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Friday, December 29, 2017

Reread: Watership Down

I remember reading Watership Down as a teenager. I remembered that it was about rabbits or bunnies, but not much else. Despite Bowen's love of bunnies, when I went to the library, the book was so thick and intimidating that I didn't even bother checking it out to read to him. I tried the movie version, but 5 minutes into it Bowen was bored.

Eva Silverstein's a much better parent than I am, so on Bowen's birthday, she bought me the Kindle version of the book, which forced me to read it to Bowen. Bowen, being Bowen, is making me read a chapter of the book to him nearly every night, which indicates that the story is at least interesting to me. We're about 70% into the book, but I couldn't help it one night and just plowed all the way to the end, so even if Bowen hasn't finished the book, I have.

I can see now why the book didn't leave a deep impression on me. Much like Lord of the Rings, it's full of digressions, side-trips, and irrelevancies all merged into the narrative. The side stories do serve a purpose, granting the world of the bunnies a deeper folklore and worldview with history all of its own, but also distracted me from the main storyline, making me impatient to skip over them and go on to the "what happens next?" It also turns out that the plot of the novel is based on the mythology of the founding of Rome, which has no resonances for me, since I didn't have a classical background. The chapter start quotations are also clearly targeted for an adult audience, going over Bowen's head. But I read them all to Bowen anyway!

Each of the bunnies have a distinct personality, and according to Richard Adams came from research he did by reading non-fiction books. The rules he set when writing the novel was that the rabbits would never do something that was physically impossible for real bunnies to actually do, even though the behavior of many of the bunnies in the book are quite unnatural for bunnies.

I have a hard time recommending this book. I think the story itself is OK, but the structure and pace don't make for easy reading to a 6 year old, and there are many places that are a slog. Nevertheless, Bowen is loving the book. I'm dreading that when I get to the end he'll make me start all over! Clearly I'm not made out of the stuff that Jo Walton is.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review: Critical Business Skills for Success

I checked out Critical Business Skills for Success from the library. Until January 10th, Audible has a deal where you pay $5/month for 3 months for an Audible subscription. If you sign up for this deal, this audio course should be one of the audible books you use your credits on. I plan on doing so, despite having listened to the entire 30 hour course. It is that good.

Have you ever wondered about how to read a balance sheet? Income statement? Wondered why people make a big deal out of free cash flow? Curious about how an accountant could have figured out that Enron was running a big fraudulent operation through forensic accounting? The tools needed for you to do so are in this course. What if you're an engineer and always wondered what a marketing person is supposed to be doing with his time? Is marketing just about creating and placing ads? The answers are here. What is a business strategy? How should investment decisions be made? How do you get the best out of your reports? There's a sequence of lectures here about this as well.

As an investor, I frequently hear people discuss investments without an understanding of what finance is, and how to use it to analyze a business. Just that alone would be worth the price of this audio course. Throw in the rest of it (the weakest part of the lecture series are the ones about HR --- everything else is pure gold), and this lecture series is worth every minute of your time.

Highly recommended for everyone. Go buy it.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review: Varmilo VA87M Wired Keyboard

Writers and programmers spend all their time in front of a keyboard. In fact, most of our output is directly driven by the keyboard, rather than the mouse/pen that artists typically depend on. I'd gotten  by on Logitech keyboards in recent years, mostly because my wife had complained about how noisy my previous mechanical keyboards are. But in recent years, there's been new keyboards with Cherry Brown Mx switches that are quieter while retaining the brilliant mechanical feel that I loved so much in the old IBM keyboards.

The Varmilo VA87M is one of them. I completely screwed up when I order this. Massdrop occasionally has VB87M Bluetooth Keyboards available for sale, but I checked the price against the VA87M on Amazon, and decided that Amazon was a better deal, completely neglecting to realize that the one on Amazon was the wired model, rather than the Bluetooth model. Since you can get Cherry Brown mechanical keyboards for much less than the Amazon price, I probably wouldn't have bought the keyboard otherwise.

Once I got the keyboard, however, I changed my mind. First of all, a bluetooth keyboard would have issues interrupting the computer during startup to get into the BIOS menu, for instance. Also, switching between computers (e.g., when I wanted to switch between my desktop and laptop) would have required repairing the keyboard, which is much more painful than unplugging a USB cable and plugging it to a different machine.

Once plugged in, the keyboard has a great light action feel while retaining the tactile feedback that only a mechanical keyboard can give. I also like it that the tops of the keys are blank, so over time they won't fade. From a distance, it looks like the entire keyboard is blank, and my wife asked how I could type without seeing the keys on the keyboard (which I could always do because I'm a touch typist, but my wife never noticed before). There are a few annoyances in the keyboard, largely to do with setup --- the keyboard can be setup to disable the Windows key, for instance, but doing so takes an arcane combination of keypresses that I somehow enabled by accident. The lighting is a worthless feature --- I don't know why anyone uses it. The keyboard is not noticeably loud enough to bother my wife, which is a big plus.

All in all, there are cheaper mechanical keyboards out there, but none so small (this one eliminates the number keypad). The wireless version of this probably isn't as good when it comes to response time and the convenience. I do wish that Logitech would make a Unifying mechanical keyboard around this size, but their PMs probably don't listen to people like me, so in the mean time, this is probably your best choice.


Friday, December 22, 2017

First Impressions: Garmin Index Smartscale

The most dangerous aspect of the human mind is its ability to deceive itself. I discovered that when I was done with my weight loss program: all through the years when I was gaining weight, I rationalized that this was a good thing. Even when I shot way past my goal. It took my doctor and a nutritionist to tell me that what I was doing was just plain wrong.

The thing about weight is that it fluctuates naturally, depending on your state of hydration, what time of day it is, and whether you just recently ate. That makes it easy for you to rationalize it. Even if you have the discipline to write down your weight every time you weigh yourself, it's easy to lie to yourself and say: "Oh, that was because I just drank a ton of water." A smart scale is the way around this: it's always at home, and you can always make yourself weigh in say, before your daily shower. Over time, the trendline and graphs will keep you from lying to yourself about your weight gain. (Or if you're not gaining weight, you'll stop being neurotic about the weight fluctuations on every weigh in!)

For better or worse, I'm part of the Garmin ecosystem, as opposed to the Apple or Fitbit ecosystems. The reason is fairly basic: Garmin is for athletes, the other devices are for people who want to be "fit." (i.e., they'll never do a bike ride for more than 4-5 hours and still expect their devices to still be powered on). That meant that the Garmin Index Smart Scale is the device that will provide weight data to all your devices. This makes the calorie counter more accurate (again, not significant unless you gain or lose a lot of that).

Set against that is a bunch of lackluster reviews, including from DC Rainmaker. (By the way, if you want the short summary of his reviews, just checkout the statement where he says he returns the review unit. If he says he'll run out and buy it from a retail store, then it's good, otherwise, it means that he doesn't care for it)

I didn't fully understand the lackluster reviews until I received the unit. Basically, if you're a single person using the scale, it's great. You sync it to your Garmin Connect app on your phone, answer basic questions about yourself (height, approximate weight, etc so that the BMI calculations are correct), and you're done. If you're setting it up for a family, however, it's counter-intuitive in multiple ways that are designed to drive you nuts. Your family members cannot add the device to their Garmin Connect themselves. What they must do is to connect their account to yours (an obscure, unituitive process that requires them to search for your Garmin Connect handle, and then request to be your friend, and then you have to accept), and then YOU have to invite them to use the Smartscale, after which THEY have to accept the invitation, and then go on to answer the questions.

