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Friday, March 29, 2019

Review: The Highly Sensitive Child

The Highly Sensitive Child is targeted towards a specific parent, the kind of parent who never got over the sensitivities and feeling of being overwhelmed as a child when confronted with a world much bigger than you.

Here are the claims of the book:

  • About 20% of the population are people who are "highly sensitive." These are the people who pick up on every detail of their environment, and as a result can find nuanced information (say, about other people's emotions), but conversely, because of having to do so much information processing, are more cautious and therefore more easily overwhelmed. 20% is a huge percentage of the population, so this ought to be something super common: in a class of 10, you'll see 2 kids like this, and in Singapore, in a class of 40, you'd see 8 kids in class like this.
  • These kids are not abnormal, but would benefit from good parenting. The characteristics of such kids are such that with good parenting, they would be more likely to become great leaders, visionaries, and other such good things. The book claims that:

Traditionally, sensitive people have been the scientists, counselors, theologians, historians, lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, and artists (for example, at one time sensitive people naturally became their town’s schoolmaster or -mistress, preacher, or family doctor). But, increasingly, sensitive persons are being nudged out of all these fields due to what seems to be a cycle that starts with the nonsensitive moving aggressively into decision-making roles, where they, quite naturally due to their temperaments, devalue cautious decision making, emphasize short-term profits or flashy results assertively presented over a quieter concern for consistent quality and long-term consequences, and do not need and so eliminate calm work environments and reasonable work schedules. Sensitive people are discounted, have less influence, suffer, or quit. Then the nonsensitive control the profession even more. (Page 15)

  •  Part of the American disdain for sensitivity is cultural:

And a study comparing elementary school children in China and Canada found that being a “sensitive, quiet” child was associated with being popular in China, but with being unpopular in Canada. Perhaps “old” cultures with rich artistic, philosophical, and spiritual traditions such as China and Europe can afford to reward sensitivity more than “new” immigrant cultures such as the United States, Canada, Latin America, and Australia, which have rewarded pioneering “macho” men and “tough” women who gave little thought to the risks in a new land. (Pg. 63)
OK, then the book proceeds to give an entire volume's worth of advice targeted for parents of such a "highly sensitive child." Here's my problem: there's nothing in this book that you shouldn't do even for non-sensitive kids! I certainly wouldn't call myself "highly sensitive", but I remember that as child (or even as a young man), how every slight, every setback seemed to be so big that it could be tear-inducing. Part of growing up and attaining emotional maturity is an understanding that:

  1. The world is a big place.
  2. Most things cannot possibly be about you.
  3. In particular, most people are so self-centered that there's little chance that their daily life or messages or broadcasts are about you!
I think it's perhaps unique about American society that maybe a strong dose of "it's not about you" is lacking in standard upbringing, so we have 20% of the kids growing up who do believe that it's all about them (you know the type --- they're the people replying to your e-mail thinking that something you sent to a broad distribution list was all about them). Then we create a special label called "X" and then create a special program implying that if you're X you're not special. As Shelley Shostak once said, "No, don't expect special treatment: this is a job, you're getting paid. Just quit whining and do it!"

Despite that, the book wasn't a complete waste of time. There's quite a bit of good common sense advice, and even wisdom that every parent (not just the special hothouse flowers that the author of the book thinks they are) should know:
Psychologists Nathan Fox, Ana Sobel, Susan Calkins, and Pamela Cole studied children from two to seven years of age. At two years, one aspect of the study was to videotape the children in a laboratory while a clown tried to interact with them and while they were presented with a toy robot. At seven, they were observed while playing with three children they had not met before. Later, the seven-year-olds also watched the videos of themselves at two and the psychologists asked them how they felt about shyness generally, how they felt about their behavior as two-year-olds, and, if they had changed, what had changed them. Those who were cautious at two but outgoing at seven tended to explain their change as due to their parents exposing them to lots of things. In other words, these children themselves were indicating that parents can have an effect on their child’s confidence. (Pg. 257)
 In expecting your child to join activities and have friends, but not too many, do not expect these to be the activities and friends the “average” adolescent “ought” to have. Your HSC may prefer role-playing games in the park with “geeky” guys, as River did, or studying photography with a middle-aged professional, or mountain climbing with loner outdoor types. Remember our motto, To have an exceptional child you must be willing to have an exceptional child. (Pg. 302)
 What you will have around age thirty is an adult friend. Maintain the good boundaries and good manners you would have with any friend. Remember, your memories of this adult as a tiny baby, clinging toddler, and adoring five-year-old are fresh, but your young adult does not remember all of that so clearly. Now, if you want the relationship to be strong, you must have shared interests. You need to stay abreast of your child’s career and other pursuits. (Pg. 309)
So despite my visceral reaction to the book's penchant for labeling the hot-house flowers (vs the dandelions) and constant refrain of "Yes, it's hard to be you! It's so hard to be sensitive", most parents (even parents who are insensitive or have kids who are insensitive) could get something out of this book. Just remember at the end of it all that it's not about you (and don't teach your kid that he/she is a hot house flower --- I can't see any good coming out of that!).

