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Thursday, October 31, 2019

Review: Marvels - The Remastered Edition

It'd been years since Edmond Meinfelder told me to checkout Marvels, so when I saw The Remsastered Edition on sale, I bought it to read on my tablet.

The premise of the book is easy: view the Marvel universe from the point of view of a non-super-powered photo-journalist capturing the heroes as part of his job and reflecting upon a world in which true gods walk the earth leaving not much for humans to do.

The story itself is nothing special: we get the sideways glances at the heroes' life, including an interview with Gwen Stacy, as well as the visits from alien worlds and the Submariner's frequent switches between hero and villain.

The art by Alex Ross, however, is something else, with every page fully painted and looking gorgeous. It's hard to believe that this is work for hire, as it is clearly a labor of love. Just for the art alone the book is worth buying, and the remastered art does stand up to zooming and panning on a 10" tablet.

Make no mistake: this isn't a literary masterpiece like anything Alan Moore or even Neil Gaiman is capable of. It makes no apologies for being about superheroes, and it's in love with superheroes as only a 12-year-old boy can be. But that doesn't detract any from it being a masterpiece. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Review: The Magicians - Alice's Story

The Magicians - Alice's Story is a comic book set in the first novel of the Magicians series. The character designs are based on the books rather than the TV series, as is the plot, which is a retelling of the first book but from Alice's point of view. I watched the TV series more recently than I read the books, so of course it was a shock for me to see Alice Quinn depicted so different, and Penny as well. The retelling was only so-so. Overall, the comic reads a lot more like a teaser for the novel series than a standalone story, but as a summary of the first book it's quite good. If you've already read the book the graphic novel is unfortunately redundant. If you've only seen the TV series, the comic book does make for faster reading and is perhaps more interesting than reading the first novel, which I don't have a high opinion of.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Review: The Language Instinct

I was referred to The Language Instinct by John McWhorter's highly recommended The Story of Human Language. The language instinct is a popular account of Noam Chomsky's theory of language, which is that we have a built in understanding of language grammars at birth, causing human languages to be built a certain way, and why certain new phrases "sound right", even when pedantic newspaper commentators and grammar textbooks indicate otherwise.

The argument comes in several forms, including one that was new to me, which is that children generalized from a paucity of exposure. If you come from machine learning/computer science, you're undoubtedly aware of the huge amount of data required to train a machine in statistical language comprehension. Yet even children in cultures where parents do not regularly speak to their children in childhood (a "no-no" in American/Western culture) pick up language from their peers and are able to generalize a grammar with no formal instruction.

There's a huge long section in the book full of parse trees and exploration of when the human's innate natural language parser breaks down, and how a computer wouldn't have any trouble with the stacking problem, yet cannot disambiguate sentences that humans have no problems with. The section is long, yet also serves to illustrate the point that humans don't think in any particular language, but have to translate thought into human languages through a mechanism. It's intriguing for me to think that there's a "machine language" of the brain, but obviously there's much work that's needed here.

There's a great defense of the idea that that language is born into humans. Pinker debunks all the famous stories about chimpanzees being taught sign language, and provides a plausible mechanism by which the language instinct could have developed evolutionary on a branch unique to humans.

This is a long book, but worth your time. Recommended.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Review: Something Deeply Hidden

Something Deeply Hidden is Sean Carroll's book about the foundations of Quantum Theory. The thesis of the book is that most of the physics community has taken quantum mechanics in an approach known as "shut up and calculate", basically using the tools of quantum mechanics as engineering assets or to develop more experiments and predictions, but without considering the actual meaning of the theory.

The book is about the meaning of the theory, and the competing interpretation of what the existence of quantum mechanics is. Carroll is an unabashed believe of the multiple worlds approach, basically where every quantum event splits into two timelines that cannot share information. He takes pains to note that human decisions are macroscopic events, so there isn't a version of you who decided to skip college and do something more unconventional instead, unless you used the quantum random number generator to make your decisions. The competing approaches, like the hidden variables approach, Caroll claims, are less elegant, positing that there's something deeper than quantum mechanics at work, where the many-worlds approach takes quantum mechanics as face value as the way physics work.

