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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.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review: The Secret Race

I remember once being on a bike ride with a colleague and discussing the doping scandals in professional bicycle racing. "It's a good thing that doping for intellectual performance isn't effective, or we'd all be pressured into doping for work." "How do you know that it isn't being done?" came the response, "Look around you, and look for those people who're not quite normal --- hyper-focused or strange." And of course, I had no ready answer, though I now know that the reason why intellect-based doping isn't an issue is that there are far more important methods of getting ahead at a corporation than any amount of chemical can fix. (Indeed, I recently read a book where a well known Physicist mentioned that Paul Erdos, for instance, wrote all of his 1500 papers under the influence of stimulants, including amphetamines!)

The Secret Race is Tyler Hamilton's tell-all confession about the culture of doping in professional bicycle racing and how he ended up being discovered as a doper. Along the way, it corrected many incorrect ideas I had about doping. For instance, I thought that it would basically give everyone the same boost. It turned out that during the years when there was no test for EPO, the UCI rules basically stated that your hematocrit level couldn't exceed 50%. This meant that those with a naturally high hematocrit level wouldn't benefit from EPO!
Hamilton’s 1997 decision to start using EPO may have been based on an inaccurate assumption about his teammate, Marty Jemison. “That spring, Tyler and I were in the same boat, hanging on by our fingernails,” Jemison says. “I raced clean through the spring. Then in June, just before the Dauphiné, Pedro [Celaya] came to me and said if I was going to make the Tour team, I needed to be healthy. He taught me, he provided everything. So yeah, I did what the others did, starting in June and then in the Tour. But my Liège result was an honest result. I just had a good day.” Jemison, who won the U.S. national championship in 1999, rode just two Tours for Postal, a fact that might be attributed to the way the EPO era changed how teams assessed riders’ potential. “I had a natural hematocrit of 48, so EPO didn’t add that much horsepower to me,” he says. “The longer I was [at Postal], the more I saw that I was no longer being groomed for the A team. Clearly, they were looking for riders who could deliver a whole new level of results.” Jemison left the team after the 2000 season. (Page 62)
 This is a book where you really want to read the footnotes, as they contain the most juicy parts. For instance, it turned out that the doctor that Hamilton was using (Fuentes) had an assistant suffering from dementia, and that assistant had probably mixed up the blood doping blood bags:
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: The thing to realize about Fuentes and all these guys is that they’re doping doctors for a reason. They’re the ones who didn’t make it on the conventional path, so they’re not the most organized people. So when they leave a bag of blood out in the sun because they’re having another glass of wine at the café, it’s predictable. The deadly mistake that Tyler, Floyd, Roberto [Heras], and the rest of them made when they left Postal was to assume that they’d find other doctors who were as professional. But when they got out there, they found—whoops!—there weren’t any others. (Pg. 232)
It was also amazing how easily the system was gamed and the athletes knew how long they had before they could pass a dope test, so they knew exactly when to take the drugs and when to back off.

Hamilton asserts towards the end of the book that the authorities have finally cracked down on doping in cycling, and that the speeds in the 2011 Tour have dropped to reflect that. Ultimately, however, the temptation will always be too high, and all it takes is one person to start and everyone has to join the arms race again. Considering that the next step in doping is genetic engineering of human bodies for high performance, I also have to wonder when chemical doping is just not going to be an issue any more.

In any case, the book's a fun and entertaining read and well-written to boot. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: Your Name

I rarely review movies, but Your Name is an exception. It was Japan's highest grossing movie in 2016 and was apparently a hit in China as well. Traditionally animated, beautifully scored, and with a script that defies genre classification, it's worth your while to seek out.

I missed the movie while it was playing in the theaters, and now I don't think that's a bad thing, since I managed to get a DVD with both English and Chinese subtitles with the original Japanese voice acting rather than a dub.

The plot begins simply enough as a body-swap between two teenagers separated by a huge distance: one lives in Tokyo while the other lives in the country-side. The plot picks up dramatically when the swapping stops, and suddenly little details that originally seemed meaningless become important. There's a science fictional element in the plot (beyond the body-swapping), but the story focuses mostly on the characters and never bothers to explain the mechanism, which is a good thing, as no explanation would have been satisfying.