Friday, March 22, 2019

Review: Alone on the wall

I noticed that the audio version of Alone on the Wall was available from the library after watching Free Solo, so I downloaded it and listened to it.

Alone on the Wall makes Alex Honnold sound a lot less likeable than the movie did. His interactions with his climbing partners are full of aggressive comments, either denigrating them or pushing or taunting them. I don't know about you, but if I'm all roped up and doing a climb, having someone insult me isn't going to make me move any faster, even if the guy doing the insulting is the best climber in the world (or as is claimed in this book, the best climbing ever).

The book (I got the pre-Free Solo edition, so it doesn't have the new chapters added to the book about his solo of the El Capitan) discusses Honnold's early exploits, as well as (after he got sponsorship and turned pro) his many successful attempts to set climbing speed records for traversals, many of which are done roped, but that he claims that he is equally proud of.

The book does a good job of avoiding jargon, and it's co-written by another climber, David Roberts, who gets to write his part of the book describing Honnold's adventures in the third person. This has a strangely distancing effect, especially when he describes movies that starred Honnold.

I can't say I got very excited about this book, and preferred the view of Honnold in Free Solo, rather than this book. I can't really recommend it.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Review: Logitech Brio Webcam

My old Logitech C920 webcam had a fatal flaw, which was that the cable was so short that if I placed the webcam on top of my 42" monitor, it wouldn't reach the USB port! I figured since I had to replace it, I might as well get a Windows Hello compatible webcam.

The Logitech Brio has a cable that's long enough. The webcam plugs in and "just works". Windows Hello registers it, and every other time Windows recognizes me and I can just login without having to  type in a password, PIN, etc. The rest of the time I end up having to type in a PIN.

The biggest issue with the camera is that the mounting is horrible, and will move and shift on the monitor. On the other hand, it's a great high quality 4K webcam. It's costly, but if you can find it used it's more useful than expected.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Review: The Collapsing Empire

The Collapsing Empire is John Scalzi's novel of the Interdependency, a novel about the intrigue of a space faring human empire where FTL travel is performed through hyperspace conduits that are not controlled by humanity.

It's written in classic, breezy, Scalzi style: easy to read, with characters that are forgettable but with somewhat fast moving action and exposition. Strip away the trappings of science fiction, and you can see it's basically a "empire and colonies" story set during the age of sail. And that's probably the biggest weakness of the book: for science fiction, there's not much science and as a political intrigue novel, it's not particularly special. That it's easy to read is probably the best thing you can say about it.

As an airplane novel, you could do a lot worse, but I'd recommend other Scalzi novels such as Old Man's War or Lock In instead.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Review: The Very Best of the Best - 35 Years of The Year's Best Science Fiction

I had high hopes for The Very Best of the Best, Gardner Dozois last science fiction anthology (he passed away last May), weighing in at a whopping 697 pages. An anthology spanning 35 years is going to have some over-lap, with many stories you might have already read, though I was surprised at the number of stories I hadn't read.