Fortunately, I have access to everyone's smartphone, so I went ahead and created accounts for everyone and went through that rigmarole. After that the scale is like magic. In fact, when my wife stepped on for the first time and she saw her initials she said, "Hey wait, how did it know it's me?!!" The scale is fast, just a couple of seconds and it'll give you all the details like BMI, body fat percentage, amount of your weight is water weight, how much muscle mass you have, and how much bone mass you have. It then updates your Garmin Connect account wirelessly, and you're done. No hassle.

The other big issue is of course, how durable/reliable the device was. I bought the refurbished version from Amazon (and it looks brand new) with a credit card that extends the manufacturer's warranty by a year just to be safe. But now that I've gone through the setup, I think I understand how people can fail to set it up for a family and rather than deal with the hassle of figuring out all the vagaries, would rather just return it to Amazon. Oh yeah, if you buy refurbished, the first thing to do after installing the batteries is to hold down the factory reset button for 5 seconds.

If you've read with this so far, you now have all the information to take advantage of the certified refurbished prices on the scale on Amazon. It really is a decent device, just silly expensive for what it does, but if you're like me, Garmin has their hooks in you nice and deep and no other Smart Scale will integrate with the ecosystem anyway, so you might as well just buy it. At least, if you're the type of person who's capable of lying to themselves about weight gain (and my history has proved that I am!), a Smart Scale is probably a good idea.


Thursday, December 21, 2017

First Impressions: Playstation Gold Wireless Headset

I had returned the Playstation Platinum headset because for $120, it just didn't offer great bang for the buck. But when the Gold headset went on sale around $60, I picked one up because it's nice to have a wireless headset. (Note that you can plug your headphones into the Dualshock 4 on the PS4, but you're not going to get the nice virtual surround sound) Evidently, lots of people liked the deal too, since Amazon's now out of stock on the headset.

Just like the Platinum headset, you get a dongle which you plug into the PS4 (but is also compatible with the PS3 and your PC/laptop/desktop as well!) and then you turn on the headset and now you get virtual surround sound. It's not as nice as the magic Sony put into their VR headset, which granted really amazing localization, but when turned on, it does make even the movies on Horizon Zero Dawn sound better, so I see no reason to turn it off. The battery lasts about the same as the Dualshock 4. There are people who complain about that, but I don't get that much time in front of the PS4, so I don't.

For the price, you get nice sound (though nothing like the Sony X1000XM2, but that doesn't give you surround sound, nor does it pair wirelessly with your PS4). I returned the Platinum because it wasn't good enough value, but I'm not going to return the Gold headset.


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review: Runaways Vol 4-6

After I read the first run of Runaways, I picked up from the library, volumes 4-6: True Believers, Escape to New York, and Parental Guidance. Because the artists were changed dramatically between volumes, there's no consistent art style.

The biggest problem with the series is that since the group had accomplished their original goals (preventing their parents from destroying the world in the previous collection), the new story arcs aren't nearly as fresh or compelling. There's some intra-group rivalry/jealousy/romance, but none handled as maturely as you might like. The leader is (for a change) a half-asian woman, but the art style is such that you can't really tell if she's Asian.

The Escape to New York has a great segment when the Runaways meet Spiderman, who's cooler in this comic than in practically any other comics where he teams up with other heroes. Finally, in the 6th volume Vaughan decides to go for the comic book cliche of resurrecting an old villain. I guess this is where the book jumped the shark. Tom Galloway says the book stays good until Joss Whedon takes over, so I'll keep reading for a bit.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

First Impressions: Playstation VR Skyrim Bundle

For a limited time, you can get the Playstation VR Skyrim Bundle for $334.89. My brother got me one as a late birthday present. This is the bundle to get, because unlike other SKUs, it includes the second generation VR headset, which features HDR passthrough for the day when I get a HDR-capable TV. The move controllers are also improved over the ones I got for the PS3, since they take a microUSB charging port instead of the older mini USB model. It also comes with a camera.

When I built my PC this summer, my initial thinking was that I'd eventually get a VR capable GPU and then run VR through the PC. This didn't pan out, because the cryptomining craze has driven GPU prices beyond what I'm willing to pay. Furthermore, recent announcements (such as for the Fallout 4 VR) now specify that the minimum system requirements are such that you'll need at least a GTX 1070 to run them, with the GTX 1080 as the recommended requirement. The price of such video cards is such that you can buy a PS4, and the PSVR for almost the price of just the GPU alone. And of course, things being the way they are, the requirements will keep ratcheting up. By contrast, the PS4 is a stable platform and content released for it will not require better hardware until the PS5 shows up.

I bought a few games in addition to Skyrim, so I'd have an interesting collection of content to play. All of them cost around $10 or so during the black friday season. And the nice thing about buying discs is that you can resell them if the content isn't what you want. I picked up VR Worlds and Eagle Flight. My Playstation Plus subscription also gave me RIGs and Rush of Blood.

VR Worlds was surprisingly fun, with London Heist being the centerpiece. I think I finally realized how my reaction to a VR goggle was different when I started dodging bullets and flinching. I wonder if that goes away with exposure, but definitely felt different from watching a video. Rush of Blood was surprisingly hard, but also gave me a great sensation of actually being in a roller coaster. While the graphics are definitely dialed back from what the PS4 is capable of when displaying on a regular TV, it's definitely "good enough" for presence.

Eagle Flight was surprisingly disappointing. I felt less like flying than like operating a remote drone. That's because the UI is in conflict with the game design. The UI wants you to turn your head, but the idiot game designers at Ubisoft decided that the game would be more fun if the challenges required you to make tight turns. Because to do so would hurt your neck, they encourage you to tilt your head instead of turning your head to make turns, which is unnatural and difficult to train yourself to do, and results in you not feeling like you're a bird in the sky.

Rush of Blood was fun, but too intense to play in more than short bursts. Skyrim looks like an ultra-long RPG and will take me a while to get around to doing.

I also found the page on the best free apps on PSVR. Both my wife and Bowen enjoyed Invasion (also viewable as a youtube video), the Spiderman: Homecoming experience, and Alumette. What's very apparent with these VR videos is that if something comes within reach, human beings wearing VR goggles will want to try to touch it. Which means that the best true VR experiences are games using the move controllers, not VR videos. There's also apparently a ton of VR videos on YouTube, so lots of free content.

The PSVR social screen is also great. You can have a conversation with the VR user and comment on what they're seeing, since what they're seeing is also projected to the TV, etc. (And as a parent you can monitor your little kid's VR use, not that Bowen's allowed very much of it)

Regardless, the device, while expensive, seems to have a lot of content that's available fairly cheaply, and is surprisingly comfortable to wear and use. If you already have a PS4, picking this up is far cheaper than even buying the cheapest GPU + VR headset available for the PC platform. Clearly this is the way to go, until GPU supply catches up with the apparent infinite demand generated by cryptomining.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Review: Runaways: The Complete Collection

The only reason I own a tablet is to read comic books on it. For everything else, my phone or my Kindle is a far better device. One of the best apps on the tablet is Hoopla, which lets you check out comics from the library (limited to 3 a month) and read them. The UI is just as good as the Kindle/Comixology app, and  you can't beat the price.

