Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Angie Hart does Joss Whedon

I was watching an episode of Buffy yesterday (Season 7, episode 7: Conversations With Dead People), and the lead-in music was just great. It was called Blue, by Angie Hart. According to the wiki episode site, the song was written by Joss Whedon. This is a great track, beautiful and haunting. It gave the Buffy episode an extra whopping impact. She's got some other tracks online, too. If you like that, check out her stuff!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A review of "Fooled by Randomness : The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets"

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

It’s true that Taleb’s ego sticks out from this book like a porcupine’s quills, but whether that bothers you may depend on whether they prick you. It’s hard to take his self-satisfaction seriously; in some ways, he seems just a little sad (but funny). Overall I found his style pretty amusing and had quite a few laugh-out-loud moments while reading the book.

I noted a few favorite examples [from the 2004 revised paperback edition]:

Chapter 7, p 124: “Whenever I hear work ethics I interpret inefficient mediocrity.”

Postscript, p 254: On the inverse rule: “The higher up the corporate ladder, the higher the compensation to the individual”, but the lower the evidence of that individual’s contribution to the company.

Who could be annoyed at a guy who holds such opinions?

I have a few quibbles. I do wish he’d had some graphs in some cases (in the preface, he explains why he refused to add these). If he’s going to claim that outstanding performers got where they are by chance, he could show it by attempting a fit of some variable to a normal distribution. But that’s probably easier said than done. Also, he tends to make generalizations – if something applies to him, then it applies to everyone (for example, he claims he never learns from reading, he has to experience something for it to make an impression – and seems to think this is the case for everyone). I think he should keep in mind that not everyone’s brain functions in the same way, and furthermore the human brain is not identical to a pigeon’s brain. Still, it’s easy to ignore these irritations, which are minor in comparison to the entertainment and educational value of the book.

Monday, May 29, 2006


Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.

Myerhuber Pond

Myerhuber Pond
Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.
I went for another hike today. It was unseasonably warm and humid - 88 F. You can see the haze over Myerhuber Pond. Happily, it was a bit cooler on the trail than on the road.

Today I did about 7 miles in 3.5 hours. I'm not sure of the exact mileage, because I took a wrong turn and wandered off course for a while. Sightings: a few white-tailed deer, a pileated woodpecker, a couple of rafters of turkeys. Disturbingly, I also saw that someone had constructed a tent from brown tarp, not easily visible from the trail. I wonder what that was about.

Not too many people out today. Nice.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Beautiful day

Beautiful day
Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.


Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.
I think this is a Fowler's toad. It's kind of cute. I love the toes.

Ulbrich Reservoir

Ulbrich Reservoir
Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.
I had to post this because of the strange smudge in the sky, which looks remarkably like a UFO. I've never had a UFO appear in one of my photos before! Quite fun! I'm assuming it's some kind of optical effect, because I didn't notice anything when I was taking the photo.

There's a nice view from this spot, but the racket from the firing range is quite loud here as well. I think the firing range is just across the reservoir, in that clearing at the edge, but I'm not sure.

Ulbrich Reservoir

Ulbrich Reservoir
Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.

George Washington marker

George Washington marker
Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.
The marker says: 1732-1932 Route of George Washington 1775 & 1789.

The Mattabesett trail crosses another, minor trail, which is purported to have been used by George Washington on two occasions (hence, the marker). It makes me a bit thoughtful when I see a sign like this; thinking about Washington and his troops marching along the ground where I stand now gives me an eerie feeling. There's a firing range in the area, so you constantly hear the sound of gunfire along most of this trail; it's very apropos.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly

I went for a nice hike today, 3.6 hours, 8.2 miles, for a pace of about 2.2 mph. The weather was brilliant, if a little too warm.

I passed this butterfly near the start of the trail. It paused on a tree, just beside the trail, and very patiently let me photograph it. I think it's an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Another one bites the dust

I finished watching the series finale of Alias today. It was kind of weird, but good enough. It's been good seeing all the old characters back onscreen. I think Dixon (Carl Lumbly) is my favorite, because he is just generally so cool. All of the actors are good, though; I can usually get pretty immersed in the story.

Anyway, with the end of this series, my TV schedule shrinks a notch:
  1. This Week with George Stephanopolous
  2. Desperate Housewives
  3. Grey's Anatomy
  4. Girlfriends
  5. Gilmore Girls
  6. Lost
  7. Alias
All of these except for "This Week" are on hiatus for the summer. Now I should become magically more productive...