There's an exploration of how the theory came to be, what the difference between particles and fields are, and what the wave function of quantum mechanics mean. There's even a section where a father and daughter discuss quantum mechanics, which makes for great reading. There's an explanation of what the quantum gravity problem is, and where research is taking place in this topic. As a fairly easy to read book on the topic I thought it was well done. Recommended.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Review: Ultralearning

I'm of two minds about Ultralearning. The book as a whole is good. It describes various learning techniques that allow you to learn something quickly and use it right away. Most good programmers are ultra-learners: the profession pretty much requires it. In 2010, for instance, I worked through an Adobe InDesign course in 2 weeks so I could layout and write Independent Cycle Touring.

The issue is, I think he oversells the technique. For instance, his claim to fame was that he went through the MIT CS program in a year, effectively "earning" a degree in CS in one quarter the time an MIT graduate would take. But if you looked carefully at his claims, you'll see that he didn't even come close to doing the curriculum. For instance, he skipped the senior thesis. His definition of "passing" a class was to score 50% or higher. (I don't know about you, but that sounds kinda low --- that would be a C average, and you wouldn't cut it as an engineer in Silicon Valley with a C average) He did programming assignments, but it's doubtful if he did any of the serious projects. He probably wouldn't stack up even with an MIT graduate with a C average.

Having said that, I think there's a lot of be said for the tips and techniques in the book. Yes, it's a good idea to have a learning plan. There's also a lot to be said for the intensity of "ultra-learning", which is that you put into practice what you learned right away (which is what I did when writing Independent Cycle Touring). The references to and analysis of spaced learning and how to attack the highest barrier first make for good reading and is worth pursuing. I think I probably wouldn't even have written the above paragraph criticizing the book if he'd titled it "Just-In-Time learning" rather than Ultra-learning, but then he might not have gotten a book deal out of it.

I hesitate to put the "recommended" tag on this book, but it's readable, actually has good tips, and is short enough that you're likely to extract real value from it.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Review: Victagen Bicycle Light

In 2017, I settled on the Blitzu Gator as the standard solution for all lights in the house. The light was cheap, had a decent mount, and having had a bunch of them in use at one point or another since 2017, very reliable for a cheap product. Since then, the price of the Blitzu Gator has gone down to about $16, but one of our lights was losing battery life. The Blitzu is not repairable when the battery goes (the battery is soldered onto the motherboard), so I went online to see if in 2019, there are better lights.

The victagen is $20, and claims a 1000 lumen top setting with a 12 hour 250 lumen setting. Compared to the Blitzu's 320 lumen claim, it's a brighter light, but it would be a big stretch to call it 3 times brighter. Set against that is the weight: excluding the mount, the victagen's 138g, while the Blitzu's 58g. That means you can have 2 Blitzus for the weight penalty of one vicatgen!

The mounting system on the victagen is better built than the one on the Blitzu: it comes with two rubber washers that can be stacked, and the thumbscrew looks better. The gasket protecting the mini-USB recharging port is also better built --- it looks like it'll survive manhandling than the one protecting the Blitzu, and is in a better place --- on the back instead of under the light, where spray from the wheel will get it gunked up and broken in a hurry if the gasket falls off.

The biggest problem with this light, and the main reason is going back, is that the flashing modes are much worse than the Blitzus. I use the flashing modes in the Blitzus as daytime running lights, and they survive for about 6 hours. The victagen's flashing mode is supposed to last for 12 hours, but they're very annoying, with one high frequency beam that looks like it's designed to cause epileptic seizures in drivers, and one SOS-morse-code pattern that's obviously inappropriate for use. You could use the low beam as a day-time running light, and the battery life would survive, but in addition to the weight penalty however, it was just too much. And for the weight you could just carry a spare Blitzu and swap it out when the battery from the first one goes low. This one's going back to Amazon. I guess 2 years isn't enough for dramatic improvements from the cheap Chinese light manufacturers.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Review: The Years that Matter Most - How College Makes or Breaks Us

