Saturday, August 30, 2003


Michael Lewis is another author whose new releases I eagerly await. His latest, Moneyball, did not disappoint. It's the story of the Oakland A's, and how they've managed to stay competitive despite one of baseball's lowest payrolls. Billy Beane, the general manager, was a hot high school prospect who turned into a great baseball bust. As an executive, he's searching for a way to evaluate players that will avoid wasting money on players like him.

He and his cohorts have reduced baseball down to a science. Not only do they pick out good players based on statistics (rather than who "looks like a baseball player" -- there's a funny scene where some old scouts discuss a player's butt), but they have figure out which statistics matter. For example, stolen bases "look good", but getting caught stealing is one of the most damaging things that can happen. Walks, on the other hand, are a much undervalued commodity for hitters.

I'm not a huge baseball fan, but I really appreciated the idea that some people are trying to bring careful analysis to a superstition-riddled environment. I wonder how it would do with something more important -- like, say, football. I suspect smaller sample sizes and the more team-oriented nature of the game would make such an analysis impossible. On the other hand, lots of the analyses cited in Moneyball were counter-intuitive, so who knows...

Lewis comes across as a complete Beane and A's partisan in this book -- it's not the most objective work. I have a long-standing prejudice against the A's from the days the obnoxious Bash Brothers competed against my Twins. (Science is never going to come to fandom.) But since finishing this book last week, I've been checking the baseball standings and rooting, just a little bit, for the As.

5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, August 29, 2003

A Brief History of Nearly Everything

I recently finished A Brief History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I have mentioned before reading Bill Bryson books. He's one of the authors I make sure to read whatever new he has out. Usually, that's been some sort of entertaining travel writing (or perhaps something on language). His current book is a departure from that, which can be a dangerous thing. You don't necessarily want to see a travel writer thinking, "Hey, how hard could it be to write about science?"

As it turns out, Bryson does a pretty good job in the science popularization biz. About twenty years ago, I used to read Asimov's science popularization. It's interesting to see what's changed in the science world in the past twenty years (or more, since the Asimov anthologies tended to be dated). Also, as someone without a science background, Bryson takes a little different perspective. Fortuantely, he sticks to his strengths of finding interesting stories about the unusual personalities that the history of science has produced.

I only have two main complaints with the book. The first is the organization. It seems intended to take you from the formation of the universe up to the dawn of humanity. Somewhere in between, though, you find yourself reading about plate tectonics, entertained, but wondering where Bryson is going with all this. The second is that Bryson has a tendency to rely on secondary sources. Some things clearly get muddled along the line.

4 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Summer in Minnesota

Last spring, I posted pictures I took at a stoplight in Minnesota. Yesterday, I took some more pictures at that same stoplight.

This time, Christina's driving. In the background, you can see the parking lot where the police takedown took place.

The following picture can be compared with this shot from winter.

I'm #20!

My recent trivia playing while traveling has moved me up to the No. 20 slot on the Santa Fe Cafe's NTN rankings. Christina and I went a couple of times at the Park Tavern Bloomington, where I wouldn't even make No. 50. It's a tough place. Still, I somehow won Sports IQ. We left that evening with three free drink coupons and a free appetizer coupon, bringing my haul to 5 drinks and 1 appetizer in two
nights that they've been giving stuff away. They're good for a year, so I intend to have quite the evening before they expire. Christina won 1 of the drink coupons, I picked up a drink and an appetizer for winning Sports IQ, and I got another drink coupon for "winning" a horse-racing thing they had. (They give everybody chips with numbers, play a videotaped horse race, and give you a drink if your horse wins.)

If a Tree Falls While We're Flying Home, Does Anybody Hear It?

We just got back from Minnesota. (Small number of pictures to follow.) We only were delayed about an hour, by storms in Baltimore. The captain went on about how we could take off, except the government wouldn't let us. Darn government. I don't know whether he blamed some cloud-seeding project, or the air traffic controllers for not letting all the planes fly into the storm at the same time.

When we came home, we found evidence that the storms had been serious, in the form of our next door neighbor's front yard...

Monday, August 25, 2003

Hail to the Redskins

OK, we got the season tickets. And we enjoy them. Well, we did for the first preseason game. For the second preseason game, there was such a dearth of people wanting to go that we ended up with Ben's parents' tickets on the 50-yard-line. (Well, maybe the 45.) Ben had club-level seats for the game, but he came down and joined us for the second half.

I took the digital camera along, and we ended up with some pictures to share.

"Honey, do we really have to go back to our seats up there for the season opener?"

A little pre-game entertainment...

Christina in her Champ Bailey jersey...

While some of us are partial to Fred Smoot...

The Redskins take the field...

Ground level view of the Redskin victory...

All in all fun, and I was glad to see them win, but I'll be glad when the real thing rolls around.