In heavy rotation

The album Ghost In The Machine, by The Police, has been my workout soundtrack for a couple months now. This album is great! I bought it many years ago, and pulled it out of my CD rack on a whim. Now I can't stop playing it. It's not the best workout music; I guess I'm in a more thoughtful mood lately.

I added front squats to my leg workout today, at the suggestion of Tom Venuto. I haven't done front squats in quite some time. They strike me as the kind of thing you do when you're desperate for variety. Tom says they're good for your vastus medialis. I can use all the help I can get in that area, so I'll add them to my mix, at least for a while.

Friday, May 26, 2006

A story about "Fooled by Randomness : The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets"

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I just started reading "Fooled By Randomness", by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, yesterday. I have a vague memory that I read the first edition of this book for a personal finance course that I took in 2002, but I don’t remember much about it. In any case, the second edition has been expanded, so now I’m getting some extras. I’ve only finished the preface, and so far it’s going well, as he attacks certain clichés about success and failure, as found in "The Millionaire Next Door":

That all millionaires were persistent, hardworking people does not make persistent hard workers become millionaires: Plenty of unsuccessful entrepreneurs were hardworking people….

It is completely obvious, but it’s still a joy to read.

He also takes a potshot at Buffet: I am not saying that Warren Buffet is not skilled; only that a large population of random investors will almost necessarily produce someone with his track records just by luck. I think it’s not fair to confuse Buffet’s success with that of any ordinary stockpicker, since Buffet has interfered with the management of the companies in his portfolio on more than one occasion. Still, the beneficiaries of random luck are so frequently and unjustly deified, it can make you ill. It’s nice to actually read an alternative view, for a change.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Frickin' unbelievable

Where did the trailhead parking go?! Posted by Picasa

I went for a hike over at Sleeping Giant today. The trailhead parking off of Tuttle Av was full, so I went over to the parking area off of Mansion Rd. They've been paving Mansion Rd for weeks now. Well, they finally got to the trailhead. And they've put up a huge asphalt curb that obstructs entry to the trailhead parking. There's no way I'm taking my car over that.

Admittedly, it was never clear whether this parking was "official" or legal. But several trails do wind up at the road here, and ever since I've been hiking here, there has been a dirt area to the side of the road that's large enough to hold three or four cars.

This dirt parking area is adjacent to a driveway leading up to someone's house. The new asphalt curb was not constructed where that driveway meets the road, so I drove into the driveway and backed my car up onto the dirt area. I guess one car can still park there, but it's very bad. If someone parks in front of you while you're out hiking, your access to the road will be blocked. And I don't like driving up in someone's driveway to get to the parking area anyway.

So who is responsible for this state of affairs? It's either the contractors or the people who hired them. Something tells me it's "The Government." Argh!!!! Gnash! No wonder people are always ranting about them.

[See my post on June 22 for the resolution to this problem.]

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Car maintenance

My lovely little car was in the shop today. I took it in for an oil change, but I was worried about the brakes and the tires, so I asked them to do an all-around inspection.

Turns out the two rear tires needed to be replaced (as I suspected). There were a few little minor things besides. Cost: $112 labor, $161 parts, $16 tax for a total of $289. The two tires (Mastercraft 155/80/13) cost $120.

View from Hezekiah's Knob

View from Hezekiah's Knob
Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.
I sure did have some good luck, picking today for a vacation day. It has been a truly beautiful one. Nothing but blue skies, and it was so rainy earlier this week. I did another hike up to Hezekiah's Knob.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A review of "Of Human Bondage"