In recent years it's been fashionable in Silicon Valley to denigrate the value of a college education. The Years that Matter Most isn't just a book that argues that yes, college has value. It also explores the difficulty the mostly private college system have in balancing revenue, fairness, prestige, and offering a leg up to the underprivileged. As I read the book, I found myself highlighting page after page of fantastic data:
High-prestige colleges do pay off for the students who attend them, and in fact they pay off in a big way. According to Hoxby’s data, if you attend a highly selective college where incoming freshmen have average SAT scores above about 1400 on a 1600-point scale (or about 30 on the ACT), your future lifetime earnings are likely to be more than $7 million—and that’s about $2 million more than you’ll earn if you take the identical skill set to a nonselective college. If you attend an even more elite college—one with average incoming SAT scores cresting 1500 (33 on the ACT)—the extra value that particular college will contribute to your lifetime earnings, on average, will be even higher, approaching a bonus of $3 million. (pg 34)
 Average-selectivity colleges spend between about $10,000 and $20,000 per student per year. The higher you climb on the rungs of the selectivity ladder, the faster institutional spending rises. Schools with a 1400 median incoming SAT score (like the University of Maryland) spend about $100,000 educating each student each year, and schools with a 1500 SAT score (like Washington University) spend about $150,000—far more than they charge in tuition. (pg. 35)
The school’s take soon hit $7 billion, and then $8 billion, and then $9 billion. Harvard’s fundraisers were operating at this point a little like the cartoon character Scrooge McDuck, searching desperately for a spare corner in the giant money bin in which to stash the latest billion. “We’re running out of professors to be endowed,” one fundraiser told Harvard’s student newspaper, the Crimson. When the five-year campaign concluded in the summer of 2018, the total haul was announced: $9.6 billion. And as Harvard grew steadily richer, so did its freshman classes. The Crimson surveys Harvard’s incoming freshmen each year, and its surveys from 2013 to 2017 showed that each new class was slightly more affluent than the previous one. In 2013, 15 percent of Harvard’s incoming freshman class came from families with incomes under $40,000, and 14 percent came from the families in the wealthiest category, those with incomes over $500,000. Four years later, the proportion of the incoming class from the under-$40,000 cohort had fallen to 12 percent, while 17 percent of freshmen now came from the ultra-affluent group. (pg. 37) 
So it makes far more economic sense to go to a higher university than to a lower tier one.  They simply are far better values!  The book discusses the SAT and describes the situation today: SAT scores tend to favor the privileged, who have access to test preparation, and whose SAT scores tend to be higher than their high school GPA would predict.

What about admissions for blacks. What's impressive is that all the Ivy league schools have gotten together and colluded on an "acceptable percentage" of black students admitted, about 8%.
Shaun Harper, executive director of the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California, made a rather dramatic charge. He suggested that Ivy League colleges were essentially colluding with one another to keep their black student populations at exactly the same level. “It’s just too much of a coincidence,” Harper said in his NACAC speech. “You mean to tell me that the exact same number of black folks applied to Dartmouth and to Stanford and to MIT and to Yale and to Princeton, and they all landed at the same place in terms of their enrollment? It just seems to me that there has been some determination about how many black students are worthy of admission to these institutions. It’s just too similar.” At this litigious moment in the history of affirmative action, admissions officers at those colleges would be anxious to assure you that they do not collude, especially on matters of admissions and race. But when you look at the data, it is hard to refute Harper’s point. The numbers really are startlingly consistent. About 15 percent of American high school graduates are black, according to the federal education department. But Princeton’s student body is 8 percent black. Cornell’s is 8 percent black. Brown’s is 8 percent black. Yale’s is 8 percent black. Harvard’s is 8 percent black. The pattern is hard to miss. (pg. 123)
What's impressive, however, is that even that level of collusion isn't sufficient.  The sub-population of the black students admitted is also skewed towards a particular demographic, that of first and second-generation immigrants:
Nationally, somewhere between 9 and 13 percent of the total population of black American eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds are immigrants or the children of immigrants. But at the highly selective colleges that Massey surveyed, 27 percent of black students were immigrants or the children of immigrants. At Ivy League colleges, the figure was 41 percent. (pg. 122)
This reason for this skewing is fairly obvious:
students descended from voluntary immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean are more likely to have attended private school than students descended from Africans brought to the United States in slavery. They are more likely to come from intact two-parent households. Their fathers are much more likely to have graduated from college and to hold an advanced degree. And their SAT scores are, on average, more than fifty points higher. Admitting those students, instead of students like KiKi, solves two problems at once for Princeton’s admissions department. Princeton can hit its 8 percent black-student target (if, indeed, it does have a target), while still admitting students who, in every way but their race, have backgrounds a lot like the rest of Princeton’s student body. (pg. 125)
So those places that were taken away from say, Asian applicants and given to black students aren't even going to the under-privileged. They're going to people every bit as privileged (or even more privileged) as the Asians who were rejected.

