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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Review: Powerhouse

 Powerhouse is Steve LeVine's book about the race to create NMC 2.0 batteries. It revolves around Argonne National Laboratories, Envia Energy Systems, and  a smattering of Chinese and Korean representatives. The book doesn't try to give a detailed description of the battery technology and the actual development of the technology but instead tries to describe the key personalities and scientists involved. This approach is kinda sucky, because the politics behind the science is pretty ugly.

There's lots of description about talent poaching, as well as the not-quite-Theranos antics of Envia's CEO and CTO, as well as the jockeying for position amongst the Argonne scientists for promotions and plum positions. It was also interesting that the patent licensing actions of Argonne National Labs resulted in bonuses for the scientists involved. The book also describes all the effort into getting funding for a "Battery Hub" an industry + academia partnership. But the amounts of money involved was paltry, something that a company like Google or Apple could fund out of pocket change, reminding us how little money we spend on basic research, and how much of a bargain it is.

Unfortunately, it looks like NMC 2.0 never panned out.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Review: Driven - The Race to Create the Autonomous Car

 Driven is an account of the rise of the autonomous vehicle industry. It traces the rise of the industry from the initial DARPA Grand Challenge, providing excellent background for various of the actors in the industry that has risen since then, many of whom, including Jiajun Zhu, Chris Urmson, Sebastian Thrun, and of course, the infamous Anthony Levandowski would end up building their own firms. When you look at the book, it's easy to see how the early improvements led people to believe that autonomous vehicles would be common reality in 2020: the first Grand Challenge had no robots that finished the course, but by the time the second Grand Challenge had started, nearly 7 teams had finished the course and there was a genuine race. By 2007, the DARPA Urban challenge had produced several teams who could navigate urban environments, including GPS-blocking tunnels and parking lot environments with bicycles and other objects. To any observer it must have seemed as though the road to production was well along its way. By 2010, Google was spinning up Project Chauffeur, with incentive programs that would rival the payout of many startups, but without the risk.

The story follows the story as a journalist can, but perhaps without an engineer's background, didn't see that the "Larry Page 1K Challenge" was too easy to game: the book describes the engineers basically repeating the runs over and over until the conditions made it possible. That's like playing a video game by save-scumming: just save and reload until the random number generator gave you an outcome you wanted. That sort of challenge made it easy for companies and executives to fool themselves into thinking that they had achieved significant milestones.

The entire book is was worth reading and compelling reading I bought it hoping to read it on a plane and ended up finishing it the morning before the plane ride. It's well worth reading for its management lessons (and its ethical lessons), as well as providing you with a realistic view of how far away the industry is from realizing the original DARPA vision. In many places its as compelling a story as any fiction you'll read. Recommended!

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Review: The Handmaid's Tale Graphic Novel

 I kept bouncing off The Handmaid's Tale, so I finally resorted to the graphic novel edition to see if I could finally actually make it through.  The art in the book is bland and not expressive, and but the story is told in such a way that's coherent and comprehensible. Atwood's vision of a patriarchial society that treats women as nothing but breeders by religious fundamentalists might have seemed like fiction when it was published, but in the world of 2022 with an extremely conservative supreme court about to overturn Roe v Wade seems eerily prescient. The hypocrisy of such a society is exposed and clear, though perhaps in the light of what we see today perhaps her vision isn't apocalyptic enough. What's apparent is that the religious fundamentalists in this country don't view the book as a warning, but as a playbook with which to realize their horrific vision of a uniquely dystopian timeline.

As far as being a graphic novel, this one can't hold a candle to the best of say, Alan Moore. I compare the narrative portion of The Handmaid's Tale with say, Valerie, and it's clear that Moore is the stronger writer with as unique a vision as Atwood, but with a better command of visual as well as written form. Nevertheless, Atwood's dystopia in the light of 2022 seems far more real than the world of V for Vendetta.