Notable stories: The Potter of Bones,  Dead Men Walking, Tin Marsh, Where the Golden Apples Grow, The Sledge-Maker Daughter, Glory, Events Preceding The Helvetican Renaissance, The Emperor of Mars, Martian Heart, The Invasion of Venus, Pathways, The Hand is Quicker, The Long Haul - from the Annals of Transportation - The Pacific Monthly May 2009, Rates of Change, My English Name. 14 out of 38 is a surprisingly low hit rate. I can't recommend this book, especially given that many of the good stories are probably ones you've already read!

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Review: Good to Go

Good to Go is a book about sports recovery. There are lots of books about training. Some of them even emphasize recovery, but there are no books covering recovery in a scientific, systematic matter. Good to Go starts off great: the author, a formal elite cross-country skiier, tries to perform an experiment to determine whether alcoholic beer is good for recovery, and gets a statistically significant result: it's works if you're a woman but not if you're a man. Then she realizes that her sample size was too small, the experiment construction was shoddy, and that you couldn't really draw any conclusions from it. Then she goes off and discovers that the entire field of sports recovery is like that: the study sizes are too small, the methods questionable, and the researchers are funded by the companies that are pushing the products.

The author goes and knocks down one after another favorite recovery/buffering technique that you might have heard of:

  • Ibuprofen is actually harmful to long term performance: reducing inflammation also reduces the supercompensation response!
  • Drinking should be done to thirst, not on a program, because drinking too much leads to hyponatremia,  while there's no evidence that drinking too little leads to heat stroke and there's never been a single case of dehydration injury in events like marathon
  • Forget the fancy recovery drinks. Unless you need to perform again right away (which is the case in the middle of a bike tour), there's no time window during which your body is especially sensitive to food/nutrition/glycogen absorption. So just eat what you like when you like (up to a point, of course --- you still need all your usual nutrients etc)
  • Fancy massage, stretching, cupping, etc all do next to nothing. They don't seem to do any harm, so if it makes you feel better do it.
  • Sleep is under-rated. Extending sleep time to 10 hours seems to make dramatic improvement to response time and other related performance indicators for athletes.
  • Sensory deprivation tanks force you to relax, but otherwise don't do anything else, but are good for forcing those type-A personalities to actually do nothing so their bodies can recover. So if you have a type-A personality, that might be a good way to force yourself to rest!
  • None of the fancy metrics/sports watches/sleep meters/hrms are as good as listening to your body and tracking your mood when you get up. Learning to listen to your body turns out to be much more effective than all the fancy data collection you can do. The problem appears to be getting type-A athletes to back off their training and rest more!
There. I've summarized the whole book so you don't have to read it. Nevertheless, it's a short, easy read that emphasizes how little we actually know about how the body recovers (but also that our brains are actually more effective than our "smart" watches and phones), and that you should juset learn to listen to your body.

That's a message I can agree with and recommend to anyone.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Review: Redefining Reality - The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

Redefining Reality is a great courses audio/video course about the various paradigm shifts in science that have affected our view of the universe. It's a good refresher course if you somehow skipped all your science courses in school, but it won't offer you very much new stuff otherwise.

There are a few interesting points that I picked out. For instance, there's a philosophical reductionist argument that everything in the world reduces to physics, and that if you understood physics at a fundamental level, chemistry is just physics, and biology is just chemistry, and so on and so-forth. But the opposite school views many important properties in the sciences as emergent behavior, which is to say that you can understand physics all you like, but that doesn't make weather prediction easy or possible using purely physical principles.

There's a grand survey of everything from physics, chemistry, cosmology, biology, and the social sciences as well (including economics, sociology, psychology, etc), but if you're a well read scientist or technical person in this century, you probably already know everything in this course.

Not recommended.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Review: Free Solo

Free Solo is the movie about Alex Honnold's free solo of the El Capitan. I watched it because my wife had taken Bowen indoor rock climbing and he'd enjoyed it. I've personally never really gotten excited about climbing: it seems like a lot of effort for not very much reward, but there's obviously a certain amount of machismo in the climbing culture, especially as far as free-solo climbing is concerned: it always seems to be about who can do the most dangerous thing while coming out on the other side alive.

I enjoyed the sections where Honnold would practice and try out different approaches to the climb (while roped). I felt like the movie didn't actually have enough of those: to see the amount of practice and preparation that went into something like this. The movie spent a ton of time on his relationships, and not enough on his notebooks and very little introspection as to how he knew he was ready.

