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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Review: The Fifth Risk

I bounced off The Fifth Risk the first time I tried to read it. The opening always made me depressed and sad, since it was obvious to me that the Trump administration was going to do its best to destroy the good parts about American government. The Audible gave away The Coming Storm, and lacking anything to listen to for a bit, I audited it and was about to write a review when I noticed that it was actually an excerpt from the book. So I checked the book from the library once more, and this time finished it, mostly because I stopped reading it as a litany of issues with Trump's takeover of the government and read it as a paen to the unsung heroes of the government. For instance, the Coast Guard research scientist who not only wrote the papers describing how various objects would drift in the ocean, but after spending a night with the search and rescue operations team, designed and engineered a tool for search and rescue team to use during actual rescues, pulling in data automatically, and calculate the search area to focus searches on.
He’d done what he’d done without asking for much for himself. Back in 1984, as a GS-11, he’d been paid less than $30,000 a year. After thirty-five years he’d risen to a GS-14 and been paid a bit more than $100,000. He hadn’t even expected the attention of others, outside his small circle of search-and-rescue people. It was nice that Taiwan’s Coast Guard wrote poems about him. But that sort of thing never happened here, in the United States. The Partnership for Public Service had shocked him when they sent him the note to tell him he had been nominated for a Sammie Award. But that was it—even after the partnership had made a big deal about him in a press release. Art hadn’t heard a peep from the media or the public or anyone else. He half thought his local newspaper might make him Person of the Week. After all, his own daughter had been Person of the Week, when she had worked on a project to clean up the town. It hadn’t happened for him. (Kindle Loc 2664)
We get to see how the politicians and the press try desperately not to give governments any credit, especially in red states:
“We’d have this check,” said Salerno. “We’d blow it up and try to have a picture taken with it. It said UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT in great big letters. That was something that Vilsack wanted—to be right out in front so people knew the federal government had helped them. In the red southern states the mayor sometimes would say, ‘Can you not mention that the government gave this?’” Even when it was saving lives, or preserving communities, the government remained oddly invisible. “It’s just a misunderstanding of the system,” said Salerno. “We don’t teach people what government actually does.”
(Kindle| Location: 1,191)
The sums of money at her disposal were incredible: the little box gave out or guaranteed $30 billion in loans and grants a year. But people who should have known about it hadn’t the first clue what it was up to. “I had this conversation with elected and state officials almost everywhere in the South,” said Salerno. “Them: We hate the government and you suck. Me: My mission alone put $1 billion into your economy this year, so are you sure about that? Me thinking: We are the only reason your shitty state is standing.” (Kindle Loc 1154)
“I worked in the little box in the government most responsible for helping the people who elected Trump,” said Salerno. “And they literally took my little box off the organization chart.” This troubled Lillian Salerno, and not just because she’d spent five years of her life inside that little box. It troubled her because it made her wonder about the motives of the people who had taken over the Department of Agriculture. (Kindle Location: 1,215)

You get to learn the details of the food stamps program, and the statistics are incredible, basically a huge percentage (87% or so) are the elderly and children, people who cannot be expected to work for their food. Yet any Republican administration will insist on calling them moochers.

Americans have been sold a bill of goods about the incompetence of government, even though examples from the rest of the world have repeatedly shown that healthcare, however, can be run by the government far more cheaply and effectively at lower cost than our corrupt private system. This book is a good antidote for that sort of thinking, but unfortunately, the kind of people who most need to read it will never get to it. Recommended.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Review: The Mother Tongue

After reading The Body, I set off to read another Bill Bryson book, and found The Mother Tongue. Having bounced off several other books about the history of the English language, I thought Bryson might be good about it. I was disappointed in the first several pages, where he repeated myths about languages (such as the Eskimos having 50 different words for snow) that are debunked by John McWhorter's great lecture series.