Friday, August 22, 2003

Santa Barbara Pictures

I downloaded the pictures from the digital camera.

Here's the opening reception of the conference...

When I got back to the hotel one night, I saw this truck parked outside with this interesting essay on Mayans, Christianity and mathematics...

Here's my hotel room...

The start of the drive to campus...

Where 101 hits the coast at Gaviota...

Partway to campus...

Here's the beach barbeque from Wednesday night. It wasn't really a barbeque, though. It featured...tri-tip!

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Here: A Biography of the New American Continent

I finshed Here: A Biography of the New American Continent. The book has at least three different threads -- the author's experience as bureau chief for the New York Times in both Mexico and Canada, the history of North America over the past 500 years, and the North American experience in the age of NAFTA. These threads come together and provide a thought-provoking narrative of the complex interrelationships that characterize our continent.

I ran many of DePalma's anecdotes about Mexican society past Christina to make sure he wasn't mischaracterizing things, but she found his stories fairly recognizable. The strength of the book is the author's ability to draw on his personal experiences (and as a NYT bureau chief, he got pretty good experiences -- meeting high-ranking policitians, getting private tours, and breaking important stories). Unfortunately, that's also a weakness, as events that happened when DePalma wasn't around (for example, after he left Mexico) get much less attention. Furthermore, after only two years in print, the book is already dated. The election victory of Vicente Fox and the end of PRI dominance in Mexico is relegated to an afterword. And the effect of September 11 on international relations and the importance of borders will have to be left to another book.

Still, I recommend Here. DePalma's a sharp observer, and a thoughtful one. His approach of treating Canada, Mexico and the US as one entity to be studied is a novel one, and the novelty definitely pays off here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Not Really In Santa Barbara...

The University of California at Santa Barbara is actually in Goleta, 8 miles away. I guess that's OK, since UC San Diego is in La Jolla. The Santa Barbara airport is also in Goleta. That'll come in handy getting from the conference to the airport on Thursday.

The Rancho Santa Barbara Marriott, however, is really not in Santa Barbara. It lists itself as 35 miles north of the airport, so it's even farther from Santa Barbara itself. I was originally booked into the Holiday Inn, but a week before the conference rooms became available at the Marriott -- at a cheaper price, even.

If I can make it to 50 nights with Marriott this year (I'll be at 32 after this week), I reach "gold" status. The primary benefits from that are room upgrades and access to the executive lounge. Nice enough when I'm on the road by myself, but it'll be really cool when Christina travels with me. I had complimentary Hilton Gold access for a while, and she really enjoyed the nicer digs in Sydney and London.

So it seemed worth the drive for that alone, but it's actually turned out even better than I thought. The drive is mostly along the Pacific, and it's been fairly fun. It's not much longer than my usual daily commute. I've gotten to see part of California (the Santa Ynez Valley) I haven't seen before.

When I made my reservation, they couldn't guarantee me a king bed. When I checked in, I asked the clerk if I could be switched from the two queens room I had. She said the only king rooms they had left were "accessible" ones, which I could have if I liked. I asked what the difference was, and she said they had larger bathrooms and a detachable shower head. After being assured they had plenty such rooms (so I wasn't taking one away from someone in a wheelchair), I decided I could handle it. Christina hypothesizes that I gave up some space in the main room for the bigger bathroom. I can live with that.

After checking out the room, I wandered in to the gift shop. I had picked out some toiletries when a woman came in and told me they weren't open yet. I asked when they would open and she said, "Maybe tomorrow or Wednesday." I had to think about that, but she said the hotel had been without a gift shop for several years. It now seems to be open (why else would they stock newspapers?), just in the morning or evening when I walk by.

Monday, August 18, 2003

Seeing America via NTN

Now that I know the NTN rankings at Santa Fe Cafe are on-line, I have a certain amount of motivation to keep my ranking up. So before I travel, I'm now doing an NTN search to find places to eat. I'll be eating out anyway, so it's not like I'm spending extra money (or gaining extra calories) through this method.

I was pleased to discover Federico's, right next to my hotel offering NTN. After I checked into my hotel yesterday, I went there for a late lunch and played a couple games of Countdown. Since I'm at the conference all day (half an hour from my hotel), I don't know how much I'll get to go back there. (Also, they're closed today.)

Today, it was off to the Old Town Tavern. It's about a 5 minute drive from the conference, in what passes for downtown Goleta. I had a little trouble finding parking, but I eventually parallel parked across the street and went in. It was a nice enough place. The bartender mentioned that they had a "tri-tip" sandwich on special. After enough "what-what"s out of me, she realized I must not be from the West Coast, since I had never heard of "tri-tip". Apparently, it's a cut of beef. It was tasty enough, but I don't know how special I find it. I played one game of Wipeout and then came back to the conference. (And the wireless network in the lecture hall -- a lifesaver during boring talks.)