The book also goes into great lengths with regards to what happens when students graduated and how the recruiting from the high paying jobs on Wall Street and consulting firms went:
The criterion they chose for this second screen was surprising to Rivera. It wasn’t college GPA. It wasn’t relevant work experience. It was the extracurricular activities, especially athletics, that candidates pursued in high school and in college. Students who merely studied hard and learned a lot—like the Doubly Disadvantaged students who told Tony Jack that the responsible thing to do in college was focus on “the work”—were seen by recruiters as “bookworms” or “nerds” and frequently passed over....Recruiters were mostly unimpressed by students who took part, even at a high level, in easily accessible sports like wrestling or basketball or soccer. Instead, they preferred candidates who played sports with a high barrier to entry, either because of specialized equipment or expensive club fees or both—sports like lacrosse, field hockey, tennis, squash, and rowing. Of course, these sports, as Rivera notes, are played almost exclusively by rich and upper-middle-class white kids. They generally require a serious commitment in time and money, not just from students but from parents as well, often beginning in middle school or even earlier. This created a system that was apparently open and meritocratic but that actually strongly favored young people from high socioeconomic backgrounds and eliminated the rest from consideration...“less affluent students are more likely to enter campus with the belief that it is achievement in the classroom rather than on the field or in the concert hall that matters for future success, and they tend to focus their energies accordingly.” They still believed in “the work,” in other words, in the version of the American meritocracy they had been taught as children to respect and put their faith in. And their chances to land a lucrative job after college suffered as a result. (pg. 140-142)
I've always wondered about the prevalence of sports like lacrosse at the elite universities. Now I no longer wonder.  It's a class/status signifier.

Are universities then cursed to maintain the status quo and make the rich richer? Tough has one big idea in this book, which is to eliminate the use of tests like SAT and rely more on high school GPA. Even more interestingly, he points to the UT system as one that actually created more diversity:
Despite fears among some on the left that the Fifth Circuit’s decision would put an end to diversity at UT Austin, the introduction of the Top 10 Percent Rule actually made the campus more diverse than it had been under race-based affirmative action. And the university’s new diversity was not just racial. In the decade after the law went into effect, minority enrollment at UT did increase, but at the same time, so did enrollment from rural communities and from schools statewide with high-poverty populations. Meanwhile, enrollment went down among students from suburban schools and from “feeder” schools that had, in the past, sent a lot of students to UT Austin. In 1996, before the Top 10 Percent Rule, the university admitted students from fewer than seven hundred different Texas high schools; by 2007, UT was admitting students from more than nine hundred high schools across the state. (pg. 207)
The book ends by comparing the rise of free public high schools and what could be free public colleges by shifting the lens with which we view higher education:
There is plenty of evidence that Americans believe in the transformative power of education just as much as they did a century ago. What is different today is that we tend to consider that transformation in individual terms rather than collective ones. Over the last few decades, we have come to think of higher education principally as a competitive marketplace, one where our natural goal is to get the best that we can for ourselves or our children or our institution, even at the expense of others. When college educations are redefined as private goods, rather than public ones, the fact that they are so unequally distributed seems less jarring. Not everyone gets a big house or a sports car; not everyone gets a high-quality college education. But at other moments in our nation’s history, including the period of the high school movement and the GI Bill era, Americans have thought about the education of our young people very differently. And so we made decisions about higher education that promoted equality and shared mobility over competition and the hoarding of opportunity. (pg. 328)
As a parent of kids who hopefully will one day be college bound, I consider this book excellent reading.If you're a tiger parent (or maybe even if you're not), the book has a great list of sports that your kids should engage in, and a big explanation of why rich parents spend huge sums of money on college prep schools --- it's not just about academics, it's also about learning how to fit into the incredibly wealthy culture at the elite universities. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

First Impressions: Ricoh GR III

My Canon G7m2 died during this year's Tour across Bavaria, but rather than replace it with an identical unit, I considered getting a Ricoh GR3. I'd seen the output from Mike's GR2 during my Spain trip, and it seemed to tick all the boxes:

  • Large sensor (APS-C) in a compact body
  • Full control (with 2 dials)
  • Fast startup time (0.7s!)
  • Fixed lens (28mm/2.8 35mm equivalent)
  • Lighter (257g vs 318g)
  • USB-C charge port!
Against that were several blemishes
  • Not 24mm (those 4mm at the wide end really make a big differnce, and for capturing photos while riding the 24mm means you can have less precision with framing)
  • No flash. Believe it or not, I can turn on the flash on the G72 while riding and shoot. But I'll admit to doing it rarely, and the weight savings is a good thing
  • Expensive. At $900, this gets into "serious camera" category, with APS-C interchangeable cameras being much cheaper. On the other hand, ILC cameras this small don't come with auto-on/auto-off lens caps, which is what the "shoot while riding" category comes in
I also considered the predecessor, the Ricoh GR2, which does have a flash and is $400 cheaper. But the image stabilization built into the GR3 was much more appealing for shooting while cycling. In the end, my brothers stopped my waffling and got me one for my birthday.

My first few moments with the camera had to do with relearning the interface: unlike the Canon, the lens ring is purely a mechanical cap for the bayonet mounted wide angle lens (which I will not buy --- it's too cumbersome!). The modes were nice, and I appreciated the little lock nub that prevents accidental knocking of the mode dial. That happened to me way too often on the Canon! I was, however, negatively astonished by how bad the Ricoh  Image Sync app is. Despite the camera having the hardware, bluetooth sync simply doesn't work. I tried Wifi, and it didn't work either! I've been appalled by Canon and Nikon's android apps in the past, but this takes the cake!

Set against that is that instead of having its own wacko proprietary RAW file format, the Ricoh GR3 outputs DNG files, which Lightroom 6 (the version I'm sticking with since Adobe wants their money-grubbing subscription fees for "upgrades"), and you can actually extract the Ricoh GR3 profile from the latest version of camera raw and just stick it into your Lightroom plugins folder and have it work!

OK. Enough about the niggling stuff. How do the photos look?

You can see that 28nnm is just that much narrower that you have to be more precise and shoot more pictures (and have way more discards) to have a chance of capturing the action that's happening int he back seats of the tandem.

OK, the LCD screen on the back doesn't make photos look as great as photos taken from a phone, but when you get the photos home and take pictures, you get the "WOW" effect that you never get with phone photos. Details pop, and with 24 megapixel you have room to crop.

It's a great little camera and a useful tool in your cycling jersey pocket. I'm looking forward to using it on future bike tours!

Monday, October 21, 2019

Review: Means of Ascent

Despite my misgivings, I checked out Means of Ascent when I saw that my library had it in ebook format with zero wait time. The follow-on to The Path to Power, this book focuses mostly on Lyndon Johnson's 1948 election race for the senate against Coke Stevenson. Caro says in an afterword that his views on Stevenson changed dramatically while researching the book: history having been written by the victors, Lyndon Johnson's supporters had done  a good job smearing Stevenson.

Which is not to say that Stevenson wasn't a conservative, but then again, Lyndon Johnson not only wasn't a liberal, he prided himself on being "practical", of having no principles other than the need to have power over other men, by whatever means necessary. The tactics and strategies used to attempt to win/steal elections described in The Path to Power again show up in this book, complete with a blow by blow description of the people involved, and the dispute in courts that ended up being in ruled in favor for Johnson not by force of evidence, but by shrewd application of law in a system by a man willing to bet it all and who happened to have in his employment brilliant lawyers.

The WWII parts of the book are short, skipping over most of the war in favor of following Johnson with a close lens, though there's an interesting section about Johnson's use of political power to acquire a radio station that generated wealth for him and his wife.

As a book, this book has several flaws, chiefest of which is that unlike a best-selling novelist Caro does not assume you've read the previous book before reading this one, which means that the book is chock full of repetitive information that in many cases read like they were lifted entirely wholesale from The Path to Power. That's OK if you're reading this book and the previous one years apart, but not so much fun if you're reading them back to back.

From the historical perspective, this book is good in that it documents the switch to modern campaigning and how elections were stolen. As a middle book in Robert A Caro's series however, it's probably something that you can skip in favor of the next book in the series.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Review: Without Saying a Word

Without Saying a Word is a book about body language. I don't remember why I bought it as an audible book ,since it's kinda hard to just listen to a book about body language without being able to visualize the expressions and body positions discussed. Fortunately, the audible edition of the book comes with a PDF that effectively includes the entire text and diagrams from the book, so I can review it after having listened to the text.