Runaways: The Complete Collection (which you can checkout as 3 books from Hoopla) is a comic set in the Marvel Universe. In it, a bunch of teens discover that their parents are evil. Not just the evil you regularly expect parents to do, but real-life supervillains intent on destroying the world. The teens discover that their heritage means that they have powers (what a shock), and then set out to right the wrongs their parents intent to wreak upon the world.

The art is transparent, nothing fancy. The characters a good, if a little stereotyped (though the plot twists are pretty great, and not as predictable as I expected), and like a good dungeon master, the story provides a good explanation of why the other superheroes in the Marvel universe aren't taking care of this.

Even better, the book completes an entire arc, rather than dragging on and on without resolving the teens' relationships with their parents. But the whole thing was so well done that I went ahead and started placing holds on the paper copies of the following books in the series from the library. That makes this one of the few good comics I've read in recent  years. Recommended.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Review: Uncharted - The Lost Legacy

The Uncharted series of video games are pretty much movies with a choose-your-own-action-sequence game mechanic. Uncharted: The Last Legacy doesn't deviate from the series' charter, and was originally conceived as downloadable content for Uncharted 4, but turned into a game.

As with Uncharted 4, the graphics and art direction is gorgeous. The run time is about 10 hours, but features perfect pacing, switching from traversal to exploration to the usual gun fights, feels like  a much shorter game, which is a very good sign. You're never tired from overuse of any of the game mechanics, and no, Nathan Drake never shows up as part of the game.

The story is basically that of a buddy movie, with female protagonists instead of male ones. Yes, the game passes the Bechdel test. The plot is rather thin, with a MacGuffin, the usual action set pieces (which are fun to watch and play), and a large open-world-style exploration area. The puzzles are usually no challenge, but even if they were, the game detects your level of frustration and lets you skip those.

Lots of game critics complain about game length being short. I don't. A short game length means that I'll actually get to play the game to the end. That's a feature, not a bug. As such, this game comes highly recommended as one of the few games I actually finished this year.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Review: Sky Force Anniversary (PS3,PS4,PS Vita)

We got Sky Force Anniversary as part of the PS Plus subscription. It ticked all the nostalgia boxes that I had growing up playing vertical shoot them ups. You have an upgradeable ship with parts you can buy, and lots of things to shoot at.

The repeated play model requires that you replay levels to earn medals and make progress, and by the time I was done I was pretty sick of the game, but the game itself was well done, and I was surprised to learn that it started as a  smartphone game as there was no onerous in-app purchasing, loot  boxes, etc.

The game has cross-save, meaning you can pick it up on the PS4, PS Vita, or PS3, and save games automatically carry over from system to system, which is a great feature and was ultimately what made it possible for us to finish the game on long plane flights, etc. It also has couch co-op, which makes many levels that are too hard for a single player a lot easier. Too few games have all these features.


Tuesday, December 05, 2017

First Impressions: EOS M5 and EF 50mm/1.8 STM

I wasn't actively looking to replace our EOS M3. But Canon was blowing out refurbished EOS M5s that included an adapter and several accessories (including a body jacket and several straps) for just over $600, as well as a 50mm/1.8 STM for $85, so I picked up the camera as a birthday gift for my wife, selling the old EOS M3 and my old 50mm/1.8 II on eBay for about $350 or so after fees, making it a relatively cheap upgrade. Since the battery is compatible with the older M3,

The big draw is the electronic viewfinder, which is a great tool for when it's too bright to use the LCD screen. The latency is high enough that it's noticeably not as good as an optical viewfinder in DSLRs, but hey, that's why this thing is tiny and the DSLRs are huge.

The autofocus is significantly quicker than the M3, though not so good that there aren't missed shots, and the occasional hunting in low light conditions. Together with the 50mm/1.8 STM, however, this thing takes amazing portraits very beautiful background blurring:
In fact, my wife likes it so much that most of the time she shoots with just the 50mm/1.8 STM, ignoring the 22mm/2 and the 11-22mm zoom. In practice, we'll probably travel with just the 22mm/2 and the 50mm/1.8 and only bring the zooms when we're not constrained by weight.
For landscapes, the camera's not too shabby either, and works well even when backlit. My only wish is for Canon to integrate GPS in the camera (today that has to be done using a smartphone app and the camera's bluetooth connection, but I can't remember to do that).

I wouldn't pay the near $1000 retail price asked by Canon, but for the price we paid (especially since we had all the existing Canon kit, and the upgrade was painless by selling on eBay), it was a good deal. Recommended.

Monday, December 04, 2017

2017 Puerto Vallarta

We visited Puerto Vallarta over thanksgiving break.

This was Bowen's first chance to try his new Snorkel Mask and adjustable fins in open water. We got him a snorkel mask because he'd forgotten how to use a regular snorkel, and had bitten off the bite valve on the snorkel he had anyway, which meant that I'd have to buy a new device anyway. Snorkel masks are useless for diving since you can't equalize (can't pinch the nose through that hard plastic), but realistically, he wasn't going to dive deep enough to do that anyway. Unfortunately, the snorkeling wasn't actually all that great: compared to the Carribean, the water is murky, though there's plenty of wildlife, the cold water meant that Bowen got cold in about 15 minutes, and so missed the sightings of the giant manta rays that I got while diving.
We tried ziplining at the Los Veranos Zipline tour. Bowen liked it so much that we did it twice, once on Xiaoqin's birthday.

There were beautiful sunsets and lots of great food, but Boen got an unwanted souvenir: while sliding down the waterslide at a hotel he cut his chin on a decorative fake rock, so he ended up getting 2 stitches on his chin. But he's still able to eat ice cream and doesn't seem too distressed.
We spent lots of time in the swimming pool, and there, Bowen finally learned to duck dive in a swim suit! All in all, nice but not better than a sailing trip in the Carribean or cycling tour anywhere, but you knew I'd say that. I probably wouldn't repeat.

Friday, December 01, 2017

2018 Book Reviews

Books of the Year 2018 have been picked!

Graphic Novels

Review: A Mind at Play - How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

A Mind at Play is a biography of Claude Shannon. When I was an intern at Bellcore, his name was often spoken of in reverence, as the person who invented and developed information theory, which the book does a good job of explaining as well as it does the life of Claude Shannon.

The thesis of the book, which is that Shannon uniquely approached the development and engineering of technology as "fun" rather than work, however, doesn't seem to hold. What I got out of the book was that Shannon was cultivated and mentored by various established scientists (including Vannevar Bush), who appreciated his talent. The "fun" part was that Shannon pursued various other hobbies (including juggling and uni-cycling) rather than just the work he was famous for.

It is true that Shannon has long been neglected compared to other luminaries of his age. This book goes a long way towards correcting that. As such it is recommended reading.

Friday, November 17, 2017

2017 Books of the Year

I read 55 books this year, and then on top of that piled on 20 audio books and 9 comic books, which makes this a bumper year for books read. As usual, non-fiction takes the lead in terms of books worth your time.

My book of the year is How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Whether or not you agree with the premise of the book, it's a different approach to understanding emotions and debunking prior models of emotional intelligence and thinking. It's very much well worth your time to read, and will make you a better person. Other books of note include: Hillbilly Elegy, The Undoing Project, and Einstein.

