get from my English Lit training; I still crave the quality and thought-provoking enigmas of complex books, but it's so hard to find the time and mental energy to track through the dense prose that usually accompanies them. There's no way I'd be able to read Ulysses or Moby Dick on my own these days. Murakami is like a still, deep pond - you can easily move along the surface, but those deep waters are just waiting for you.

In some ways, discussing the plot feels almost superfluous. I'm incapable of writing a three-paragraph review post, though, so here come some:


The protagonist and narrator is Mr. Okada, an amazingly passive individual. The novel starts after he has quit his job and is living at home, supported by his wife's work at a publishing agency. He cooks and cleans and goes shopping and sometimes reads the employment ads. He isn't a slacker, exactly; it's more that he doesn't know what to do more than that he doesn't want to do anything.

A sequence of strange events occur throughout the novel, and even stranger characters are introduced. The pair's cat leaves, and a psychic called Malta Kano is consulted to help find it. She is more interested in the energy of the household, though, perhaps because her sister and fellow psychic, Creta Kano, has a history with the wife's brother Noboru Wataya, an amazingly unpleasant academic and politician whose star is rapidly rising. And so on; more people are brought into Mr. Okada's circle, not only by physical meetings, but also people from stories in the past, or who appear only in his dreams, or as disembodied voices on the telephone.

The story itself is kind of fascinating, equal parts mystery, domestic drama, historical fiction, and fantasy. There are also some intriguing themes which I won't claim to understand but that imbue all the action with a sense of mysticism and timelessness. One big concern is that of water: water, and the absence of water, is of enormous concern to many of the characters, and appears in both physical manifestations and psychic concern. There's a lot of talk of "flow," which might be thought of as fate but seems to be something different. Mr. Okada is an unusual hero, but he is the perfect hero for the logic of this universe; his power lies not in prevailing against overwhelming odds, but by recognizing and submitting to the movement of the flow. His archnemesis, Noboru Wataya, is a man of evil agency; Okada opposes him not through good agency, but by good passivity. This isn't to say that Okada never takes action, just that he only takes action when moving with the flow.

Besides this idea of "flow," there is a lot of concern with identity in this book. Even more so than in Kafka on the Shore, there are a lot of characters with multiple personalities, characters trying to find themselves, people becoming other people, and otherwise exploring or transmuting their own identities... or, far more sinister, the identities of others. A question which is raised early on in the book is, "Can one person truly know another?" One of the most seemingly mundane aspects of the book proves to be among the most frightening: Okada's discovery of how little he knows of Kumiko, despite having been married to her for years.

More so than Kafka on the Shore, I get the impression that this book probably has extra levels of resonance with Japanese readers that I just can't get. A significant concern of the book is Japan's role on the Asian mainland prior to and during World War II. Murakami is far from an apologist for Japan's actions during this period, though at the same time he shows how some individual Japanese had qualms about what their country was doing.

Murakami does some interesting things with the narrative in this book. Kafka on the Shore was mostly narrated in the third person limited omniscient, following two main characters in largely separate storylines, except for a few chapters presented as classified documents from a government ministry. Early on, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is even more conventional with just a simple first-person narrator. Commensurate with the book's concerns with identity, though, the narrative starts to expand and scatter as the story reaches its end. We get letters written by a teen girl, long monologues from supporting characters, documents on a computer, and sensational articles from tabloids. Most disturbing for me were two small chapters told by a third-person limited omniscient narrator; it is such a common literary style, but one totally missing from the book up to that point, and it's hard to figure out how the style and the content fit in with the rest of the book. The mystery is eventually resolved, and I thought it was one of the many impressive examples of Murakami's skill at weaving together a whole work out of disparate pieces.