OK, is the book effective? Well, it gives you a lot of ways to detect what someone's position is. The problem is that I think the book has a severe western/American cultural bias, as I'm not sure I've observed many of the body language positions among Asians. They also make a big deal out of micro-expressions, and having read How Emotions are Made, I'm no longer certain that micro-expressions can actually be accurately read or understood.

Nevertheless, however, I do live and operate in a western/American culture, and this book would be a great guidebook when I first moved into this country as to how to interpret inter-personal gestures, and probably worth reviewing if say, I was a sales person. I'm not sure how useful it is though in other settings, and again, I'm not sure how much of what's portrayed here is actually accurate. But you don't have to be 100% accurate if you're a sales person, maybe just reading the material would give you more confidence and that might be worth something all by itself.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Review: Marvel 1602

I somehow missed Marvel 1602 when it came out in 2004, probably mistaking it for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which is set 200 years later and doesn't involve Marvel superheroes. Well, there was a Kindle sale, so I picked it up since it was by Neil Gaiman.

The story involves the last days of Queen Elizabeth, and starts with her spymaster, Nicholas Fury meeting her personal Physician Dr. Stephan Strange. Half of the fun of the comic has to do with seeing familiar superheroes and seeing what twists Gaiman chooses to put on them in 1602. It's also interesting to see which superheroes get left out, and how Gaiman ties this universe with the rest of the Marvel mythology. I'm not sure I enjoyed the "multiverse" ploy here in this book, and would have preferred that it be left out, but Gaiman does a reasonable job of it, though he can't resist toying with our expectations.

The art is good, though not spectacular, and the change of venue for marvel characters is reasonable. It's still not as good as Gaiman's magnum opus The Sandman, but there's only so much you can do with licensed characters. It'll make a good light summer read, which according to Gaiman was all he intended. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Review: Rough Stuff Fellowship Archive

You've probably already seen many samples of pictures from the Rough Stuff Fellowship Archive, though you might not have known it. For instance, the following image has probably been seen in many places without proper credit being given to the Rough Stuff Fellowship.
I've actually been a member of the Rough Stuff Fellowship for a year, long enough to purchase their guide to the alps, which is one of the best  gravel riding books, except of course, it was written well before the current fashion for gravel riding exists. (One note about the guide: it's rated in typical "British understatement" fashion --- their "easy" rides are challenging, their "moderate" rides involves the certainty that you'll have to get off your bike and carry it, and their "strenuous" rides can involve multiple places where you'll have to carry the luggage and the bike separately! The intended audience is composed of tourists on multi-day trips quite possibly with camping gear)

The pictures in the book are outstanding. The trip to Finland, for instance, apparently started with the tandems being hoisted aboard ship via crane:
I enjoyed the pictures of the alps as they were in the 1950s and 60s, back when Grosse Scheidegg was unpaved. There are numerous pictures of fence climbing, though the famous picture of a cyclist climbing a ladder with bicycle strapped to his back is notably missing.
The winter pictures are great, though I wished that all the pictures came with the accompanying RSF guidebook description and map coordinates, but of course, back in those days of Kodachrome, photographers didn't have GPS devices.
If I have any complaints about this book, it's that the quality of paper and cover (I bought the hardcover version of this book) is lacking. It was quite clearly intended for distribution to club members, but obviously reached a much bigger audience. I wished that they had charged a fee to view the photos digitally, for instance, as the samples on a high quality monitor are a much better way to view them than on the paper in the printed book.

Nevertheless, as a reminder of the days when cyclists didn't need purpose built bikes to go anywhere they wished, the book is great and well worth the purchase. It's not going to be much of a coffee table book, but every enthusiastic gravel rider should have a copy.  Recommended!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Review: The Etymologicon

The Etymologicon was an Audible sale purchase. This is one of those cases where the book and information itself is good, complete with a history of various words and how they came to be, but the presentation lacks structure. In many ways, the book just segues from one word to another in no particular order, so we go from Moby Dick to Starbucks, but without a firm structure to hang all that knowledge it just whizzes by as entertainment and by the end of the book you realize you heard a lot of stories but didn't retain any of them. That makes it not a good use of time.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Review: How To - Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real World Problems

I loved What-If, and wasn't a big fan of Thing Explainer, so I checked out How-To from the library instead of buying it. To my relief, Randall Munro is back on form and How-To is a great read, full of fun musings and intelligent thinking.