On the fiction side, I really enjoyed My Sister Rosa.It's an outstanding novel about family dynamics as well as an excellent coming-of-age story. It doesn't have the usual happy ending, but in exchange, it grants you unusual insight into what a high functioning sociopath is (and there are many in society), and how to recognize one. It's well worth a read, and even beats out excellent rereads that I did this year like Stories of Your Life.

For Audio Books, I really enjoyed the Medical School for Everyone series. In particular, Pediatrics Grand Rounds would have saved me a lot of angst when my children were smaller, and I encourage every parent to audit it. The other books in the series: Emergency Medicine and Grand Rounds Cases are by the same lecturer and have no overlap, so if you enjoyed that one, you can pick up the others in the series and not fear any repetition.

Alas, I didn't read any comic books this year really worth recommending.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: Batman - The Long Halloween

The Long Halloween is a story from the early days of Batman. As Batman stories go, it's pretty good. Early Batman means there aren't that many silly things, like sidekicks, Batgirl, and the rest of the Bat  family. It's also an interesting take on Harvey Dent (aka TwoFace), in fact, easily the best Harvey Dent as portrayed in the comics.

The mystery revolves around the Holiday killer, and who it is. The authors kinda cheated in an improbable fashion (I won't spoil it for you, but I think if you read it you'll not be wondering why I consider the solution to the mystery unsatisfying), but it's one-third fair. (To say more would be to give away the mystery)

The rest of it is a bit cookie cutter. Mildly recommended.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review: The Sudden Appearance of Hope

The Sudden Appearance of Hope won the world fantasy award for best novel in 2017. I was surprised to discover that this novel was readily available at the local library for a kindle checkout (despite having only one copy), so I proceeded to check it out.

The premise of the novel is that Hope Arden is a woman who cannot be remembered: if you met her, a few minutes after you can't see her any more, you'll have forgotten the encounter. This seems like such a great gimmick. I imagined a novel where the non-memorable woman is metaphor for all the people whom you pass by during the course of the day whom you'll never give a second thought to. Maybe they're too plain, or in the case of us Asian guys who get mistaken for each other by white people, just not considered interesting enough to make an impression. At the very least, it's a nice change from the plethora of vampire/werewolf/night magic fantasy crap that we see all over the place.

Well, I was wrong. There's some philosophizing in the novel, and there's plenty of angsting to go around, but Claire North has gone for the super-thief approach, complete with a full exposition of the limits of her powers (e.g., cameras can still record her appearance, you can still take a picture of her and write notes to yourself to remind you that you saw her, etc). The protagonist is also said to be beautiful by many she encounters (hey, if you're going to go Hollywood, you need to make sure the casting director can hire a big name star for the lead).

The plot revolves around a smart phone app called "Perfection." Perfection is the ultimate app that Google, Facebook, and Snapchat are evolving towards: the ultimate behavioral control and reprogramming app that changes you towards being perfect, making tons of money in the process. Why it exists, what the goals of the organization that launched are, then becomes the focus of the novel.

My problem with the novel is that long parts of it is pretentious, unreadable drivel barely worth skimming. It references Byron, but does nothing with it. There's plenty of stream of consciousness, some of it hints at a cool statement of what it must take to exist in a world where no one can remember you, but all of the characters in the book have no motivations that make any sense to me. The book never explains Hope's special powers (that's OK, it's fantasy), but Hope's antagonists never come up with more sophisticated approaches to trying to capture her either: e.g., machine-based feature recognition, biometric identification, or even simply tracking her via fingerprints. Since Hope frequently travels in countries where people with dark skin are viewed with suspicion, I would have expected racial profiling at the very least!

I finished the book hoping for an ending that somehow justifies the World Fantasy Award. I came away completely unfulfilled and wishing I had the time I'd put into the novel back.

Not recommended.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review: Batman - The Complete Hush

I finally got around to reading The Complete Hush because of the Kindle Fire. You can download the Hoopla app and with your library, check it out of the library for free. The app does a great job of showing comics and letting you zoom in panel by panel. There's a delay when you switch between horizontal and vertical layouts (the 2-spread pages in comic book pages frequently tempt you into doing this), but otherwise it works great.

The content of the story seemed very familiar. Then I realized that this story was part of what went into the story line for Arkham Knight! I enjoyed the story but it felt a bit rushed and compressed. The weakest part of it was Batman: through the entire story arc, he didn't feel competent and in charge (and that's despite of course his ability to manage Superman). I felt the video game did a better job of portraying Batman than this book did.

Friday, November 10, 2017

First Impressions: Kindle Fire HD8 2016

Kindle Fire HD8 tablets are well known for being cheap. Cheap, however, does not mean good value, and I thought I'd avoid getting the 16GB model since I've had so many struggles with 16GB phones running out of storage. Well, Amazon's currently running a 25% sale on refurbished 2016 Kindle Fire HD8s, which meant I got one for $40. I figured with Amazon's generous return policy I could return it if I didn't like it.

The refurbished model looks indistinguishable from a new one. I booted it up and it was reasonably fast, but what's amazing to me was that when I opened up the storage setting I discovered that it had 12GB free, which was much more than what I'd experienced from similarly sized Android phones. Amazon's done some significant shrinkage on their version of Android.

One of my prior objections to the Kindle Fire tablets were that they didn't have the Google Play store. That's not quite true if you're a technie: there's a well-known way to get the Google Play store on the tablet, and it works just fine. Everything works as you might expect from a tablet.

The shortage of RAM is an issue: these devices come with only 1.5GB of RAM, rather than the 3-4GB that regularly ship with even midrange phones. On the other hand, the device is only driving a 720p display, which meant that even games ran reasonably well. The only times when the device stutters is when you're switching between apps rapidly: garbage collection pauses and app swapping pauses then become apparent.

The reason I bought the tablet was for reading comics: those don't translate well on the Kindle Paperwhite (which I still love, but costs 3X as much as this tablet). Those work great on the Kindle Fire HD8.

Amazon does a better job of integrating SD Card storage than Google does on its phones and tablets. This is important for a consumption tablet that has limited storage. By default, once you install a microSD card, all media gets moved into the card. Not only that, FireOS has retained the old Android feature where apps can also be moved to the external storage, which means that even a 16GB Kindle Fire is usable.

I've often complained that Google's product managers seem to live in a world where internet is everywhere, with unlimited, free bandwidth. Amazon's PMs clearly don't live in that world, which is a great thing for the products. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Review: The Innovators

The Innovators is Walter Isaacson's history of the IT industry. It has two theses it argues for: one is that innovation and breakthroughs don't occur in a vacuum: it takes a team to make revolutionary change in industries, and the team could take the form of a company (startup or traditional research lab) or open-source style collaboration, or a partnership.

The time spent on each individual or team is pretty shallow, since Isaacson's covering huge periods of time (from Charles Babbage through the invention of the transistor to the introduction of the world wide web). As someone who worked in publishing, he had his biases, for instance, choosing to focus on blogger but not say, friendster or Facebook.

The book makes the point that the growth of the social networks and interlinked web is the culmination of the vision laid forth by Vannevar Bush's Memex. I wonder how Bush (or for that matter, Isaacson) would have thought of the current revelations that foreign governments did take advantage of the distributed nature of the web to attack American democracy (not that the stage weren't set by various political movements that came before).

The second thesis of the book is that augmented intelligence has won over artificial intelligence. I actually think that it's too early to say that, especially in the light of recent advances in statistical machine learning.