There's a tiny bit of brain science, where Alex is put into an MRI scanner and showed that his amygdala is pretty much difficult to activate. That could explain why he's able to stay calm through situations that others would find frightening, and also why he's driven to seek out such especially perilous experiences.

Arturo asked me if I thought the movie was morally responsible, since there'll be some idiots who'll be inspired to free solo and then die doing it because they're not as competent/talented/dedicated/self-aware as Alex Honnold seems to be. My response was that "Well, sure. Some idiot's going to do that, but I'm also not a person with a lot of sympathy for idiots. I showed the last 20 minutes to Bowen and he said: `That's even more scary than descending Stelvio!'"

Nevertheless, the cinematography is amazing, the shots are stunning, and the glimpse into a life dedicated almost monastically to a sport was fun enough to watch. Recommended.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Review: The Breakthrough

The Breakthrough is a book about the development of immunotherapy techniques in an effort to cure cancer.  The title, of course, is hype: if you read the book carefully, you'll notice that the author is careful not to promise that a cure has been found: in fact, successful therapy seems to be more the exception than the norm.

The notion behind immunotherapy is to activate the immune system against cancer. The problem, of course, is that cancers that are already susceptible to your immune system are taken care of invisibly, of course. But the cancers that survive to become dangerous tumors, however, are precisely those who've already learned to fool the immune system, which makes turning on the immune system to target those tumors a tricky proposition.

The book does a good job of covering the history of immunotherapy, and contrasts the pre-genetic approach with the current approach. One particular type of drug, known as the checkpoint inhibitor, basically takes the brakes off the immune system, telling it to operate without restraint. As you can imagine, this can lead to horrible side-effects and at least one patient had to be taken off the therapy because of those side-effects --- there's a reason nature evolved those brakes!

The other approaches include a customized approach, where the patient's T-cells are taken out of the patient, along with the tumor, and then trained to attack those tumors (the book was written by a journalist, and didn't do a good job of explaining how the process worked). These customized therapies also do not have a 100% success rate, and are expensive (on the order of $1M per course of therapy).

The book unfortunately spends more time on survivor victims than on the science, and doesn't do a good job of covering the science and mechanisms by which these new types of drugs work. Obviously, it's nice to know the history and personalities involved, but the science is very much missing, which makes it tough for me to recommend the book!

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Review: Gatchaman Complete Collection

I grew up in Singapore watching Gatchaman II (in dubbed Taiwanese translation, with the opening and closing songs stripped!), but was probably pre-TV when SBC had started broadcasting the original Gatchaman, so when I saw that BestBuy had the complete Blu Ray collection on a sale for under $40, I picked it up. I didn't expect either Bowen or Boen to be captivated by it, but Boen loved the show, so we've been watching it every so often and are now about half-way through the series.

The physical package has all sorts of details that are only impressive if you're a comic book fan. For instance, the painted box cover and the individual box disc covers (there are 3 boxes, 2 with 6 Blu Rays and 1 with 2) are done by American artist Alex Ross. Ross grew up with the American bastardized version, Battle of the Planets, and had never seen any episode in its original form prior to this set being put together, so there's an interview on the specials disc with him explaining how that art came to be and how he came to be involved, as well as a few  brief seconds of his reaction to his first exposure to the original TV show!

Let's talk about the show proper, since I've already previously reviewed the Gatchaman OAV, which was terrible. First of all, it's a Japanese show from the 1970s. Computers are huge mainframe sized creatures with tape drives, and the fashion is also fairly obvious, with bell bottoms. But more importantly, the Japanese at that time (and probably still don't) have any objections to killing and other such violence for kids TV. So the Science Ninja Team don't just karate-chop their opponents into unconsciousness, they'll run over them with cars, slash them with boomerang weapons, blow them up with explosive yoyos, and poison or kill them with feather shurikens. (Come on, they are Ninjas!) No wonder the Americans felt like they had to dial it back. (Note that despite this heavy dose of TV violence, Japan was and still is a much safer place to be a human many decades later, indicating that fantasy violence has nothing to do with real violence --- both my kids know this)

The parenting norms have also changed. One of the characters, Ken, has a father who disappeared off to do a secret mission, faking his death, leaving others to tell him that he's dead. He reappears as the mentor figure Red Impulse, but of course this isn't revealed to Ken until a critical moment whereupon his father sacrifices himself to save the planet. Bowen didn't find this believable or acceptable, but when I was a kid it seemed plausible. Absent fathers no longer seem plausible to little kids, making me wonder what current parenting behaviors will be considered unacceptable by the time Bowen's an adult.