In recent months, Bowen's been balking at reading real books, asking to read comic strips instead, and sometimes repeating a book he's already read rather than working on harder material. He even turned his nose up at Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry, which disappointed me as I thought it'd be something that he'd enjoy.

But when I got to the chapter in the book entitled "How to Play Tag", I knew I had him. So I gave it to him at the dinner table (where he would look enviously over his brother's shoulder to watch whatever show grandma was giving him to placate him) and before 3 minutes was over, he'd taken the book off the dinner table and was reading it instead of eating (which is not as impressive as you might think, since Bowen has deprioritized eating below any kind of fun, reasoning that he can always get something to eat as parents won't even deny a child that, but play time is always limited!). Bowen read the entire chapter and then complained that I'd started him on the book at chapter 14, and now he'd have to start over at chapter one and read the entire book!

To my mind, any book that gets your kid to classify reading as "fun-time" is great, and one that's scrupulously accurate, not afraid to use math and equations to explain problems, and demystify the scientific approach to thinking is one to treasure. Highly recommended!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Review: The Intelligence Trap - Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes

I checked out The Intelligence Trap from the library half expecting it to be a let-down. I thought it might turn out to be another rehash of Khaneman's book, but it turned out not to be that, though it did reference his work.

The interesting thing about this book is that it reveals a new area of study called evidence-based wisdom, a lot of the insights in this book are interesting:
  • higher humility scores appear to predict scholastic performance (and on-the-job performance as well) even better than IQ.
  • teams that have too many super-stars/high performers (more than about 30%) actually underperform teams of fewer super-stars.. In other words, you can actually build a team/company with too many super-stars. This is a counter-intuitive result, and is supported by examples in the book with references to literature.
  • once designated a leader, executives frequently become less likely to cooperate, reaching impasses at a far higher rate than less powerful employees lower down in the hierarchy
  • experts take many short cuts to get quick decisions fast. However, in that rush, they can fall prey to motivated reasoning, avoiding taking the hard decision to re-examine their work from first principles.
  • Asian educational systems are actually better at cultivating evidence-based wisdom, emphasizing thoughtfulness over quickness and confidence.
All in all, the book's well worth the time, and certainly for leaders looking to build teams, has important implications for team building. Recommended.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Review: The Path to Power

I picked out The Path to Power  on Audible because it seemed like the perfect book to use the audiobook treatment on: it was non-fiction, had an interesting topic I didn't know much about, and Robert Caro's On Power had intrigued me, especially the part about rural electrification.

Wow, when people talk about detail, this book has it. I expected it to be a straightforward biography about Lyndon Johnson, but instead, it meandered left and right (politically and metaphorically), discussing his time as well as introducing several political figures of the period that were lesser known to me, like Sam Rayburn.

The description of the political environment was also critical, as it explains how then (as it is now), the Democrats have always been short of money, and the money has always been on the side of the Republican party.

In terms of coverage of Lyndon Johnson, it's extensive and described how he wasn't much of a new dealer, despite his successful attempts to ride on the coat-tails of the very popular Franklin D. Roosevelt. The section on what it took for Johnson to get elected as a Congressional representative was evocative and descriptive: in many cases he traveled to distant farms and villages to make his case, and that was the difference between him and other candidates.

The book spent a lot of time discussing how Johnson became a "professional son", flattering and ingratiating himself to older men with power, as well as how he came to wield power himself, not through electoral popularity, but by being willing funnel public work projects to contractors he favored and then accepting political donations from them. He even got Roosevelt to help cover up these illegal campaign contributions when the contractor (Brown and Root) was investigated by the IRS. The description of the senatorial campaign of 1941 was also impressive, with Caro discussing which districts had votes that could be bought, and how Johnson lost because he made the mistake of letting his bought votes be called in first, as well as how radio and newspapers were used in the campaign.

Of course, the book also describes his affair with Alice Glass and his poor treatment of his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, again, with chapter long digressions into providing thorough biographies of both women.