When you're finally past the introductory stuff, Bryson shows that he does have a good command of the language and the history of it, and how diverse it really was:
he related the story of a group of London sailors heading down the River “Tamyse” for Holland who found themselves becalmed in Kent. Seeking food, one of them approached a farmer’s wife and “axed for mete and specyally he axyd after eggys” but was met with blank looks by the wife who answered that she “coude speke no frenshe.” The sailors had traveled barely fifty miles and yet their language was scarcely recognizable to another speaker of English. In Kent, eggs were eyren and would remain so for at least another fifty years. (pg. 59)
 How quickly the language evolved is quite striking:
When Chaucer died in 1400, people still pronounced the e on the end of words. One hundred years later not only had it become silent, but scholars were evidently unaware that it ever had been pronounced. In short, changes that seem to history to have been almost breathtakingly sudden will often have gone unnoticed by those who lived through them. (pg. 92)
 He also has interesting observations about how strange the English present tense is:
In fact, almost the only form of sentence in which we cannot use the present tense form of drive is, yes, the present tense. When we need to indicate an action going on right now, we must use the participial form driving. We don’t say, “I drive the car now,” but rather “I’m driving the car now.” Not to put too fine a point on it, the labels are largely meaningless. We seldom stop to think about it, but some of the most basic concepts in English are naggingly difficult to define. (pg. 134)
 English, unlike many other languages is largely driven by common usage, rather than committees or official academies. This is by and large a good thing, since as linguists have discovered, our use of language is instinctual, and prescriptive impositions upon English in the past (like many scholars who tried to use Latin as an standard would tell you never to split an infinitive, which of course, is worthless advice) hurt the language more than they help:
Considerations of what makes for good English or bad English are to an uncomfortably large extent matters of prejudice and conditioning. Until the eighteenth century it was correct to say “you was” if you were referring to one person. It sounds odd today, but the logic is impeccable. Was is a singular verb and were a plural one. Why should you take a plural verb when the sense is clearly singular? The answer—surprise, surprise—is that Robert Lowth didn’t like it. “I’m hurrying, are I not?” is hopelessly ungrammatical, but “I’m hurrying, aren’t I?”—merely a contraction of the same words—is perfect English. Many is almost always a plural (as in “Many people were there”), but not when it is followed by a, as in “Many a man was there.” There’s no inherent reason why these things should be so. They are not defensible in terms of grammar. They are because they are. (pg. 143)
 There are lots of language facts about English usage was interesting as far as the cross-pollination between England and the USA:
Other words and expressions that were common in Elizabethan England that died in England were fall as a synonym for autumn, mad for angry, progress as a verb, platter for a large dish, assignment in the sense of a job or task (it survived in England only as a legal expression), deck of cards (the English now say pack), slim in the sense of small (as in slim chance), mean in the sense of unpleasant instead of stingy, trash for rubbish (used by Shakespeare), hog as a synonym for pig, mayhem, magnetic, chore, skillet, ragamuffin, homespun, and the expression I guess. Many of these words have reestablished themselves in England (pg. 171)
Of course, we like to think of English as being popular, but in fact, that is not so:
 Most estimates put the number of native speakers at about 330 million, as compared with 260 million for Spanish, 150 million for Portuguese, and a little over 100 million for French. Of course, sheer numbers mean little. Mandarin Chinese, or Guoyo, spoken by some 750 million people, has twice as many speakers as any other language in the world, but see how far that will get you in Rome or Rochester. No other language than English is spoken as an official language in more countries—forty-four, as against twenty-seven for French and twenty for Spanish—and none is spoken over a wider area of the globe. English is used as an official language in countries with a population of about 1.6 billion, roughly a third of the world total. Of course, nothing like that number of people speak it—in India, for instance, it is spoken by no more than 40 or 50 million people out of a total population of 700 million—but it is still used competently as a second language by perhaps as many as 400 million people globally. (pg. 181)
 The simple fact is that English is not always spoken as widely or as enthusiastically as we might like to think. According to U.S. News & World Report [February 18, 1985], even in Switzerland, one of the most polyglot of nations, no more than 10 percent of the people are capable of writing a simple letter in English. What is certain is that English is the most studied and emulated language in the world, its influence so enormous that it has even affected the syntax of other languages. According to a study by Magnus Ljung of Stockholm University, more than half of all Swedes now make plurals by adding -s, after the English model, rather than by adding -ar, -or, or -er, in the normal Swedish way. (pg. 182)
 All in all, the book was good reading, but not nearly as accurate (especially when Bryson wanders off topics into discussions of non-English languages --- the man clearly has no background in Asian languages!) as I would have liked, which casts credibility on his other books as well. I think John McWhorter or The Language Instinct is a better introduction to the general subject of linguistics. But hey, at least I didn't bounce off it!

