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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.