The animation is rough at the start of the show but steadily improves all throughout the show. (The show ran for 105 episodes!) Bowen asked me, "What's different about Gatchaman?" My response was: "Stinky and Dirty is great, but you can watch the episodes out of order or even backwards and your experience wouldn't differ very much. Gatchaman is like a novel - you can't watch it backwards or it wouldn't make any sense!"  The show, like almost all Asian TV at the time, has a long story arc (the first one took about 50 episodes to cover), and is full of state: characters change, including our understanding of their relationships, and you're expected to have watched the entire series in order, with very little of each episode spent in recap (which is good - each episode is only 25 minutes long!). For  your reference, the adult TV shows my parents were watching seemed all adapted from long form narrative novels as well, for instance Louis Cha's  天龍八部 would run for 50 episodes. I believe that having early exposure to long form narrative is good for building attention span, but I have no proof to back up that assertion.

As the name implies, there is science in the series. In one of the episodes, a monster that only eats women is revealed to do so because it has an allergy to the Y-chromosome in men. Bowen asked me if chromosomes really exist after that. In another, the Van-Allen belt is the target of the villain's machinations. There's a surprising number of references to eco-friendly/sustainable building methods and lifestyles for a show that was built in the 1970s. Geothermal, nuclear, and other alternative energy sources are discussed (and of course, destroyed by mecha monsters created by the bad guys). Not every episode had a science behind it, and in fact early episodes were clumsy, with the solutions being provided by Professor Nambu who gives the team orders.

And of course, that's the weak spot of the whole series. As a kid having an International Science Organization that runs the world seemed like the way to go, but it's pretty funny to think of scientists having enough budget and power nowdaays to have all those secret bases and fancy projects at the same time while running not one, but two commando-style para-military teams with all the fancy planes, missiles and offensive weaponry.

It's also clear that the creators of the show got exposure to American superhero comics, but didn't have the language skills to comprehend the plot, so had all sorts of irrationality built into the series that are never explained or simply don't make sense. For instance, if the Science Ninja Team was employed by the ISO, why did they have secret identities and jobs? It's clear that all the trappings of a super-hero story was there, but it didn't make much sense, since the Science Ninja Team is more like a special-forces military team than a superhero team. It's just a weird carryover.

Anyway, the show's fun, draws kids attention (but beware the violence if your memories are from the sanitized American version), and has interesting attributes not available in even some of the best American kids shows today. I'm pretty sure my kids will watch it all the way to finish, as will I.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Review: The Magicians Season 2

The Magicians Season 2 keeps going where the cliff-hanger from season one ends. There are TV series that will drag the action out, but in this one, the reveals come fast and furious as one deity is killed off while a demi-god is being revealed. There's maybe a tiny bit of slackening of pace in the middle, but the show is not afraid to deviate from the books.

The story overall is well-written enough and full of twists and surprises that it more than overcomes the bad acting and less than excellent special effects prevalent in the entire show. There's not a lot of pussy-footing and the show ends with a crisis/cliff-hanger to keep you watching into Season 3.