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Review: Super Graphic - A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe

Super Graphic is designed by Tim Leong, who was the Director of Digital Design at Wired Magazine. It's not a book about super-heroes --- there's lots of material here about the Archie comics, for instance, Voltron, The Walking Dead, or even Manga, with a great illustration showing how much variety there is in Japanese comic books, as opposed to American ones.

There's even a great panel showing you how to read a comic book (which my friend Scarlet Tang tells me is not as intuitive as I thought it was, having grown up with them). Some of the charts are particularly clever, for instance, the two panels of pixel-art graphics of some well-known superheroes that double as a chart of the popularity of various incarnations of such heroes! The Venn diagrams are also particularly entertaining, and a fun timeline of which characters were dead and for how long. There's even a decision-tree diagram of how The Punisher reacts to someone greeting him in a bar.

The graphs and diagrams are in no particular order, and it's clear that the entire book was designed as a coffee table book. On a 10" tablet, it's not as striking, but if you view it on a 4K screen with plenty of room, the experience is quite unlike any other book I've read this year.

Unique, and certainly recommended, especially at the current sale price of $1.99.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Review: Gut - The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated Organ

Gut is a strange book. The author, Giulia Enders has a fun sense of humor (I guess that's what it takes to be a gastroenterologist):
Japanese researchers fed volunteers luminous substances and X-rayed them while they were doing their business in various positions. They found out two interesting things. First, squatting does indeed lead to a nice, straight intestinal tract, allowing for a direct, easy exit. Second, some people are nice enough to let researchers feed them luminous substances and X-ray them while they have a bowel movement, all in the name of science. Both findings are pretty impressive, I think. (Pg. 19)
The book thereby proceeds in fits and starts, lurching from subject to subject in an unpaced fashion. (How much of it is because Enders is German and this book was translated from German I don't know)

But there are some good tidbits, like:
Of particular interest to those fighting fat is that olive oil also has the potential to help get rid of that spare tire. It blocks an enzyme in fatty tissue—known as fatty acid synthase—that likes to create fat out of spare carbohydrates. And we are not the only ones who benefit from the properties of olive oil—the good bacteria in our gut also appreciate a little pampering. (pg. 53)
Nevertheless, the book is full of practical tips, though because of the translation, some of it seems a little confusing:
One example of bacteria dilution in the home is washing fruit and vegetables. Washing dilutes most soil-dwelling bacteria to such a low concentration that they become harmless to humans. Koreans add a little vinegar to the water to make it slightly acidic and just that bit more uncomfortable for any bacteria. Airing a room is also a dilution technique. If you dilute the bacteria on your plates, cutlery, and cutting board nicely with water, then wipe them over with a kitchen sponge before putting them away, you may as well have licked them clean with your tongue. (Pg. 227)
 Nevertheless, I enjoyed some of the interesting stories, and many of the stories were new to me, such as this one:
A group of South Americans had to learn that through bitter experience. They had the clever idea of taking pregnant women to the South Pole to have their babies. The plan was that the babies born there could stake a claim to any oil future reserves as natives of the region. The babies did not survive. They died soon after birth or on the way back to South America. The South Pole is so cold and germ-free that the infants simply did not get the bacteria they needed to survive. The normal temperatures and bacteria the babies encountered after leaving the Antarctic were enough to kill them. (pg. 240)
Recommended.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Review: The Body - A Guide for Occupants