Monday, May 16, 2022

Review: Q-Squared

 I picked up Q-Squared because I had good memories of Peter David's writing, even though I'm not actually a fan of Star Trek the next generation. The story probably would have made for a fun Star Trek movie or TV episode, involving multiple-timelines, mirror universes, and Q, a sort of omnipotent energy being. It relies heavily on your understanding of the characters from the TV show, though not so much that I couldn't pick up who Beverly Crusher was, as well as the different versions of Riker, Worf, et al.

It does highlight how non-Science Fiction the Star Trek universe actually is, with regular violations of physics, and more importantly, extremely humanoid aliens who can be portrayed by actors with make-up. I'd say this book would have been great for a die-hard Star Trek fan, but probably isn't suitable for those who got annoyed with regular Star Trek's lack of adherence to physics.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Review: Specialized Recon 1.0 MTB Shoes

 After just 5 years of use my Pearl Izumi cycling shoes died from the straps falling apart. There was a mild sale on the Specialized Recon 1.0 MTB Shoes, so I bought a pair. My favorite feature of these shoes is that their toebox is wide, which came as a relief after multiple years of using SIDI shoes which are pointy. They come with 3 velcro straps, which are much stickier than anybody else's straps. I tried them when mountain biking and found the walking features very good as well. I like these enough that I find myself wearing them a lot more than I expected, as opposed to say, switching out to my stiffer SIDIs for harder rides. In fact, I found myself even eschewing my stiffer SIDI shoes on a long ride where I might have to walk.

I shopped around and looked at the Recon 2.0 and 3.0, but the BOA straps looked like they would cut into my forefoot. As a result, I think the 1.0 are actually the most comfortable shoes for touring and mixed gravel riding.

Just for the wide toe box alone, these shoes are well worth considering. Recommended.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Review: Hydroflask 32oz Lightweight Wide Mouth Trail Series

 Aurora gave me an insulated water bottle that was impressively handy during the Antigua trip. It was perfect, except that it didn't quite have sufficient capacity for a family of four. So when I saw a sale on the Hydroflask 32oz Lightweight Wide Mouth stainless steel bottle ($32 after shipping and taxes), I jumped on it. Amazon (linked above) has it for about $40, which is still not  bad deal.

I weighed it, and it comes in at 356g empty, which is 20g more than the advertised weight of 11.8oz. It stores just under 1 liter of water, and the handle is comfortable, though I usually make a point out of putting it in a backpack or in an outer pocket. I used it during the Spain trip, and on many day hikes, and it doesn't spills and is easy enough for the kids to use. It keeps cold water cold, which I like a lot, and the wide mouth means that during the summer months I can put ice in it easily.

I like it enough to recommend it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Spain 2022: Girona to San Francisco

 We got up early, ate breakfast, packed everything into the car, and drove out past the garage and bollard before returning the keys back into the apartment. This time, everything went smoothly. The drive was easy, and even gassing up the car right next to the airport was straightforward and easy.

Once we returned the car, we discovered that we were early, standing in line waiting for Iberia/Level to open. Once they were done, we cleared security and had our last tapas lunch before clearing passport controls. At the duty free shop we bought chocolate that would be hard/expensive to buy in the US: kinder surprise (banned because of a choking hazard), ritter sport (hard to buy), and then bought sandwiches and other meals for the flight.

Returning to the US after the flight, we cleared customs and passport controls easily only to find ourselves stuck waiting for the car seats. Once out, ride share was easy to get at, and we easily got home. Not surprisingly, after the kids started school, we started getting COVID exposure notifications from their classmates, no doubt acquired by visiting destinations in much less vaccinated places than Spain. In retrospect we should have stayed for a week longer until the rest of the families had gotten their COVID bouts over and done with.

But the trip was excellent and I still think Spain would be a great retirement location. My wife asked why I didn't think of it earlier, and the only answer I can give was that my first few nights in Spain during the 2008 tour were so awful that it took persuasion from Brad Silverberg before I would change my mind. Spain is not a great location for the kind of bike touring I do, but would be a perfect home base, which explained why my 2008 visit was so different from my 2019 visit.