All in all, the book's not up to the standard set by his biographies of Einstein or Jobs, but it still made for decent reading. Mildly recommended.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Review: Gravity Maze

Rekha and Roberto gave Bowen Gravity Maze for his birthday, and this was immediately the most played toy in his birthday present set this year. Since he liked both Rush Hour and Laser Maze, this was probably predictable.

The idea behind the puzzle game is that you have a source tower and a target location, and a certain number of pieces with which to build a series of connections such that a ball dropped from the source tower will end up in the target location from the correct direction (the target tower is opened on only one side).

The concept is simple, but the game has several flaws that make it less than perfect:

  1. The pieces are finicky, making it easy to dislodge them while placing other pieces. This is true even for an adult, let alone a 6 year old.
  2. Some of the solutions are dependent on the height from which the ball is dropped. This has a couple of problems: first, there exist solutions which occasionally solve the puzzle, but don't do so all the time (an indication that this is not the solution the puzzle maker wants you to reach), but there are also solutions which are finicky, meaning if the pieces are not placed firmly or the ball is dropped a bit too low you will not consistently get the ball to hit the target.
  3. The colors chosen are very annoying if you're partially colorblind, as I am. The orange/green pieces are not distinguishable, and the subtle differences on the printed cards that differentiate purple and black are so subtle that I frequently have to ask Bowen what the colors are whenever he asks me to setup the next puzzle for him. Fortunately, he's soon reaching the age where he can setup puzzles for himself, but some of the setups involve one puzzle tower on top of another, and he doesn't quite have the coordination to do it yet. This is yet another example of how the world of UI designers just doesn't seem to have enough color-blind people for people like me.
Bowen likes the game a lot, and plays with it a lot. But this is one clear case where the user experience would be improved if the physical pieces were all thrown out the window and replaced with a computer simulation/app instead. Computer reality is much more well-behaved than this finicky design. Avoid if you or your child is clumsy, and avoid if you or your child is even a little bit color-blind.

Nevertheless, it's a great concept that maybe someone else will refine and execute better than ThinkFun has.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Review: Little Tikes Jump 'n Slide Bouncer

Someone last year gave us a Little Tikes Jump 'n Slide Bouncer. I'm not normally in the habit of reviewing kid's toys, but this one gave us a ton of use. With a long power cord, the blower for this bouncer still requires a power strip: the reason is because the wall wart is nasty and long, and wouldn't fit into any weather protected wall sockets, so you have to use a power strip for it. Fortunately, the power draw is relatively low (400W maximum). It comes with several stakes for holding down the bounce house on grass/lawn, but since we usually use it on a wooden deck or concrete we rarely use those.

In use, the bounce house mostly works great, but Bowen can reach the roof and pull it down. Similarly, Boen has discovered if he slides against the walls the roof will come down and he can grab it as well. For whatever reason the kids think this is great fun, but so far after a good 6 months of use the toy has still not fallen apart.

For Bowen's birthday party, we decided we'd rent a generator and run this jump house instead of renting a bigger jump house. But renting a generator cost $200, while a Tailgator from harbor freight cost only $109. I tried shopping from Amazon, but because of California's air quality regulations and because most generator companies can't be bothered to present their California certification to Amazon, you can't buy such low end devices from them. Along with the generator, you'll have to get 2 cycle engine oil and fuel stabilizer. Since the Tailgator was good for 700W it was perfectly matched with the bouncer. (Note: the generator has a 25 hour break-in period, during which you're not supposed to exceed 50% of the maximum wattage the generator's supposed to provide, so 400W is about right)

The generator requires more maintenance than you would expect: you're supposed to run it every 3 months for at least 15 minutes, but since one use of it has already paid for itself I'm not too concerned about the longevity.

Most kid's toys get played once or twice and then are left to languish. This one gets used over and over, so I recommend it if you have the room.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Review: Two HandGrinders

Because of my Aeropress review, I received a free sample of the Handground Precision Coffee Grinder for review. This is a large (not really portable) grinder with an easy grinding action. The device oozes high build quality, complete with a warning not to grind with the grinder empty as this could damage the ceramic burr mill.

Unfortunately, I don't think this grinder is very good for Aeropress users. Even when setting the grinder to the finest grind setting, the grounds produced are very coarse, and will not have much flavor unless you use very hot water or leave the grounds in the water for a long time, which defeats the purpose of using the Aeropress. I think this grinder would work very well for those who use the French press.

Not recommended for Aeropress users, and I was quite disappointed as otherwise it's great. I'm back to using my old Cusinart. And yes, that I'm writing a negative review is why I'll never get a free unit again.

By contrast, I bought a cheap Macinino/Bassani Burr Grinder to replace my older Hario Mini Mill, which had died. While nowhere as elegantly designed as either of the alternatives, this one could grinder coffee to powder thin (not that you should do this), which in turn delivered flavorful coffee, much more so than the Handground, and on par with my Cusinart. If you're on a budget, this is the one to get!

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

My prices have gone up!

In recent days, I've had a spate of clients for my compensation negotiation service. In all cases, I've managed to raise my client's pay by at least $10,000, and usually by several multiples of that (in one case, by an order of magnitude). While I would like to help every engineer, it's clear to me that I've been pricing my services too low.

Effective today, my services now run $5,000 per negotiation, with a $1,000 retainer. Even at this price, you will find that I add much more value than my asking price. If you've already engaged me in an active negotiation, rest assured that this increase in price does not apply to you --- you've been grandfathered into the old rate. Keep in mind that most recruiters, etc. work on the other side: for the employer. Google, Facebook, and other companies pay 30% of an engineer's first year's salary in exchange for a head-hunter's services. I'm getting paid a pittance by comparison, but I sleep much better at night working for an individual contributor/engineer than working for a corporation.

If you can't afford $1,000 up front, buying my book is much cheaper and the time spent reading it (provided you're a high quality engineer) would easily make enough money to afford my services at the next go-around.

Thanks to all my clients, past, present and future. I don't like to see engineers short changed, and I'm happy to have helped you out in any way.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Review: The Fifth Season

I maintain that N.K. Jermisin was robbed of her Hugo in 2011 for her amazing work, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Well, her talent has been vindicated as she's won the Hugo in 2016 and 2017 for The Fifth Season and its sequel.

Unfortunately, The Fifth Season is nowhere as good as The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Don't get me wrong, it's still a great novel, and no doubt deserving of its Hugo as it's unlikely that any of the other nominees are anywhere as good. But there are several reasons it's not nearly as good:

  1. It's clearly a setup for two more books in the series. While The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms turned out to be the first book of a trilogy, it told a story and wrapped everything up all in one novel. There was no padding, with reveal after reveal. The Fifth Season, by comparison, takes a more languid pace, with a few mysteries drawn out to novel form where Jemisin in her earlier novels would have dispatched with great prejudice in one quarter the length because that prior novel was full of ideas.
  2. The Fifth Season is trying to be a true science fiction novel. That's not a bad thing, but it's clear that Jemisin had to struggle to work out the science behind the science fiction, and as a result there's major plot devices that don't feel nearly as fantastic. It also feels like she's rationing her ideas, as though they wouldn't last 3 books if she didn't. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a pure fantasy, and Jemisin there ran wild, throwing off ideas with great profligacy.
The story is told in 3 strands, and as is typical of novels with literary pretensions, there's an attempt to provide a mystery as to what ties the 3 strands of narrative together. One of the strands is told in second person, which doesn't quite work, there's nothing in that strand that couldn't have been done better than in 3rd person, other than that it would have given away the common character in all 3 strands too quickly.

