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Monday, November 23, 2020

2020 Books of the Year

 This year I read around 82 books or so, including a number of re-reads. In the context of the mess that's 2020, reading has both been a solace and an explainer. Without even thinking twice, it's been pretty easy for me to say that the book of the year for me was Democracy in Chains. Why we have the situation we have today and what lies ahead of American Democracy is all in this book, and while the book was depressing and difficult to read, it's well worth your time. Runner up would be The Tyranny of Merit, which while it never gives any good solutions to the problems it raises, raises enough questions that made me rethink how I view a meritocracy. It's also well worth your time.

The best fiction I read this year was probably Dune, but obviously that's cheating since it's a re-read. The best new fiction I read was easily Elysium Fire.  You just can't beat Aliastair Reynolds at his best.

For Audio Books, I highly recommend The Silver Linings Playbook. It's well produced and is the only fictional Audio Book that I'd finished.

Comic Books is another one where the re-read of anything written by Alan Moore is going to kick the pants of anything written in recent years. But I found Superior Spider-man surprisingly good and well worth my time.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Review: How Long 'til Black Future Month?

 How Long 'til Black Future Month? is the first collection of N.K. Jemisin's short stories. I loved her Inheritance Trilogy but bounced off "The Broken Earth" series hard, so the short story collection was a great way to sample many ideas in a short read while reminding myself of how great a story teller she is.

The stories range from science fiction (Robots, AI, etc) to fantasy (with a haunting story about sleep magic in the Narcomancer). While some of her novellas went for the twist ending, in this collection of stories twist endings are actually are. Strangely enough, the later stories for me were not as compelling as her earlier stories, since they became much less about fantasy than about contemporaneous events that (for me at least) still hold trauma after all these years (Katerina , for instance), which distracted me enough from the fantasy elements that she was after.

There are many themes in the stories that are there if you're looking for them (one story depicts a family's encounter with the Faerie Queen as an encounter between Black Americans and White women), but none of the themes are so overbearing that they derail the enjoyability of the short story or the book. Almost all the stories in the first half of the book are so well done that I would recommend them to anyone.


Monday, November 16, 2020

Review: The Tyranny of Merit

 In the wake of the 2020 election, there were several events that puzzled me, such as Joe Biden losing Florida despite the $15 minimum wage passing there. It's easy to claim racism, but again, many of Trump's voters also voted for Obama. Fortunately for me, The Tyranny of Merit showed up from my library and does a pretty good job of at least pointing at an approach to solving that puzzle.

There's no question that American society posits itself to be a meritocracy, and the rhetoric and arguments about college entrance (not to mention the scandals) are usually posed as debates about merit. But Michael Sandel points out that this has two side effects that are deleterious:

  1. The winners of the meritocratic sorting believe (and how could they not) that they deserve all their winnings and earnings, and feel neither humility nor the urge to share their outsized gains from education with their poorer off counterparts.
  2. Those who do not win a good position in society as a result of the above sorting not only do not earn as much, their social position is lower and society keeps blathering about the need to improve educational opportunities to rub it in.
This would be one thing if the resulting elites in society have managed society well, but they have not, and Sandel singles out the center-left parties in both the US and the UK for being particularly at fault:

By the time of Trump’s election, the Democratic Party had become a party of technocratic liberalism more congenial to the professional classes than to the blue-collar and middle-class voters who once constituted its base. The same was true of Britain’s Labour Party at the time of Brexit, and the social democratic parties of Europe. (pg 20)

 Over the past four decades, meritocratic elites have not governed very well. The elites who governed the United States from 1940 to 1980 were far more successful. They won World War II, helped rebuild Europe and Japan, strengthened the welfare state, dismantled segregation, and presided over four decades of economic growth that flowed to rich and poor alike. By contrast, the elites who have governed since have brought us four decades of stagnant wages for most workers, inequalities of income and wealth not seen since the 1920s, the Iraq War, a nineteen-year, inconclusive war in Afghanistan, financial deregulation, the financial crisis of 2008, a decaying infrastructure, the highest incarceration rate in the world, and a system of campaign finance and gerrymandered congressional districts that makes a mockery of democracy. (pg. 28)