So how does this book compare with Kafka on the Shore? I think Kafka is more assertively supernatural. It's also funnier; though Wind-Up Bird has its amusing moments, it doesn't have anything to compare with the Colonel Sanders pimp. Both books have bizarre sex scenes, although Wind-Up Bird's are less offensive. While I won't claim to understand The Wind-Up Bird, I do feel like I "got" more of it than Kafka; in some ways it's a more satisfying story, with more pieces of the puzzle fitted together at the end. I can't say that either is better than the other; both are masterworks. I can't wait to read what Murakami has in store next.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Fell from Heaven


Thursday night I beat Fall from Heaven 2. It was a fun game, though in the end, it wound up feeling much more like a Civ game. The big thing that was missing was the inevitable unwanted war at the end. To this I attribute both luck and skill. Luck in that there were no Evil characters, and skill in that I was able to successfully convert all other empires to follow Octopus Overlords, thus both making everyone Neutral and giving our relations the same-religion bonus.

This is definitely the most successful religious game I've ever played. I spread Octopus Overlords to every city on the planet, and once I had my religion buildings built, I was able to run with 0% taxation and still rake in a good chunk of change every turn. As in my other religion games, I tried to discover as many faiths as I could to keep my rivals from getting any ideas. As I expected I failed to get Fellowship of Leaves, but I could have gotten Runes of Kilmorth if I'd bothered to try (I thought it was hopeless). I did discover the Cult of the Dragon, The Order, and The Ashen Veil. The Cult spread throughout my continent, but since I never went to war I didn't get to experience the effects. The other two were just kept within my empire for the culture boost.

My biggest regret in all this is that I wasn't able to play much with the amazing new units and promotions after my barbarian battles were over. If and when I do my next game, I'll try for a more conquest-based approach so I can exercise them.

I ended up taking what seems like a really obvious path for my civ (the Kuriorates) and went for a cultural victory. After I got really far along the tech tree, I switched my culture to 100%, turned all my specialists to Bards, and had the cities start building culture. After I automated my workers, it was just a matter of hitting "Enter" a bunch of times.

Besides winning the game, the big culture boom also caused more cities to revolt and join me than ever before. I think a good five or six turned coat during the game. Most of them I ordered destroyed; as Settlements, they couldn't build anything useful for me. Amazingly enough, though, one of the cities was the Holy City of the Runes of Kilmorth, and I did gratefully hold on to that.

Speaking of which: one complaint I have with both vanilla Civ and Fall from Heaven is that when you capture a city, you don't get a chance to see what's in it before making your sack/take choice. That's just dumb. It's not only unrealistic, but it makes it very difficult to intelligently build your empire, since you need to choose between risking destroying a crucial world wonder or over-extending yourself unnecessarily.

Oh, another cool thing about playing as Kuriorates: your cities can get stupidly big. My largest two were nearly size 50 and still growing at a good clip despite widespread unhealthiness. The secret is to plant your cities near fresh water and grasslands, then build farms, and switch to Agriculture. Every Grassland tile will bring in five food per turn, causing a population boom. By the end game, my two big cities were working every single tile in their radius and supporting an army of specialist Bards. The thought brings tears to my eyes.

Like I said before, playing as the Kuriorates made this an entirely different game from what it might have been, so I'm eager to try another game to experience yet another challenge. I love the idea of the pirate civ, so maybe I'll give that one a whirl.

Not to boast or anything, but here is my victory screen:

Hooray! In all honesty, I get the feeling this is inflated - I was playing on Warlord, and it doesn't seem right that a mere cultural victory in the 300s would give me this score. Still... I'll take it!

Oh, but just check out the names on that list. Aren't they awesome? Looking at this as the last part of the game just ensured that that special warm glow would last past the end of the game. Sigh... these are my people.

(Since I'm compelled to criticize, though, I do have some issues with the order of this list. How on earth did Belgarath get to be so high? I mean, I loved the Belgariad when I read it in fifth grade, but come on... he shouldn't be that high above the others. Ah, well - I suppose this game is still a work in progress, after all.)

In conclusion: Fall from Heaven 2 is an amazing user-created mod for Civ IV that puts the official Firaxis mods to shame. If you love playing Civ IV, or if you enjoy dark fantasy, or if you're interested in seeing a fine example of creative programming, you owe it to yourself to at least give this a try.