The characters are ok, not particularly likable, and rather prone to making major mistakes all the time. The world itself is interesting, though I'm very skeptical that any human society could survive the kind of regular cataclysms Jemisin depicts in the novel, special powers or no.

All in all, the novel turned out to be a fairly mediocre novel. I hope the other novels in the series (and their reveals) are good enough to justify the time I spent reading this one.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Review: The Rise and Fall of DODO

The Rise and Fall of DODO is a collaboration between Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. The novel is about the existence of magic: that magic once existed, but the invention of photography (and the entire enlightenment in general) wiped it out. The story involves two protagonists, Melisande Stokes and Tristan Lyons, who discover away to restore it, and then find out that because of the restricted circumstances under which magic may be used, the way to use it for military purposes is to do time travel.

The time travel premise is surprisingly well-worked out, with interesting consequences for major disruption to the timeline, and the "many worlds" theory requiring multiple trips to be able to effect even relatively minor change. The "made-for-Hollywood" nature of the novel requires these consequences to be huge special-effects-laden events, but that doesn't detract form the well-thought-out nature of the stuff.

The inter-character relationships are less well-done, with the villains being telegraphed almost right from the start, and no explanation of how those villains ended up being where they were. When things go south, we get a lot of rushing about but no real final resolution, in a "made-for-TV-series" ending which leaves all sorts of plot-lines dangling.

Unlike a lot of Stephenson's recent work, the novel itself is compellingly readable and fun. But the flaws more than outweigh the strengths when you get to the end. It's OK reading, and not a complete waste of time, but that's as much praise as I can give it.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Review: Einstein

Einstein is Isaacson's biography of the famous scientist. It covers all aspects of his life, from his birth, the Annus Mirabilis which shaped modern physics, and his personal life, including his relationship with his first and second wife, his two sons, and the strange situation in which a brilliant scientist could not get a job as an academic but instead ended up in the Swiss Patent office.

Along the way, Isaacson debunks many of the myths about Einstein: including that he was a poor student. He was an excellent student, always finishing at the top or near the top of his classes, even in subjects that were not necessarily of interest to him. What caused him to have to scrounge around for a patent office job was his clashes with his teachers at the school that would eventually become ETH.

Things I didn't know included that he contractually gave up his Nobel prize winning to his first wife in exchange for a divorce. He also apparently had a succession of affairs, though Isaacson doesn't delve into details to all of them. I also got a big kick out of recognizing the many places that Einstein and his wife visited where I'd also been to: Heidelberg, Munich, and of course, the Alps, where Einstein took many hiking vacations.

Isaacson does a good job of portraying Einstein's unique approach to science, pointing out that even though Lorentz, Planck, and several other scientists all had the same clues (or earlier access to the same clues) that he had about the nature of relativity, it took Einstein to put it all together. Furthermore, Einstein worked alone much of the time:
He also spoke of the need for solitude. “The monotony of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind,” he said, and he repeated a suggestion he had made when younger that scientists might be employed as lighthouse keepers so they could “devote themselves undisturbed” to thinking. It was a revealing remark. For Einstein, science was a solitary pursuit, and he seemed not to realize that for others it could be far more fruitful when pursued collaboratively. In Copenhagen and elsewhere, the quantum mechanics team had been building on one another’s ideas with a frenzy. But Einstein’s great breakthroughs had been those that could be done, with perhaps just an occasional sounding board and mathematical assistant, by someone in a Bern patent office, the garret of a Berlin apartment, or a lighthouse. (Pg. 423)
Of course, it would be wrong to omit Einstein's politics in a complete biography, and Isaacson does not shy from it, including Einstein's immigration to the USA:
 When he first arrived in Princeton, Einstein had been impressed that America was, or could be, a land free of the rigid class hierarchies and servility in Europe. But what grew to impress him more—and what made him fundamentally such a good American but also a controversial one—was the country’s tolerance of free thought, free speech, and nonconformist beliefs. That had been a touchstone of his science, and now it was a touchstone of his citizenship. (Pg. 479)
When reading biographies, one often is secretly disappointed that his heroes might turn out to have feet of clay. In the case of Einstein, I don't think that's going to happen. I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Swimming: A Parent's Job Begins Where Lessons End

After I taught Bowen how to swim last summer, I nevertheless still had to take him to real swimming lessons to teach him correct stroke form and side breathing so he could be faster in the water. My promise to him is that he can decide to stop swimming lessons when he can show me correct freestyle, breast stroke, and backstroke. I usually take him to the Sunnyvale Swim Center, where I can do a lap swim while he's getting his lessons, but one day, the pool had an event so I had to watch him do his lesson instead.

The other kid in his class had a mom who was obviously a triathlete, since she was sporting a Garmin Triathlon Watch. (Serious athletes have a Garmin, the "fitness" people have smart-watches) She made the statement to me that once her child could learn to swim maybe they could "train" together, swimming in separate lanes.

I thought for a moment and said to her, "No, you should play with her in the water for at least a bit. Because there are some things only a parent can do." After I taught Bowen how to swim, I deliberately arranged a "playtime in the pool with Daddy" session every week for him. Part of it is that some of my fondest memories of my late father were of my 2 brothers and I assaulting him in the pool. Our dad was of course much stronger than we were, and could one at a time, pick one of us up, and throw him away, and by the time one of us swam back, he'd already have similarly disposed of the others, but it was always great fun.

When I think about it now, this deliberate play was extremely valuable to us in terms of water safety: it taught us never to panic or to be scared no matter what happened in the water. As long as we could hold our breath, sooner or later we'd surface and be able to breath again. Even if it was for only a short moment before our Dad would throw us or drag us underwater again, we learned to grab quick gulps of air in between. Because it was our Dad doing this to us, it was always fun and never scary. There are few swimming instructor in the world that can do this for you (the only time I actively saw a swimming instructor playfully throw a kid was at the Sunnyvale Swim Center, so they do exist): and to be honest, that's not their role. Their role is to teach correct swimming form, not prepare your child for the day when he/she falls off a dinghy, sailboat, or grabs a swim ladder only to have it come off in her hand. As a result of this sort of play, Bowen has no problems jumping into an alpine lake, or even coping with difficulties when his mask floods or his googles come off in the pool. He knows to just float up in the water, readjust, and then play on!

The best thing about this kind of practice (which ranges from throwing your kid into the water, to pulling them under the water, flipping them around while in the water, or a "race" where each of you are allowed to pull the other person back from the finish line) is that it creates fond memories and a strong bonding experience. This isn't just anecdotal data, as research in pediatrics note that this is a particularly important role for fathers to play:
Fathers engaged in more roughhouse play, and their involvement in play with preschoolers predicted decreased externalizing and internalizing behavior problems and enhanced social competence. (
  1. Jia R
  2. Kotila LE
  3. Schoppe-Sullivan SJ
Transactional relations between father involvement and preschoolers’ socioemotional adjustment. J Fam Psychol2012;26(6):848857)
I see a lot of parents who seem to think that their role in water safety ends when they drop off their child at swimming lessons. I urge those parents to reconsider: their role really begin when the lessons end. Play with your kids in the water.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Review: On Power

On Power is Robert A Caro's hour and a half lecture about his two Pulitzer prize winning books about Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. He reflects on what political power means, and says that his books weren't really about these two men, but about political power, its use and abuse, and the lives of the people these men affected when they exercised that power.