Update (August 2004): Federico's doesn't seem to exist (or at least have NTN) anymore, according to on-line searches.

Pictures from California

Well, I'm back in California. And I have pictures to share. Of my last trip to California. As you'll recall, I lost the connector cable for the digital camera. I discovered this only after taking pictures on my March trip to Berkeley. Saturday, I finally hooked up the digital camera using a different cable. I can't attach it to the laptop, but I can download pictures at home. Those of you wishing to see pictures of my present location (Santa Barbara) can take a look at pictures from my trip 3 years ago. It hasn't changed all that much. Oh, I'm not staying in the dorm this time. More on that later.

Here's my hotel room in Oakland...

My rental car from Oakland...

Here's a sculpture outside MSRI by my colleague Helaman Ferguson...

Here's a view of the San Francisco Bay from MSRI. Note the Golden Gate Bridge in the background...

Here's a talk I attended on Escher and the Droste Effect.

Friday, August 15, 2003

Philly Pix

Here are some pictures from our recent trip to Philadelphia.

Here's us in front of Independence Hall...

And in front of the Liberty Bell...

Here's Christina in front of the Schuylkill River and the lights of Philadelphia...

Here's us with our friends Cheryl and Jon in the lobby of our hotel...

Tuesday, August 12, 2003


Dear Redskins Fan:


Your waitlist account number, XXXXXXX, has come up. You are now officially
eligible for 2003 Redskins season tickets.

As a member of the most exclusive club in Washington, you will have a choice
of locations starting at $YY per game.* You will also have the option of
purchasing on-site parking immediately adjacent to FedExField for $25 per

Your season tickets include both pre-season games as well as eight regular
season games with an option to purchase post-season tickets as well. Your
season tickets are just for 2003. Each season after that, you will have an
option of renewing them.

As a season ticket holder you also have the right, on Monday mornings, to
tell your friends what really happened at the game, because you were there.

Please have your account number available and call us immediately at (301)
ZZZ-ZZZZ to choose your Redskins Season Tickets location or to let us know
if you want to pass on your tickets for this season.

Hail To The Redskins!

*Terms and Conditions apply including a one-time, $50 per season ticket,
activation fee.

Monday, August 11, 2003

Do You Know the Way to Santa Fe?

I went with some friends to the Santa Fe Cafe Saturday night to watch the Redskins embarass themselves. Hey, it's only preseason, right?

We also played NTN trivia there. If you look at the rankings for Santa Fe, I'm #21 in "Players Plus Points". They're sort of frequent-player points. Originally, you were supposed to be able to redeem them for stuff, but I think they discovered people just preferred collecting them. With some exceptions, I get 2000 points per hour of play. Before you do the math to figure out how much of my life I've spent playing trivia, keep in mind that it's been over most of the past decade. I wouldn't even crack the top 50 at my original site. I moved too far away to keep that as "home base".

The Santa Fe changed hands this summer, and Christina and I were afraid we'd have to find a new place. So far, however, no major changes, and people who have been there in recent weeks tell me they're doing well. Otherwise, I might have to switch to George's home location. (He's #6.)

Saturday, August 09, 2003

Our Town

The Washington Post's "Where We Live" for today spotlights our very own University Park.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Christina made it to 33...

Christina has a new post about her birthday weekend in Philly. Hopefully we'll take the pictures in soon, and I'll post some. I'm very happy that I was able to help put together a fun weekend -- Christina was initially somewhat skeptical just how great the City of Brotherly Love would be.

Independence Hall is my 19th World Heritage site, so I updated the list. UNESCO just added 24 more sites, so I fall further behind. Well, on a percentage basis, last time this year, I had visited 12 out of 730 (1.6%), and now I'm up to 19 out of 754 (2.5%). We'll add 1 or 2 in October on our honeymoon...

Sunday, August 03, 2003

American Gods

I finished reading American Gods over the weekend. I'd have to say it's been my most disappointing Hugo read so far. Not that it was bad. Overall, it was enjoyable. But it didn't entirely work for me. It's an interesting premise...various immigrants to America bring their gods with them, then forget about them. The old gods grow weak without worship and are finally drawn into a battle with the "new gods" -- of television, of cars, of media... It's an interesting premise, but it drags in places. Such an interesting premise deserves more development, even if it's at the expense of the "flavor" of the tale Gaiman is presenting. It's a very ambitious work that doesn't, in the end, live up to its ambition. In retrospect, I'm somewhat surprised that it won for Best Novel, but then again, I didn't read any of the other nominees.

I have a number of other books piling up to read, so I probably won't pick up any more Hugos until the 2003 awards are announced at the end of the month.