by W. Somerset Maugham

Today, I finished W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. The book is hefty at 766 pages long. At 258,773 words, it’s in the top of its class for verbosity (according to Amazon). I don’t feel too badly that it has taken a while to get through it.
As I mentioned in a previous note, it is fairly tedious to start. This is unfortunate, because readers without sufficient patience may put the book down without getting to the meat of it, which is well worth reading.
In the second half of the book, the main character, Philip, goes through a very interesting series of transformations. He starts out life as a callow youth, and becomes irrevocably attracted to Mildred, a woman with no redeeming features. Although Philip can’t explain the attraction, he is compelled to obey it. He is already living on the edge, financially, and this relationship puts him on the path to ruin – and incidentally makes his life much more intriguing to the reader.
Maugham’s descriptions of the effects of poverty throughout the book are very moving. People commit suicide because they are starving to death; they line up for jobs that are already filled; the pain of homelessness and hunger is exacerbated by the shame that accompanies it. Philip himself experiences this in chapter 99: “Though he had always been poor, the possibility of not having enough to eat had never occurred to him; it was not the sort of thing that happened to the people among whom he lived; and he was as ashamed as if he had some disgraceful disease… he could not quite believe that what was happening to him was true…”.
In chapter 113, Maugham shatters another illusion. “Philip had heard that the poor helped one another, but woman after woman complained to him that she [soon after giving birth] could not get anyone in to clean up and see to the children’s dinner without paying for the service, and she could not afford to pay.” But Maugham does not entirely avoid romanticizing poverty. For example, the family that befriends Philip, the Athelnys, are largely carefree, happy, and marvelously healthy, despite their rather precarious station in life.
It’s all very up-to-date; apparently the effects of poverty don’t change over the ages! Reading this novel has provoked in me an interest to read further about social conditions at the turn of the century. I am aware of some of the history of the changes that were brought about by reforms like the Social Security Act and labor laws in this country, but I’d like to learn more about how things went in Europe. The England of yore sounds very much like a third world country, in many respects. The well-to-do show very little regard for their suffering countrymen.
Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge shares a few themes with Of Human Bondage. There’s the youth who tries to rescue the fallen woman. There’s the lingering question of the meaning of life, and mention is made again of the writings of certain “mystics” in both books; in Of Human Bondage it’s the Spanish mystics, in particular San Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross, as mentioned in chapter 86). There’s some commentary on mysticism in Catholicism. While I think that The Razor’s Edge is better written, more mature, and also more condensed, I have to give Of Human Bondage two thumbs up. This is a must-read. The end is a real zinger, too; it draws a tissue-thin veil of romance over a rather dark and depressing finality.
I’ll record here a few memorable passages to entice you; Maugham has a bit to say about everything:
On education
In chapter 36, Philip begins work at an accounting firm, and we find that education has not changed much. The managing clerk asks him if he has any relevant knowledge, to which Philip replies “I’m afraid not.” The managing clerk responds: “I didn’t suppose you would. They don’t teach you things at school that are much use in business, I’m afraid.”
On healthcare
In chapter 81, a doctor has just diagnosed a young girl as being terminal. After she leaves, he says “Her brother and sister died within three months of the first symptoms. She’ll do the same. If they were rich one might do something. You can’t tell these people to go to St. Moritz. Nothing can be done for them.”
In the paragraph after that, Maugham describes another patient, “a man who was strong and in all the power of his manhood,” who is also doomed to death, “the death which was inevitable because the man was a little wheel in the great machine of a complex civilisation, and had as little power of changing the circumstances as an automatom [sic]. Complete rest was his only chance.” The man says he won’t give up his well-paying job, and leaves the doctor, taking with him a “useless prescription.” The doctor concludes “I give him a year.” Yes, health care has really come far, as well.
On religion
In chapter 88, a father defends the fact that he is raising his children in the church despite the fact that he himself is a non-believer: ”... religion is a matter of temperament; you will believe anything if you have the religious turn of mind, and if you haven’t it doesn’t matter what beliefs were instilled into you, you will grow out of them.”
On finance
In chapter 98, Philip has been speculating: “He did not know what to do. If he sold now he would lose altogether hard on three hundred and fifty pounds; and that would leave him only eighty pounds to go on with. He wished with all his heart that he had never been such a fool as to dabble on the Stock Exchange….”
On death
In chapter 110, Philip observes of his uncle, the cleric, who is dying: ”...the religion which his uncle had preached all his life was now of no more than formal importance to him…. it was clear that he looked upon death with horror. He believed that it was the gateway to life everlasting, but he did not want to enter upon that life. In constant pain, chained to his chair and having given up the hope of ever getting out into the open again… he clung to the world he knew.” I’ve seen that behavior myself, and it’s a mystery to me.
On family
In the same chapter, Philip briefly contemplates murder. “Philip clenched his hands as he thought of the money he wanted so badly. ... It would be easy, so desperately easy. He had no feeling for the old man, he had never liked him.”
I love the way that Maugham rips away the façade of civilization and lays bear the ugly, but true-to-life, feelings of his characters. He does have a knack for putting them through some interesting ordeals.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.
More wild columbine! Now I feel like a chump for raving over the couple of little specimens that I found along the Mattabesett trail. There was a small sea of these lovely flowers on Hezekiah's Knob today. I'm very glad that I took the time to hike up there.