I've bounced of a number of other Bill Bryson books before, so I approached The Body with low expectations. To my surprise I found myself reading the book in earnest, highlighting passage after passage. Here he is about lifespan:
Many factors determine life span, of course, but it is a fact that men who have been castrated live about as long as women do. In what way exactly testosterone might shorten male lives is not known. Testosterone levels in men fall by about 1 percent a year beginning in their forties, prompting many to take supplements in the hope of boosting their sex drive and energy levels. The evidence that it improves sexual performance or general virility is thin at best; there is much greater evidence that it can lead to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. (Kindle Loc 2490)
 I remember reading in one of John Medina's books about how hunter-gathers might walk as much as 10 miles a day. Here's Bill Bryson debunking that:
According to The Economist, some American companies have begun offering rewards to employees who log a million steps a year on an activity tracker such as a Fitbit. That seems a pretty ambitious number but actually works out to just 2,740 steps a day, or a little over a mile. Even that, however, seems to be beyond many. “Some workers have reportedly strapped their Fitbits to their dogs to boost their activity scores,” The Economist noted. Modern hunter-gatherers, by contrast, average about nineteen miles of walking and trotting to secure a day’s food, and it is reasonable to assume that our ancient forebears would have done about the same. (Kindle Loc 2968)
 Ok, that's all stuff you already know. But here he is on the puzzle of allergies, and the increasing rate of asthma among children:
An estimated 300 million people in the world have asthma today, about 5 percent of adults and about 15 percent of children in those countries where it is measured carefully, though the proportions vary markedly from region to region and country to country, even from city to city. In China, the city of Guangzhou is highly polluted, while nearby Hong Kong, just an hour away by train, is comparatively clean as it has little industry and lots of fresh air because it is by the sea. Yet in clean Hong Kong asthma rates are 15 percent, while in heavily polluted Guangzhou they are just 3 percent, exactly the opposite of what one would expect. No one can account for any of this... (Kindle Loc 3551)
In children, it is closely associated with both being obese and being underweight; obese children get it more often, but underweight children get it worse. The highest rate in the world is in the U.K., where 30 percent of children have shown asthma symptoms. The lowest rates are in China, Greece, Georgia, Romania, and Russia, with just 3 percent. All the English-speaking nations of the world have high rates, as do those of Latin America. There is no cure, though in 75 percent of young people asthma resolves itself by the time they reach early adulthood. No one knows how or why that happens either, or why it doesn’t happen for the unfortunate minority. Indeed, where asthma is concerned, no one knows much of anything.  (Kindle Loc 3567)
As we all know, it's Speaking English that kills you. There's a significant amount of medical history in the book, with lots of tidbits like this one:
in 1970 Congress canceled the only comprehensive federal nutrition survey ever attempted after the preliminary results proved embarrassing. “A significant proportion of the population surveyed is malnourished or at a high risk of developing nutritional problems,” the survey reported, just before it was axed. (Kindle Loc 3986)
 Bryson doesn't shy away from politically inconvenient facts, such as the US being the worst country in the world to get healthcare in the developed world:
Even now, however, there is huge variability in maternal mortality rates among countries of the developed world. In Italy, the number of women who die in childbirth is 3.9 per 100,000. Sweden is 4.6, Australia 5.1, Ireland 5.7, Canada 6.6. Britain comes only twenty-third on the list with 8.2 deaths per 100,000 live births, putting it below Hungary, Poland, and Albania. But also doing surprisingly poorly are Denmark (9.4 per 100,000) and France (10.0). Among developed nations, the United States is in a league of its own, with a maternal death rate of 16.7 per 100,000, putting it thirty-ninth among nations. (Kindle Loc 4830)
But even within the US, it's not evenly distributed. Much of the medical problems the US has can be addressed. For instance:
 California addressed preeclampsia and the other leading causes of maternal death in childbirth through a program called the Maternal Quality Care Collaborative, and in just six years reduced the rate of childbirth deaths from 17 per 100,000 to just 7.3 between 2006 and 2013. During the same period, alas, the national rate rose from 13.3 deaths to 22 deaths per 100,000. (Kindle Loc 4859)
Of course, this stuff doesn't make the news, and the libertarians are happy to tell you that "government can't solve any problems," even when other countries with government run healthcare manage to do far better than the USA's private system.
 The second thing that can be said with regard to life expectancy is that it is not a good idea to be an American. Compared with your peers in the rest of the industrialized world, even being well-off doesn’t help you here. A randomly selected American aged forty-five to fifty-four is more than twice as likely to die, from any cause, as someone from the same age-group in Sweden. Just consider that. If you are a middle-aged American, your risk of dying before your time is more than double that of a person picked at random off the streets of Uppsala or Stockholm or Link√∂ping. It is much the same when other nationalities are brought in for comparison. For every 400 middle-aged Americans who die each year, just 220 die in Australia, 230 in Britain, 290 in Germany, and 300 in France. These health deficits begin at birth and go right on through life. Children in the United States are 70 percent more likely to die in childhood than children in the rest of the wealthy world. Among rich countries, America is at or near the bottom for virtually every measure of medical well-being—for chronic disease, depression, drug abuse, homicide, teenage pregnancies, HIV prevalence. Even sufferers of cystic fibrosis live ten years longer on average in Canada than in the United States. What is perhaps most surprising is that all these poorer outcomes apply not just to underprivileged citizens but to prosperous white college-educated Americans when compared with their socioeconomic equivalents abroad. (kindle Loc 5798)
You would think that being wealthy in the US would protect you from a lot of health problems, but it turns out that  many of the problems are systemic:
“Even wealthy Americans are not isolated from a lifestyle filled with oversized food portions, physical inactivity, and stress.” The average Dutch or Swedish citizen consumes about 20 percent fewer calories than the average American, for instance. That doesn’t sound massively excessive, but it adds up to 250,000 calories over the course of a year. You would get a similar boost if you sat down about twice a week and ate an entire cheesecake. (Kindle Loc 5816)
And of course, that idiot driver will kill you just as easily in a country where no one has a choice but to drive everywhere:
 the United States records a really quite spectacular 11 traffic deaths per 100,000 people every year, compared with 3.1 in the United Kingdom, 3.4 in Sweden, and 4.3 in Japan. (Kindle Loc 5826)
 Finally, I enjoyed his treatment of longevity as well:
The longest-lived person that we know of was Jeanne Louise Calment of Arles, in Provence, who died at the decidedly ripe age of 122 years and 164 days in 1997. She was the first person to reach not only 122 but also 116, 117, 118, 119, 120, and 121. Calment had a leisurely life: her father was a rich shipbuilder and her husband a prosperous businessman. She never worked. She outlived her husband by more than half a century and her only child, a daughter, by sixty-three years. Calment smoked all her life—at the age of 117, when she finally gave up, she was still smoking two cigarettes a day—and ate two pounds of chocolate every week but was active up to the very end and enjoyed robust health. Her proud and charming boast in old age was, “I’ve never had but one wrinkle, and I’m sitting on it.” (Kindle Loc 6072)
In any case, the book's chock full of fun reading (I'm not even using half the stuff I highlighted for future reference), and even occasionally has some actionable stuff. Recommended.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Review: Superior Spider-Man

