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Monday, May 10, 2021

Review: Peak - Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

 To say that Anders Ericsson, the author of Peak, is a legend would be an understatement. Over the years, his name has come up in various books I've read, from Talent is Overrated to Moonwalking with Einstein. I'm glad he finally decided to tell stories about his research rather than have someone else tell it for him, even though the examples he used, like the one about Laszlo and Klara Polgar raising three sisters who all became chess grandmasters have been widely told about and used.

True to his research, Ericsson is vehement that deliberate practice is what separates the good from the great. In fact, he notes that the better and best students sleep much more because they work so hard at their practice that they become worn out:

The best and the better students averaged around five hours more of sleep per week than the good students, mostly by taking more time for afternoon naps. All of the students in the study—the good students, the better, and the best—spent about the same amount of time each week on leisure activities, but the best students were much better at estimating how much time they spent on leisure, which indicates that they made more of an effort to plan their time. Good planning can help you avoid many of the things that might lead you to spend less time on practice than you wanted. (Pg. 170)

He notes that music and sports are where all the research is done, because the objective criteria via competitions and selection are stable and not as subject to chance. We know this isn't true, since Producing Excellence kicks off with a story indicating that politics and rigged competition in those fields is the norm. (Though my suspicion is that to win a rigged competition you still have to be good enough for it to be plausible)  Ericsson notes that even if it was true that talent played an important part, believing in deliberate practice was better for you since it would encourage you to work hard.

Ericsson trots out study after study about the effect deliberate practice has on your brain, from taxi cab drivers in London to musicians to poly-lingual kids. One interesting note is that those brain changes are most obvious in people who've studied or started their practice as kids. One exception is mathematicians and scientists who start out much older than their peers in other fields, and so frequently are inspired by great teachers rather than their parents.

The true contribution that this book provides is the notion of providing opportunities for deliberate practice during the work day --- giving employees and team members leeway during presentations to deliberately work on one aspect or another of their presentation skills and then providing immediate feedback. That's a great idea. Another great idea is the discussion of physics education at UBC, where a professor and his team showed that a skill-based approach to teaching as opposed to the traditional lecture system worked much better at teaching physics (and is applicable to other fields such as computer science and math). Those two chapters are probably worth the price of the book alone. What's interesting about that approach to teaching that Ericsson doesn't mention is that the students in those classes think they learn less with this approach!

All in all, deliberate practice is uncomfortable and should leave you feeling drained. One of the big implications is that if you want to deliberately incorporate a culture that values it in a company, you cannot value face-time over effectiveness --- if your employees need to take naps in the afternoon that means they're pushing themselves to the limit. Unfortunately, much as that article about students thinking they learned less with active learning, I suspect managers will think that employees are working less!

Regardless, the book provides much food for thought and many interesting stories. Well worth your time.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Review: Gotham by Gaslight

 The reveal in the animated version of Gotham by Gaslight was impressive, so I checked out the book from the library. With art by Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell, I expected a lot. I was actually disappointed by the writing and the setting --- it's a short read but it doesn't bring anything to Batman mythos, nor does it explore the character in interesting ways. One of the rare examples where the movie is actually better than the book. Hard pass.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Review: Extreme Medicine

 Extreme Medicine is a book about how exploration transformed medicine and vice-versa, and starts off with the discussion of Robert F Scott's death in Antarctica and tying it to the survival of Anna Bagenholm, one of the first people who'd survived due to deep cold conditions. The author, Kevin Fong is an MD and I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the book, but upon reflection realized that Robert F Scott had nothing to do with Bagenholm's survival!

The same sequence would happen all through the book in the early chapters, detailing burn victims, and then you hit smack-dab into the section on the ICU, which has a discussion of the original SARS epidemic and but has zero content about  how the various devices in the ICU works and also noted that the SARS epidemic was won by public health, not by heroic interventions in the ICU. Sure, the ICU saved lives, but as the recent SARS-Cov2 virus showed, no amount of ICU intervention will prevent large numbers of death if your public health infrastructure has fallen down.