View from Hezekiah's Knob

View from Hezekiah's Knob
Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.
The view from the top is not all that it's cracked up to be... That's some kind of industrial park out there in the distance, I guess.

Quinnipiac Trail is flooded
Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.
A few hundred meters in, I came to the point where the trail was submerged. I guess I've got bad timing; it has been a rainy week.

I wound up driving on over to Sleeping Giant and doing a hike up to Hezekiah's Knob. It was nice, despite the constant threat of rain (which never materialized).

Quinnipiac Trail is flooded

Quinnipiac Trail is flooded
Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.
The river was streaming across the path at one point...

The Quinnipiac River is flooded

Quinnipiac River is flooded
Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.
Today was the day that I intended to do the Quinnipiac River section of the Quinnipiac Trail. As I started out, I noticed that the river was flooding nearly to the edge of the trail.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Maugham on money

In Chapter 51 of Maugham's Of Human Bondage, Cronshaw discusses money, which is very apropos:

"...There is nothing so degrading as the constant anxiety about one's means of livelihood. I have nothing but contempt for the people who despise money. They are hypocrites or fools. Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five. Without an adequate income half the possibilities of life are shut off...."

Now if only, over the years, Cronshaw had taken the money that he was spending on cigarettes and booze, and instead put it into a diversified basket of stocks and bonds, he might not be so sour and deprived in his middle age.

[Edit: As dan points out in the comments, it was not Cronshaw who made these statements, but Foinet, Philip's art instructor. I don't recall that Foinet had any financial difficulties, so it's not clear how he got this perspective. Maybe it came from the observation of generations of his students.]

A story about "Of Human Bondage"

by W. Somerset Maugham

By Chapter 50, Philip, having chucked religion and accounting, begins to doubt his decision to become an artist. He asks Lawson, a fellow art student:

“I wonder if it’s worth while being a second-rate painter… if you’re a doctor or if you’re in business, it doesn’t matter so much if you’re mediocre. You make a living and you get along. But what is the good of turning out second-rate pictures?”

Later, he talks to another student, Clutton, who is maturing as an artist, or at least affecting the attitude of one. Clutton tells him:

...a great painter forces the world to see nature as he sees it: but in the next generation another painter sees the world in another way, and then the public judges him not by himself but by his predecessor…. When Monet came along and painted differently, people said: But trees aren’t like that. It never struck them that trees are exactly how a painter chooses to see them. We paint from within outwards – if we force our vision on the world it calls us great painters; if we don’t it ignores us; but we are the same… What happens to our work afterwards is unimportant; we have got all we could out of it while we were doing it.”

Finally, Philip talks to Cronshaw, the older, debauched man who barely makes a living as a writer.

Philip: “I don’t believe I shall ever do much good as a painter… I’m thinking of chucking it.”
Cronshaw: “Why shouldn’t you?”
Philip: “I suppose I like the life.”
Cronshaw, surveying the environs: “This?... If you can get out of it, do while there’s time.”
Philip stared at him with astonishment… He knew that he was looking upon the tragedy of failure.

This is all good stuff. It’s a bit obvious at my age, and I probably would have scoffed at it when I was younger. My interest is still piqued.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

I love my cash-back card

I just got a check in the mail for $121. It's from my Motley Fool 1% cash-back card. I love my cash-back card! People are always telling me that it looks funny or cute, which is a pretty weird experience when paying the cashier.

I wonder if there are any better deals out there...

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Tilting at windmills

I've put off signing up for the "Clean Energy" option on my electric bill forever. It was never obvious how to go about it, and the bill-paying time of the month is when I least have time to research something. Excuses, excuses!

Anyway, they mailed a sign-up form with my bill this time, which makes it too easy to avoid anymore. There were two choices; I'm going with NewWind Energy. I thought it would be hyper-expensive, but it doesn't seem like it will cost a whole lot more; it'll probably be less than $5/month extra for me. I can live with that.

NewWind supposedly provides 50% of their energy from wind, and 50% from "landfill gas," according to the info that came with my electricity bill. Their web site has precious little info, though.

I'm not gung-ho about windmills; apparently they cause bird deaths. But there is disagreement about how bad the problem actually is (say, in comparison to bird deaths due to collisions with vehicles, habitat loss, and so on).

rock wall

rock wall
Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.
This is an example of one of the features of New England woodlands that I love: the rock wall.