As a result, you have the working class supporting policies against the welfare state because they'd already bought into this meritocratic sorting:

For decades, meritocratic elites intoned the mantra that those who work hard and play by the rules can rise as far as their talents will take them. They did not notice that for those stuck at the bottom or struggling to stay afloat, the rhetoric of rising was less a promise than a taunt. This is how Trump voters may have heard Hillary Clinton’s meritocratic mantra. For them, the rhetoric of rising was more insulting than inspiring. This is not because they rejected meritocratic beliefs. To the contrary: They embraced meritocracy, but believed it described the way things already worked. They did not see it as an unfinished project requiring further government action to dismantle barriers to achievement. This is partly because they feared such intervention would favor ethnic and racial minorities, thus violating rather than vindicating meritocracy as they saw it. But it is also because, having worked hard to achieve a modicum of success, they had accepted the harsh verdict of the market in their own case, and were invested in it, morally and psychologically...Trump supporters resented liberals’ rhetoric of rising, not because they rejected meritocracy, but because they believed it described the prevailing social order. They had submitted to its discipline, had accepted the hard judgment it pronounced on their own merits, and believed others should do the same...According to global public opinion surveys, most Americans (77 percent) believe that people can succeed if they work hard; only half of Germans think so. In France and Japan, majorities say hard work is no guarantee of success.32 Asked what factors are “very important to getting ahead in life,” Americans overwhelmingly (73 percent) put hard work first, reflecting the enduring hold of the Protestant work ethic. In Germany, barely half consider hard work very important to getting ahead; in France, only one in four does (pg. 72-74)

I found myself highlighting  segment after segment of this book, because it explained so well the political events of the last 10 years, and also points out that the Democratic party has become disconnected from the working class it wants to represent in terms of policy (universal healthcare, minimum wage, etc) and therefore its candidates now lose the working class despite its policies being much more likely to benefit them than its counterparts. Sandel points out that Democratic representatives are now much more likely to be drawn from the credentialed class than from the uncredentialed:

Turning Congress and parliaments into the exclusive preserve of the credentialed classes has not made government more effective, but it has made it less representative. It has also alienated working people from mainstream parties, especially those of the center-left, and polarized politics along educational lines...Throughout much of the twentieth century, parties of the left attracted those with less education, while parties of the right attracted those with more. In the age of meritocracy, this pattern has been reversed. Today, people with more education vote for left-of-center parties, and those with less support parties of the right. The French economist Thomas Piketty has shown that this reversal has unfolded, in striking parallel, in the U.S., the U.K., and France. (pg. 101)

Just this segment of the book itself is worth reading. The second half of the segment asks the question, what is to be done, and there Sandel doesn't have any magical epiphanies to share. He suggests, for instance, that  elite colleges switch to a lottery system for determining entrance for all qualified applicants. Sure, that could work, but the impact of that would take a long time to be felt. He suggests a system of vocational education and apprenticeship (such as those in Germany) for those who aren't college material, so even bicycle repair or plumbing has dignity and a living wage (of course). He suggests a tax on financial transactions to reduce the outsized gains to the financial industry, which he points out doesn't actually do anything good for people at large. The problem with all these suggestions is that they are already policy statements and goals of The Democratic Party! If the problem is policy, the Democratic party already has those policies. The problem is perhaps that the party has been unsuccessful at getting people who can speak to the working class in representing them and getting those people in front of the voters, and Sandel has no solutions for that.

Nevertheless, the book is full of great points, and has made me rethink my previously unquestioning support for meritocracy. I think it's well worth reading for anyone teasing apart the aftermath of the 2020 elections.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Review: ABLEWE KVM Switch

 I was switching a USB hub between work laptop and home desktop, but thought about how much better my life would be if I could just find a KVM switch. The ABLEWE is around $20, and shipped quickly, arriving in just 2 days. It comes with all the cables needed to hook up to two machines, but no power supply --- you're expected to supply a micro-usb cable and power supply if you need to drive anything power challenged from it. Since I was driving a 4K webcam I chose to use it and it seemed to make a difference. After that, a click of the button switches quickly between one machine and another.