I picked up Superior Spider-Man from Comixology Unlimited after reading the first issue, which posted a heck of a fun premise: Doctor Octopus has somehow managed to take over Peter Parker's body, and has now sworn to prove himself the better Spider-Man than Peter Parker ever was.

Dan Slott was also credited with the writing for PS4's Spider-Man which made me more willing to read the entire series. The early part of the series was the best: there's a lot of "damn, he's way more organized than Peter Parker was, and wow, he's convincing me that he could be better than Peter!" He starts a startup, develops sensors so he doesn't have to physically go out on patrol, and even goes back to school to get a PhD, all while juggling all the Spiderman duties, and even stops flaking out on his personal affairs!

Later, of course, Dr. Octopus's megalomania and history of villainy gets the better of him, and he starts acquiring minions and all the artifacts of a super-villain.

The weakest part of the story is the return of Peter Parker. While there's some justification for Otto Octavius' giving up without much of a fight, it doesn't play in character for him, and none of what happens can be attributed to Peter Parker's personal attributes as the protagonist of the series. I was disappointed by that, and apparently the rest of Dan Slott's run on Spider-man is mediocre, so I was happy to stop at the end of the run, even though it would have been fun to see Peter deal with the fallout of Doctor Octopus' handling of his relationships and monetary affairs.

In any case, the series was a lot of fun (not deep!) and worth my time. Recommended.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Review: Zero G

Zero G is an Audible-exclusive radio play written by Dan Wells. It's clearly intended for a younger audience (the protagonist is 10), but I listened to it anyway in case it's something that I can recommend to Bowen.

The production values are impeccable: there are multiple actors with the narrator having a different voice than everyone else. The intonation, acting, and stress are great, and the story goes out of its way to explain nearly every bit of science available, including the likely process of traversing interstellar space without FTL technology.

The world-building is iffy, though probably because it's done in service to the plot: the author clearly wanted space pirates, no matter if the economics doesn't make sense, and the plot holes in the story are big enough to drive a starship through, including a Turing-complete AI that nevertheless behaves like an idiot, and a starship strangely lacking in redundancy in life support systems.

Nevertheless, it'll be fun for me to listen to it with Bowen to see if he spots the plot holes and things that don't make sense. It's difficult in this day and age to find stories with little boys as protagonists (and an Asian boy at that --- I will note that the protagonist's voice actress is a girl, in common with many shows like The Simpsons), and I commend Amazon for bringing this into production, plot-holes and all. Recommended.