Ultimately, we learn to care about the characters and their tenuous connection with each other. Along the way we get some exposure to Japanese culture in a good way. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review: English Grammar Boot Camp

It took me several tries to finish English Grammar Boot Camp. This isn't because Professor Curzan's a boring lecturer, or because the topic itself is boring. On the contrary, her lectures are fun and easy to listen to, and what's more, rather than telling you "do this, don't do that," she frequently digresses into the history of a particular part of speech or grammar rule, and how it's evolved over time, giving you context as well as interesting stories with which to hang her points and ideas on.

Part of the problem with the lecture series is that it's mis-named. It's really not much of a boot camp. For instance, she immediately jumps into using grammatical lingo (such as noun phrase, etc) without defining them. As a result, I'd listen through a lecture and then be confused and unable to actually understand part of it without having to stop and resort to a google search on various grammatical constructions. This is a problem for an audio course, because the tendency is to listen to those while you're in the car or somewhere where a google search is not easily achieved.

I finally made progress when I stopped trying to learn from the audio course, but instead, treated it as entertainment, like a talk show. At that point, I could make progress and it was fun. But if I'd bought it expecting to learn English grammar from the basics I would have been disappointed. It's recommended, but as entertainment, not education.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Review: The Jungle Book

I started reading The Jungle Book to Bowen, interspersed with viewing the recent movie, which once he had read the book, made him realize that books and movies are usually very different (which was great). But when we got to the end of Mowgli's story, I realized that there was still 2/3rds of the book left, and so we just kept going story after story until we finally got to the end.

The language of the book shows its age: Kipling still used "thee, thy, and thou", but fortunately those were easy enough for Bowen that he never even stopped the reading to ask questions. The Riki Tiki the mongoose story was a lot of fun for him, though I'm afraid the last story just went over his head.

I'd never read The Jungle Book before, and found my first reading of it to be worth the time. It shows its age, but it's not bad. Recommended.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Review: Kingsman The Secret Service

I saw an ad for the Kingsman movie, and since it was based on a comic book, I went for the comic book at the library to see if it was actually any good. Written by Mark Millar and drawn by Dave Gibbons, the art is impeccable and stylish. Online reviews had led me to believe that the series was written tongue-in-check, with over-the-top send-ups of the superspy genre, but if anything the book seemed to take everything quite seriously.

There's a bit of sex, blood, and gore, so this isn't a book to leave lying around for your kids to read. I can see how it could potentially be more interesting than the typical superspy movie, but based on the first book I'm not sure I'd bother checking out the rest from the library. Even the movie's better, being quite a bit more coherent.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Review: The Genius Dialogs

The Genius Dialogues is a series of interviews by Bob Garfield of various MacArthur Fellows, the winners of the so-called genius prize. I picked up the series for free. Surprisingly, I'd only heard of the work of two of the interviewees: Luis von Ahn (who built ReCaptcha) and James Randi, the magician and skeptic. The others were new to me and I was pleased to be introduced to their work.

I'm of two minds about the series. First, most of the interviews are interesting and introduce you to something that you might not have known about. That's a huge plus. But the format is horrible and the interviewer, Bob Garfield seems a bit full of himself. Seriously? You're going to ask a MacArthur Award winner "How much of your $625,000 prize money did you squander on cheap hootch and fast cars?" None of the winners spent any money on alcohol or cars (even if someone did it was unlikely they'd admit it in an interview). It was a total waste of a question (not to mention on-air time) and should have been edited out.

Recommended, but please, Amazon, pick a better interviewer next time!

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Reread: The Player of Games

I started reading The Player of Games to Bowen at some point during our bike trip, because I thought he might find it interesting, since he loves board games. Midway through the book, he abandoned it because he got distracted by The Jungle Book instead. But I was already on a roll, so I just plowed on and kept going.