Cheap, fast to install, and works. Can't get better than that!

Monday, November 09, 2020

Review: Jabra Elite 65t Active

 I've actually been somewhat happy with my Pamu wireless headset, with but one caveat, that the carrying case was too big! So when the Jabra Store had a flash sale on an Elite Active 65t for $30, I bought it. The case is definitely smaller than the Pamu, but my first set came DOA from the store. A call to customer service and they replaced it.

The headset can pair with 2 devices, so I can pair it with the work laptop and my phone at the same time, and take zoom calls on the laptop or phone calls on the cell phone. The buttons are fiddly, but I figured out how to work it. The sound quality was OK, nothing spectacular, but the surprise came when I used them on the bike. Despite having a reasonably good seal, the headset leaks noise, so music sounds muddy while riding (you can ride with just one ear bud in, and the master one is on the right, which is what you want, so you can leave the left ear open for traffic). The case is also stiff to open, so you're not going to be able to pull the case out, slide out the ear bud and put it on to take a call --- you definitely have to stop.

Despite that deficiency, the size of the case is so small that I find myself riding with the Jabra in my jersey pocket instead of the Pamu. I find myself reaching for it over the Pamu when receiving phone calls as well. I started this review intending to diss the headset, and as I wrote it discovered that I did use it more than my other ones. Recommended.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Review: havit HV-F2056 Laptop Cooler

 Long gone are the days when companies would issue you a desktop and a laptop so you can have lots of compute power. In fact, nowadays, companies just issue you the latest biggest Macbook Pro and then you're done. The Macbook 16" as far as I can tell, is designed to be thin, but mine came issued with a hexacore. Couple that with working in a non-air conditioned house during COVID19 WFH, and my machine would grind to a halt in the afternoons. The symptom of that is that the kernel task suddenly eats up all your CPU.

I asked IT about it and to my surprise, the recommendation was to buy a laptop cooler. They explicitly point me at the havit, and so I bought it and expensed it. The thing is garish, but lo and behold, machine has never slowed down since. It's annoying that it takes up an additional USB socket on a machine that has too few sockets, and it doesn't have any sensors, so it basically just turns on and stays on, but on the other hand, now my company's getting all the compute power its paying for.

It's cheap, it works, and if you do processor intensive things on your laptop, you should have one.

Monday, November 02, 2020

Review: Bushwhacker Basket Panniers

 I'd been riding the kids to and forth from school and various other activities with my now 25-year old Robert Beckman Panniers. Those panniers are definitely showing signs of wear, and the zippers and compartments while nice when touring, just get in the way of a quick delivery and/or for utility cycling. The Bushwhacker Omaha Basket panniers come in at $65/pair, which makes them a much better deal than say, the Wirecutter recommended Banjo Brothers, which come in at $47 each.

The panniers are wide enough and deep enough to store 2 helmets without any risk of them bouncing out, and definitely can carry extra tall items from the grocery store. The supporting struts aren't super strong, but I tested it with a gallon of milk and it could definitely take another 2 gallons but maybe not 5.

The mounting mechanism sucks, to put it mildly. The integrated hooks wouldn't fit around my tubular steel rack, but fortunately, you could unclip the hook from the D-ring, wrap that around the rack, and clip it back in. It's not something you'd want to do daily, but you wouldn't tour with these panniers anyway. To keep the hook from having a chance of reaching the spokes, you can fold it up and hook it to the bungee, and the panniers are stable enough with sufficiently deep hooks that there's no chance of it falling off unladen during normal activities (don't jump curbs with them on your mountain bike without the hook installed!), and when laden, they wouldn't shift anyway. In my riding with them I didn't detect any sway or shifting attributable to them, but of course, the triplet's sway is largely determined by the boys on the bike anyway!

I was pleasantly surprised by these and by the lifetime warranty offered by the manufacturer. They offer no rain protection but a garbage bag would work if it rains. They're definitely much more convenient for in-and-out quick dropoffs than any other panniers, though obviously for touring, you'd go for the Ortleibs or the Robert Beckman panniers.