Monday, March 04, 2019

Review: Don't Panic - Douglas Adams & The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Don't Panic is Neil Gaiman's history of that wonderfully humorous book of science fiction, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It was written before he became famous as a comic book writer and later, novelist, but of course, after Hitchiker had become a cultural icon. I'd read it before, but had forgotten, which is OK, because the book had gotten updated in between, and of course still contains one of my favorite Douglas Adam's skit, the one about the Kamikaze Pilot:
COMM: What are you? PILOT: A kamikaze pilot sir. COMM: And what is your function as a kamikaze pilot? PILOT: To lay down my life for the Emperor sir! COMM: How many missions have you flown on? PILOT: Nineteen sir. COMM: Yes, I have the reports on your previous missions here. (FLIPS THROUGH EACH ONE.) Let’s see. Couldn’t find target, couldn’t find target, got lost, couldn’t find target, forgot to take headband, couldn’t find target, couldn’t find target, headband slipped over eyes, couldn’t find target, came back with headache… PILOT: Headband too tight sir. COMM: Vertigo, couldn’t find target, all the rest, couldn’t find target. Now I don’t think you’ve been looking very hard. PILOT: Yes I have sir, I’ve looked all over the place! COMM: You see, It’s not actually that difficult bearing in mind that we do have a highly sophisticated reconnaissance unit whose job it is to tell you where to find the targets. PILOT: Well, it’s not always accurate sir, sometimes one can search for hours and not see a single aircraft carrier. COMM: Well where exactly have you been looking, for these aircraft carriers? PILOT: Er, well sir… COMM: (FLIPPING THROUGH NOTES.)… I mean, I notice for instance that you seem to have more or less ignored the sea. I would have thought that the sea was quite a promising area. PILOT: Yes sir… COMM: And that the airspace directly above Tokyo was not. And another thing… PILOT: Yes sir? COMM: Skip the victory rolls. PILOT: Sir, you’re being unfair, I have flown over the sea lots of times. I actually attacked an aircraft carrier once. COMM: Ah yes, I have the details of your ‘attack’ here. Mission nineteen. Let’s see. Take off 0500 hours, proceeded to target area, nice start. Target spotted 0520 hours, good, climbed to a height of 6000ft, prepared for attack, went into a power dive, and successfully… landed on target. PILOT: I had to go wee wees sir. Caught short. But I took off again immediately sir. Good job too—one of our lads crashed straight into it. Poor devil didn’t stand a chance. (Kindle Loc 447)
The writing is done in a distinctively Neil Gaiman voice, and is actually quite good most of the time. There's a good timeline of which Hitchiker's variant was written when, as well as many other written works (e.g., Dirk Gently, The Meaning of Liff) and what it was like to actually work with Douglas Adams as well as interviews with producers, etc, of the TV show, which you probably wouldn't have seen unless you were a die-hard Hitchhiker's fan.

The book runs a little long and rambling, and is chocked full of footnotes. Having met Adams before he died, I would say that his assessment of what it's like being a comedy writer vs being a wit is the best. "A wit says something funny right away, while a comedy writer will say something hilarious a few days later."


Friday, March 01, 2019

Review: Resmed N30i Mask

I've been using the ResMed Swift FX nasal pillow for the last 7 years without a complaint. It's cheap, easy to work, and I can buy parts off Amazon at a low price, eliminating the need to go through DME providers or insurance. The ResMed N30i, however, came with a 30 day money back guarantee, and promised a whole new level of comfort nusing a new "nasal cradle" system, so I decided to give it a shot.

The kit comes with 3 different cradle sizes, and a card that you stick under your nose in front of a mirror to figure out which size you should use. It's important to use this or your nasal cradle will leak. The mask itself is very comfortable, and in fact, quite a bit more comfortable than my old Swift FX in normal conditions. There's nothing shoved into your nostrils, and you don't have to tighten it so tight because the design is such that however you choose to move in bed, you won't jiggle it loose. It was so comfortable that I thought I was going to give up the Swift FX for sure.

Then I caught a 'flu from one of my kids. That's when the cradle-style didn't work out. With the Swift FX, because the pillows are shoved into your nostril, you have a complete flow of air shoving through the gigatons of mucus being generated  by your nose during a night's sleep, and is in fact, the only way I can sleep through a 'flu (and sleep, as you all know, is very important to recovery from infections).  The N30i by contrast, just started leaking, and leaking huge amounts, so much so that I woke up and switch masks before sleeping.

It's clear that even if I could use the N30i in superior comfort during "normal times", I'd still have to keep an alternate mask around for 'flu time (or other times when my nose decides for no reason whatsoever to generate gigatons of mucus), and that's not practical for what looks likely to be a high allergy season spring.

I sent back the N30i. I think it could be a great improvement for those of you who have good noses. Mine, however, need the abuse the Swift FX provides.