The lecturer's got a strong New York accent, which you get used to only about halfway through it. It's peppered with stories about how he realized the impact Robert Moses had, as well as the travails of writing the book: it took him multiple years and he ran through his advance rapidly.

His discussion about how he moved into the hill country to live with and interview the people who voted Lyndon Johnson into power was nothing short of stunning. To enable the trust of such people he had to live there, and his statement that these people were all dead now, and there's no one alive who remembers the time before rural electrification is moving and a realization of how rare it is to find someone with political power who could actually do something good.

The lecture makes me want to go find his books and read it (which I suppose is the main goal --- audible did give away the lecture for free), but I'm intimidated by the size and length of those books and will probably never get around to it. In the mean time, this lecture will have to do.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Review: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Audible was giving away The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, so I picked it up. I had run out of things to listen to, so this became a book I listened to while driving.

The book's written in a strange, twisted fashion. In summary, the KonMari method of tidying up is fairly straightforward:

  1. Do your tidying up project all in one go. Don't try to do it incrementally.
  2. Get rid of stuff that doesn't bring you joy. (This one is bizarre, since toilet paper doesn't bring me joy but I'm not getting rid of it from my house, but I get her point --- tidying up must start with getting rid of stuff)
  3. Get rid of stuff in inverse order of difficulty (i.e., easiest stuff first). That means clothes, books/CDs first, then personal effects and momentos last. That's so you don't get distracted, and also because you'll be practiced at throwing out stuff by the time you get to the hard part.
  4. Each person in the family should have their own storage, and all their own storage should be in one place, rather than being scattered in multiple places. This ensures when you're searching for something your'e only searching for it where you are.
  5. Don't tidy for other people. If you want other people in your family to be more tidy, start by being tidy yourself.
  6. Store clothing folded, don't use hangers except for stuff that needs it. Don't rotate clothing in and out of season. Just keep it organized by weather and use case.
  7. In shelves, store things in order of height, with increasing height to the right. ("Up and to the right.")
  8. Throw out documents as soon as you're done with them. For warranties, store everything in one folder and throw out stuff that's out of date. Throw out manuals, boxes, etc. Forget about resale value and reboxing when selling.
  9. Don't worry about throwing out stuff you actually need. You can usually buy it again later if you really need it.
Yup, I just summarized everything in one check list. The rest of the book is bizarre nonsense like her strange statement that if you roll up socks, they won't be properly rested when you next put them on. (WTF!) Then she makes a big deal out of thanking your stuff. Sorry, things are things. I like my bicycles, but I didn't make a big deal out of the frame when it failed. I stripped it, sent it back to the manufacturer, and got a new one.

The book has some nice ideas, but she could have made it much shorter and easier to read and put into practice. In the last chapter she finally admits that despite her prior hyperbole about how tidying will make a massive change in your life, her experience is twisted by selection bias: the kind of people who pay her fees for her assistance in tidying up their house are the kind of people who would be predisposed to attributing all sorts of magic career changes and better health to the KonMari method.

All in all, the book has interesting ideas, but if you'd read this blog post you probably got them all! I just saved you 4 hours of reading/listening.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Lighting for Bicycles in 2017

In the past, I've recommended Exposure Lights for bicycle lighting. In 2017, my recommendation has changed dramatically. Part of it is my dissatisfaction with the Exposure mounting system, the other is that various lights on Amazon have become far better, providing much better value and now charge via USB rather than a proprietary port.

In general, all the bicycle lights on Amazon for around $20 seem to have been made by the same factory, just with different logos and packaged tail-lights. For instance, the Bitzu Gator and the Kernowo lights are essentially identical. For my money, the Kernowo is better as the included tail-light is superior, both brighter and rechargeable by USB.

These lights last only for about an hour or three, depending on what brightness setting you use them at. But if you need to run them for longer, just buy an extra, and use a USB powerbank to charge the lights that aren't in use while you're running the other light. I haven't checked to see if you can use these lights while they're being charged by an external source, but that's also a reasonable solution. You might even be able to run a generator to them and power them that way.

The lights are bright enough to be seen by, and bright enough to light up the road even while riding through a dense redwood forest during the day, so they're good enough for any situation I'd conceivably be in. Because they're charged by USB, I don't have to carry a separate charger on tour, and won't be stuck riding without a light at night.

At prices like these, you can buy a separate light for each bike in the household, and not worry about swapping lights from bike to bike.

Because I'm using the Ortlieb Handlebar bag that Pamela gave me, I can't mount the lights on the handlebars on either my single road bike or the tandem. The solution is to run a stub on the rack mount on both bikes. The Origin8 Eyelet Stub is cheap and works well for this purpose.

Are these the absolute best solution? No. But they're more than good enough, and they're cheap. There's no reason to buy anything else unless you're going to go mountain biking on technical singletrack at night.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Review: How Emotions are Made - The Secret Life of the Brain

How Emotions Are Made describes a new theory of how emotions are provoked, evoked, and created in the brain. The classical view, which is that emotions are spontaneously evoked by external stimuli and then provokes uncontrollable muscle twitches and reactions in the face and body language is wrong, writes Lisa Feldman Barrett. This is the approach espoused by Paul Ekman's work on finding out who's lying. Basically, she's saying that all the current work on emotional intelligence, etc. is simply outright incorrect.