On a re-read, this is clearly one of the lesser Culture Novels that Iain M. Banks wrote. The setup is fairly simple and straight-forward, and who the drone narrator was is set up as a mystery but in retrospect seemed really obvious. The obvious implications of a machine intelligence based civilization are glossed over, though unlike say, Accelerando, it posits a much more positive view of post-scarcity civilization than most contemporary science fiction authors. It assumes that the organic civilization (which in later novels are explained to not be humans) has successfully transited to machine intelligence in such a way that the Minds running everything still consider human autonomy to be desirable and worth utilizing, if only to provide a sense of purpose to said organic beings.

It's a gateway to more challenging Iain M. Banks' novels because of it's simple nature, but it's not one of his more interesting works. Nevertheless, it's worth reading. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Review: The Health of Nations

The Health of Nations is a book about the history (and present) of disease eradication programs. I’d heard of the eradication of smallpox, of course, and remember when Google hired Larry Brilliant to help it’s non-profit arm. (As far as I can tell, nothing happened from that effort worth noting) My impression was that after smallpox, efforts on disease eradication basically stopped or were stymied either from lack of will, lack of funding, or the difficulty of working in the tropics. 

To my surprise, this book disabused me of that! It acknowledges that polio eradication had stalled but recently, donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have stepped up and revived and refunded effort into tropical diseases like Malaria and Polio. The current hope is that in 2016, we’ll have seen the last case of polio anywhere in the world, and by 2019, the WHO would have identified the last child in the world to have caught the disease. Wow. 

The history of disease eradication has been intense and to a large extent controversial. Apparently, because the efforts usually originated from wealthy countries, particularly the US, these efforts have also been driven by the ideological needs of the countries. That meant that the approaches were largely technological, and worked very hard to avoid trying to improve the health infrastructures of the countries involved. The author points out that this is a mistake, since many situations (such as the Ebola outbreak of 2014) can derail your eradication efforts if the existing health infrastructure isn’t improved. 

Yes, there’s plenty of description of gory and scary tropical diseases, including Ebola. There’s also some hand-wringing about the successor to polio eradication, assuming it succeeds (there’s a statement in the book from a health worker that polio eradication will never happen because too many health workers are making way above the prevailing wages of their native countries because of the funding behind it). Much of the hard work of disease eradication, for instance, is focused around reaching difficult to reach children in order to vaccinate them against the disease, and without sustaining funding, it’s quite possible to imagine that the expertise and networks of health workers that have been built up will disappear. 

The book also covers the history of vaccination and the anti-vaccine movement (which are as old as the history of vaccination, not surprisingly). The author is surprisingly sympathetic to the anti-vaccine movement, pointing out that in the past, shared needles and people-to-people transmission of the attenuated vaccine caused serious problems. The fact that one of the two polio vaccines in common use utilized the live virus also increased the danger of the vaccine causing the disease. Nevertheless, she points out that the disneyland measles outbreak wasn’t caused by a vaccine, but by having large pockets of unvaccinated children in a fairly crowded environment. 

This book covers a huge amount of ground, and provides great insight into the various issues around vaccination, disease eradication, as well as, “Why do we not have a cure for these nasty tropical diseases yet?!” Highly recommended. It was well worth my time.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Review: My Favorite Universe

My Favorite Universe is Neil deGrasee Tyson's collection of essays (turned into lectures by The Teaching Company) that were originally columns from a magazine. It's available as a video download or audio only, and I picked up the audio only version during a sale.

Apparently, the video includes a lot of pictures that would be missing when you only audit the lectures, which is a pity. On the other hand, if you've watched Cosmos, you probably have seen similar imagery.

The huge difference between Cosmos and this lecture series is that Cosmos is much better written.  Tyson has a lecture style that frequently pauses (occasionally I would check to see if my phone had stopped playing audio, only to discover that he was simply pausing), and he likes to repeat words for emphasis. None of those verbal tics showed up in Cosmos, which meant that better editing and scripting made the other title much better viewing and listening.

Overall, the show covers many astrophysics topics but is subject to a bit too much hyperbole from Tyson. I didn't think it was a complete waste of time, but I think it could have been much better written and edited, and make its key points in much less time and with less repetition. Go watch Cosmos instead.