I went for a one-hour hike on the Quinnipiac Trail, within Sleeping Giant, today. I did a section that I have ignored up until now because it winds up in a suburban neighborhood. As you get closer to the road, you can hear a huge roar of traffic from the Merritt Parkway. Yuck!

There are a couple of unappealing sections to the Quinnipiac Trail that I've been putting off, but I think I'll hike them this year.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

A story about "Of Human Bondage"

by W. Somerset Maugham

So I’ve kind of been working my way through Maugham’s Of Human Bondage like it’s a rather untasty protein bar. I’m now about 35% through the novel and it’s starting to become entertaining.

In particular, I just finished Chapter 45, where things are really picking up. It starts with Cronshaw asking Philip rather abruptly: “But pray what tell is the meaning of life?”

Not that he wants to hear Philip’s opinion; Cronshaw just wants an opening to deliver his monologue:

”...I have nothing to do with others, I am only concerned with myself. I take advantage of the fact that the majority of mankind are led by certain rewards to do things which directly or indirectly tend to my convenience…”

He then goes on to explain his theory that people do nothing which is not selfish. It brings to mind Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (I have not read that book but am familiar with some of the ideas in it). He winds up his monologue by telling Philip “You were asking just now what was the meaning of life…” when of course it was Cronshaw himself who started in on the topic, not Philip at all.

Cronshaw’s several pages of lecturing at Philip have made the previous 256 pages all worthwhile. Hopefully we’re getting into the meat of the novel now.

wild geranium

wild geranium
Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.
I think this is wild geranium

trees along the trail

trees along the trail
Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.
I went for a hike around the Pistapaug section of the Mattabesett today, about 3 hours. It was a very nice day. Nice and quiet.

Why I recommend "Six Feet Under - The Complete Fifth Season"

by Alan Ball

I just finished watching the last season of Six Feet Under. This was one of the best TV series ever, if not the best. It’s incredibly powerful and moving. Amazing stuff. Words fail me. Wow.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

hike today

rock wall with waterfall
Originally uploaded by wereldmuis.
I went for a short hike today, at Sleeping Giant.

This is a view looking up from the bottom of a rock wall that has a waterfall streaming down a cut in it. This waterfall does not flow for much of the year.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A review of "Firefly"

by Joss Whedon

I’ve been watching this series over the last few weeks. It’s great! The acting, dialog, story arc, everything.

I must give special kudos to two of the actors (and they’re all great, mind you!). I love Ron Glass as Shepherd Book. It’s a wild ride remembering him as Det. Ron Harris on Barney Miller. And Gina Torres shows a nice range as Zoe. She recently reprised her role as Anna the assassin in Alias.

It’s a pity that the series ended after only one season. I found it pretty impressive compared to the first season of Buffy. Very promising. Definitely worth watching. Did I mention that Joss Whedon is a genius-god? Well he is :-)

Not counting on social security

I am not counting on getting social security checks when I retire. It'll be a nice extra if I get some, but if I assumed that I'd have to rely on it for necessities, I'd probably be in a constant state of panic. I guess I fit the profile described in this section on retirement in the April 11, 2006 NY Times (you gotta log in).
So at a time when the national savings rate has fallen below zero ... my family has gone the other way. ... We like to think of it as being frugal, but another adjective — cheap — would not be unfair.
Yup, I'm cheap, no doubt about it!

I've been doing some surfing around the whole social security issue lately, following some back and forth on the subject with Piaw Na.

Here are some quotes from an article in last year's USA Today about retirees who live entirely off social security:, 10.6 million people, or 22% of the 48 million who will receive Social Security benefits this year, live on that [social security] check alone, the Social Security Administration says.
Currently, 53% of people in the workforce have no pension, and 32% have no savings set aside for retirement.
The [current] average Social Security payout is ... $11,460 annually.
And here's the most recent summary on the status of Social Security and Medicare Programs (from May 1, 2006). [ Edit: Here's the full Trustees report for 2006, and here's another good summary of the report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ]

I've got no pension, but I do have retirement savings. Almost all of those savings are out of my own pocket; only one of my previous employers did the matching contribution thing, and I didn't stay with them long enough for it to make a big difference.

Hard to say just how much money I'll be getting in retirement. Things could definitely go sour. But then there's always the ex-pat option - hello, Panama! (log in required).