Hence, you get a great discussion of the invention of ventilators, only to realize (and to his credit Fong acknowledges that) the polio epidemics was only ended by vaccines.

Only the final few chapters have anything to do with exploration --- the one on traveling to Mars and NASA's repeated attempt at artificial gravity does actually seem like inventions designed to facilitate exploration, as well as the solar flare protection plans. But boy, that's 1 chapter in a book that otherwise never ties its content to its title.

Fong is a good presenter (apparently he's  TV personality in the UK), and writes well. The prose is reasonably interesting, but I'd recommend several other medical-related books over this one.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Review: March Trilogy

 March: Trilogy is the story of the Civil Rights  movement as told by the late John Lewis. I've already read about much of this in Master of the Senate, but this graphic novel (broken into 3 books for no apparent reason) provides details that only an insider can.

The first big detail was how much training, preparation and selection went into selecting the civil rights protesters. This was not a mob of angry volunteers, but people seriously inculcated in the art of non-violent demonstration, and prepared to put their bodies and lives on the line. The SNCC would actively tell people not to join if they couldn't discipline themselves into not fighting back.

What I didn't know also was the separation of the SNCC (John Lewis's organization) from the SCLC, which was associated with Martin Luther King. The two groups did coordinate actions, but did not always see eye to eye on when to demonstrate. Finally, the description of Malcolm X and what he saw his role in the movement was interesting, though again, the book did not dwell on it or discuss its implications.

I would not have found this book without the help of the Black Lives Matter movement, but having found it, thought it was a great way to tell the story. The art is well done (all in black and white), and many scenes bring home the horror and violence of the segregationists of that period. I've often wondered if the non-violent movements for both India and the Civil Rights movement only succeeded because they weren't up against a truly implacable enemy like the Nazis, but reading this book reminded me that there's no difference between the segregationists, the Nazis, and the modern Republican party.


Monday, April 26, 2021

Review: Ultimate Spider-Man Vol 6 + 7

 Ultimate Spider-Man 6 recounts the story of Venom, but I didn't like it compared to the original story, where the venom suit was originally a symbiote alien parasite. In this version, the suit is actually a leftover from Eddie Brock and Peter Parker's parents, and it seemed so strange that they would spend so much effort developing something and then not actually leave any notes about how dangerous it was.

Ultimate Spider-Man 7 is much better. It depicts Spider-Man's first encounter with the X-men, and does several sleights of hand that gives you the fun of the traditional super-hero encounter (the good guys always have to fight each other) without actually devolving into that cliché, which I enjoyed. Even better, the book ends with an entire issue where we get to listen to Aunt May's side of the Spider-Man story, depicting her sympathetically and explaining her quick adoption of Gwen Stacy. This volume redeemed the mess that was the Venom story.

Both kids love me reading Spider-man to them, and eagerly wait for my hoopla quota to be reset every month so we can check out more Spider-man.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Review: Exercised

 Exercised is an evolutionary biologist's view of the modern invention of exercise. It turns out that Dan Lieberman was the person whose paper inspired the book, Born to Run, which described a tribe of Tarahumara runners in Mexico who run barefoot. But when Lieberman actually visits that tribe, when he interviews everyone, he discovered that most people would say that they didn't race, and definitely did not exercise. When he finally found a racer, he asked the racer about training, and the racer looked nonplused and had to have the concept of training explained to him. It turned out that the Tarahumara race was actually a social ritual, involving kicking a ball, following it, and then kicking it again. The race involved 2 teams, and the team that lapped another team won, so races could go on all night. Lieberman speculates later on in the book that this sport probably evolved out of the need to track animals over long distances while doing persistence hunting.