Because this is such a big claim, Barrett lays out all the laboratory and field work carefully: she goes through previous studies on the universality of human emotions, and points out how the field workers inadvertently corrupted their results by effectively teaching people of other cultures about western style emotional expression, rather than figuring out whether human facial musculature is involuntarily linked to human emotions. This is ground-breaking work and I find it convincing. In particular, Barrett provides us with a picture and tricks us into thinking what the facial expression is before granting us the context and showing that our perception is completely wrong. She also demonstrates that even when conducting emotion recognition in Western settings, if you eliminate cue words (i.e., disallow multiple choice questionnaires), the ability of most people to recognize emotion correctly drops by a huge amount.
Emotions are not expressed, displayed, or otherwise revealed in the face, body, and voice in any objective way, and anyone who determines innocence, guilt, or punishment needs to know this. You cannot recognize or detect anger, sadness, remorse, or any other emotion in another person—you can only guess, and some guesses are more informed than others. (pg. 244)
As a male of supposedly low emotional intelligence, I've always wondered how other people could so easily guess what others are feeling (there have been times when I've wondered whether I have autism because I was so bad at it). I'm gratified to know that Barrett's work proves that this is purely an illusion: juries are wrong about guilt so often that DNA evidence has exonerated many convicted "criminals." This is huge. It means that when you think someone's angry, they might not be. This is especially true when they come from a different culture with a different set of emotional expressions. Barrett provides evidence that this is even true of professional psychologists, who would guess wrong about their patients' emotional condition!
 To improve at emotion perception, we must all give up the fiction that we know how other people feel. When you and a friend disagree about feelings, don’t assume that your friend is wrong like Dan’s ex-therapist did. Instead think, “We have a disagreement,” and engage your curiosity to learn your friend’s perspective. Being curious about your friend’s experience is more important than being right. (pg. 195)
What new theory should substitute for the classical view, then?  Barrett here agrees with Jeff Hawkins' theory of the mind: that the brain is basically a statistical learning prediction machine. She further elaborates on that theory thus: you grow up with caregivers who teach you what emotional responses are appropriate, and the greater culture around you guide you into reacting the way you do by reflex through practice. Then when you become an adult, you shape the culture and teach your children to behave like you do. This is so built into human culture that we don't question it and think that emotions are a primary aspect of our biology, rather than a construct of our minds:
No scientific innovation will miraculously reveal a biological fingerprint of any emotion. That’s because our emotions aren’t built-in, waiting to be revealed. They are made. By us. We don’t recognize emotions or identify emotions: we construct our own emotional experiences, and our perceptions of others’ emotions, on the spot, as needed, through a complex interplay of systems. Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience. (pg. 40)
This has huge implications for society and its general broken-ness and myths. For instance, the myth that women are more emotional than men (not true, they're not).  It even affects the "science" of psychology:
Many psychologists, for example, do not realize that every psychological concept is social reality. We debate the differences between “will power” and “tenacity” and “grit” as if they were each distinct in nature, rather than constructions shared through collective intentionality. We separate “emotion,” “emotion regulation,” “self-regulation,” “memory,” “imagination,” “perception,” and scores of other mental categories, all of which can be explained as emerging from interoception and sensory input from the world, made meaningful by categorization, with assistance from the control network. These concepts are clearly social reality because not all cultures have them, whereas the brain is the brain is the brain. (pg. 287)
Barrett also points out in an entire chapter that the legal system which distinguishes between crimes of passion and crimes of pre-meditation is just a fiction, with case after case showing that juries can't tell the difference. In one case, a woman identified a man who raped her with utmost certainty, only to discover that he happened to be on TV being interviewed (about the unreliability of human memory --- ironically) while the event took place! Basically, human beings live in a socially-constructed fantasy world without a single resemblance to reality:
 Nobody can completely escape affective realism. Your own perceptions are not like a photograph of the world. They are not even a painting of photographic quality, like a Vermeer. They are more like a Van Gogh or Monet. (Or on a very bad day, perhaps a Jackson Pollock.) (pg. 283)
Whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing with this book, I consider it ground-breaking and well worth the read. As y ou can see from this review, I found myself compelled to highlight quote after quote in the book. It's quite possibly the best book I've read this year. Highly recommended!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Review: The Dispatcher

After giving up on several audio novels, I finally came across The Dispatcher, which for whatever reason was a free audio book on Audible.

It's a John Scalzi novel, so it's breezy and easily read and understood. It's not really science fiction, closer to urban fantasy. Well, not quite urban fantasy either, since my understanding is that the genre incorporates werewolves, vampires, etc., and this isn't quite it.

It's a short novel, based in a world where (for no particular reason) murders would 99.9% of the time simply cause the victim's body to disappear and the victim to recover in bed just seconds later. Scalzi uses this premise to contemplate how society would deal with this. His answer is that you'll end up with people licensed and bonded to murder people in order to salvage a poor surgery outcome, for instance.

He has fun with questions like: "How would the mob actually murder someone so he stays dead?" Overall, there aren't really very many deep questions explored, but as easy light reading (and listening), it succeeds.

Mildly recommended.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Review: The Home Front

I'll admit that I don't manage to get through most Audio Books. Fiction is a non-starter, and most non-fiction books don't work great, with the exception of the Great Courses, which are of course designed to be audio first.

The Home Front is an Amazon special from the Audible branch of Amazon, and it's currently free. It's designed to be audio first, and is great listening. Like a great radio series, it's compelling listening and filled with historical information that you might not know, from the isolationism in the lead up to the war, to personal accounts of people who were there at Pearl Harbor. It's right up there with the best of NPR. Even better, unlike even the best radio series, the episodes are not shoe-horned into a fixed length, so each episode is only as long as it needs to be, and so there is no padding.

Topics covered included the role of women, racism (including the Japanese American internment), the Manhattan project and the use of the first atomic bombs (a very balanced coverage), as well as the postwar period and the rise of the military industrial complex.

Consider me impressed. You should go listen to this show. Highly recommended. And it's free!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review: Memoirs of a Theoretical Physicist

I met Joe Polchinski on a bike ride some time back in 2010. We rode together several times but then he dropped off the radar at one point. Then I recently learned that he had brain cancer and had to be operated and was in recovery when he wrote his autobiography.

As you might expect, the book is heavy on physics, and with my under-educated background, there was no way I could keep up with even the non-mathematical wordy descriptions of what he was doing in string theory. But the overall arc of his life is clearly described in non-technical terms, and was interesting to me in terms of how unconventional his approach was (for a while he was famous as the guy who didn't write papers).

The best thing about books written by technical people is that they're very honest. Polchinski doesn't shy away from his struggle with his mood disorders or health, and addresses everything head-on. I think that in itself made the effort to read the book worthwhile. There's also a humility in the book that goes deeper than what you typically find in business-oriented books like Raising the Bar.

It's a difficult book to read (especially for this non-physicist), but it was worth my time. I recommend this book, but be prepared going in that the physics is not going to be easy, and you might have to skim those sections.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Review: Brush On Block SPF 30 Mineral Powder Sunscreen

I was at Costco and they had a 2-pack of Brush On Block SPF 30 Sunscreen on sale. I was really skeptical, but on examining the ingredients decided that it's actually pretty much the only sunscreen that Costco had that doesn't have potentially hazardous chemicals. Plus, it's non greasy, which is great as I have not found a non-greasy sunscreen ever since Lifeguard Sunscreen went out of business.

The package comes in a tube, with a cap for the brush (and a brush saver so you don't mangle the brush when it comes time to stow it away), and a bottle for the dispenser. You dispense it by turning the bottle to "unlock" (past that and the bottle will unscrew so you can buy a refill, which is substantially cheaper than buying the package over), giving the package a quick flick, and then uncapping the brush and applying.

The big disadvantage of the sunscreen as far as I can tell is that it's effectively invisible: I cannot really tell where it's been applied. I probably over-apply the sunscreen as a result, but so far, I've never been burnt and neither have my kids (and we've used it enough to buy a refill!). The packaging is a bit awkward: it's a long tube rather than a short bottle, but it goes into a jersey pocket well enough, and I like that the refills are tiny so I could potentially start a tour with multiple refills. Each refill lasts about a couple of weeks of near daily use.

All in all, this is excellent stuff, and while it feels insanely expensive, the lack of grease makes it about on par with Lifeguard, which also cost about $15 per bottle.


Friday, October 13, 2017

Review: The Body Builders

The Body Builders is an optimistic book about the possibility of improving the human body and brain through engineering. It explores the current state of the art, which to be honest still seems pretty crude by science fiction standards: improved prosthetics from MIT, magic pixie dust limb regeneration, Artificial Synesthesia, and brain-computer interfaces.

Of the lot, improved prosthetics and regeneration seem most magical, potentially providing improved performance for otherwise impaired athletes, and obviously regeneration has wide application across a wide range of medical problems. Brain-computer interfaces seemed the least cooked: at this point doctors are still stuck drilling holes in skulls and planting electrodes: one researcher actually did this to himself only to have to reverse the procedure months later due to infection. Not for the faint of heart.

The obvious avenue of genetic engineer are largely unexplored: it seems like that would be the ultimate hack for the human body, but the human DNA and the accompanying epigenetics still seem much too complex to tackle with what we know today.

Nevertheless, it's a fun book to read and worth the time. Recommended.