Lieberman delves into many myths about exercise. The big one (which is the subtitle of the book) is that we were never born to exercise. The hunter-gather tribes live on such an edge of caloric sufficiency that humans who unnecessarily expended energy would have to give up reproduction or other important activities of life, so instead, the human body (and brain!) evolved to do everything as efficiently as possible while expending as little energy as possible. In fact, the average hunter gatherer walks about 20,000 steps a day, which while a lot compared to modern Westernized societies, is only about 10 miles. From this insight, many other aspects of modern ailments and attitudes towards exercise can be deduced. For instance, one reason walking doesn't really result in weight loss is that walking is so efficient that you'd have to well exceed the minimum typically prescribed by health authorities --- you pretty much have to run (an hour or so) or walk tremendous amounts to achieve weight loss.

From this, Lieberman goes on to attack other myths, such as the one about "sitting is the new smoking." It turns out that traditional hunter-gathers do sit a lot. But it's rarely more than 15 minutes at a stretch, and obviously, they're still getting lots of walking in. It's not the sitting that's bad, it's that the time spent sitting in front of a TV or computer monitor is time that isn't spent exercising. Lieberman then explains why exercise is so good for you --- it creates inflammation and then the body hyper-compensates, basically overdoing the repair and eliminating the damaged caused by the exercise and then some. What's important here is that the lack of activity actually induces a mild form of inflammation, which is repaired during recovery from exercise. Because humans evolved in a state where exercise was required to survive, the recovery system never evolved to activate outside of exercise, which is why exercise is so important.

Similarly, Lieberman dismisses the paleo-fitness regime. He points out that the traditional hunter gatherer male is 5'5" and 115 pounds, and that modern gym rats with access to weight machines and dumb-bells and access to all the food they want, have exceeded the strength of most hunter gatherers (not to mention weight!). The metabolic requirements of excess muscle would never have been tolerated in a state of caloric scarcity. He does point out that traditional human society do participate in rituals that look a bit like training: dancing and sports, some of which last long enough to evoke endorphin high and other experiences that athletes have experienced,.

The exploration of aging is also excellent. Lieberman points out that hunter gatherers do live to the traditional 4 score and 10 years, but also have much reduced morbidity compared to modern Westerners. The advances in medicine mostly means that people who might otherwise have died earlier, live about as long as hunter gatherers, but in a state of requiring constant medical support in the form of medicine, surgery, and therapy. He points out that even people who never exercise (e.g., Donald Trump) frequently do live long lives --- it's just that they might have to be on medication, and obviously they're not performing optimally, mentally or physically.

The book is well written and I read it compellingly for not just the health nuggets and advice, but also for the stories about the research on the topic. After I finished I wanted to go back and start it again, and wish I'd waited for the ebook version from the library so I could have highlighted the important passages. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Review Fire HD8+

 My Fire HD10 died for no apparent reason, and upon contacting Amazon, it was long out of warranty. The customer service rep offered me a 15% off coupon, but I noted that there was a Trade-In Offer that gave me 20%. The customer rep told me that the two offers stacked, so I took them up on it. After the trade in, that netted me the Fire HD8+ for under $75 after tax.

There were 2 main reasons for going with the smaller display. The first was that the smaller device was lighter. The second was that the expensive version of the device (the HD8+) had 3GB of RAM. It also comes with wireless charging, but I've never been bothered by the need to plug my device in so I didn't consider that a useful feature. Going from 2GB to 3GB have favorably improved my impressions of Android on the phone, so I thought it might be similar for the tablet.

I bought an official used Fire HD8+ case, which folds nicely both horizontally and vertically, though much more vertically than anyone has a right to expect. In practice, the device doesn't seem to be fast, but then one day I compared it with an older Fire HD10 and it was indeed faster. It still chugs a little when switching apps, which is a surprise since my phones never had the issue once they had more than 2GB of RAM, and the Fire HD8+ with its 800p display should be much less demanding than most phones.

It's lighter, and no less good for reading comic books than the bigger device (I've been reading the various Spider-Man comics on it to my kids --- they would sit on the top of a double decker bed while looking down at my screen while I was reading the book to them, and it's a major testament to their eyes that they had no issue making out pictures, etc). I watched a couple of movies on it at night in bed, and the lighter weight reduced fatigue and made it possible to watch an entire movie at once.