The book deserves its Pulitzer prize, but imagine my dismay when I discovered that it's part of a 5-book series, and that Caro is still several years from finishing the series, despite projecting that it would be done in 2013! I've checked out the next book in the series from the library, but I'm not sure I'll get around to finishing that! Nevertheless, the book is recommended.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Trip Report: Emigrant Wilderness

This year's backpacking trip was suddenly changed to the Emigrant Wilderness (so named because it adjuncts the old wagon road into California) because a cold spell was forecast and Arturo decided that it was a good idea to go lower and not freeze ourselves. We hadn't been hiking much this year, so the proposed length of 4.5 miles sounded good to me.

We drove up on Friday night as soon as Bowen's school let up, and navigated horrendous traffic all the way to  the Pinecrest Ranger Station after a burger dinner. It was already late, so we visited the Meadowview Campground, paid $28 for a site, and went to sleep.
The next day, we headed over to the Crabtree trailhead, repacked all our belongings, and headed down the trail. As a last minute decision, I decided to bring the hammock, since it was only an overnight trip and my pack felt light. This turned out to be a good decision. Because we were at a lower elevation, the hiking didn't feel as hard as in previous years, and even Bowen whined a little less than usual.
For it being the weekend the day after labor day, the trail was fairly crowded, with relatively few day hikers but lots of backpackers heading up the trail. Arturo had picked up a permit, saying, "The chances of meeting a ranger are low", but of course we did meet one. Arturo offered to show him the permit but when the ranger found out that the permit was stowed in a hard to reach compartment of the backpack he declined and just said, "I'll trust you." He told us that on the far end of the lake there would be more campsites if the main ones were full.
At Camp Lake, it was time for lunch so we found a spot next to the lake, set up the hammock, and proceeded to eat lunch and enjoy the spot. Bowen felt the water and said it felt warm, not cool, so we had hopes that Bear Lake would be swimmable, even though it would be cooler, since it was significantly bigger.

Bear Lake was only a mile and a half away from Camp Lake, so after lunch, we kept going. Camp Lake was attractive, but there were lots of signs saying: "No camping between trail and Lake", which meant that any camping we did there would be quite far away from water. In retrospect, it would have been a much less crowded campground, with better swimming, but that's only in retrospect.
At Bear Lake, we found that all the spots near the trail was taken, but Arturo hiked around and found a big area that would have been suitable for a group three times our size. We hurriedly took it, pitching tents and putting up the hammock to indicate the boundaries of our spot. None too soon, for another big family came by and eyed our campsite jealously, but moved on and took a spot further along the lake. After all that we gathered firewood for the night's campfire, which was quite an effort since the area was quite denuded of dead wood!
Then it was swimming time, and sure enough, the lake while cold, wasn't too cold to swim in. It was fun and felt fresh, since we hadn't had showers the day before. We then made dinner and watched the sunset. The clouds that had appeared earlier while swimming had gone away, leaving us a crystal clear sky. Arturo told us this was normal in the Sierra during low pressure --- there's not enough moisture during the summer for the clouds to stick! Arturo taught Bowen how to create sparks to start a fire using steel and magnesium. To our relief, the cold spell seemed to have killed off the mosquitoes, and I got away without a single bite.
The purpose of a campfire, of course, is to roast marshmallows and make smores. Bowen ate 10 marshmallows, and then we called it a night.

The next morning, we ate a quick breakfast and packed. It had been cold and my tent had significant bits of condensation, so I had to take it down and move it into the sun so it would dry, but we said goodbye to Bear Lake and headed back to Camp Lake.
At Camp Lake, Bowen was hungry, having ate none of his oatmeal or even drank his apple cider at breakfast, so we setup the hammock, and ate the rest of the lunch we'd brought with us. We were definitely getting a fair bit of use out of the hammock (Arturo said he spent some time in it last night star-gazing as well), so I was glad I paid the weight penalty and brought it! From there, it was less than 2 hours from the trailhead, and we were done! 

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Review: Replay

Replay is Ken Grimwood's novel that was the inspiration for Groundhog day. Well, OK, it's not, but it's what Groundhog day would have been if it was written by an intelligent thinking person. For instance, one of my pet peeves about Groundhog day was that the protagonist never considers doing anything that a smart person would do to break his enchantment (e.g., staying up past midnight). By contrast, while reading Grimwood's novel you get the impression that his protagonists would have tried everything.

The premise of the novel is what if you got to relive your life again, but with all the experience acquired from actually living it, including knowledge of future events, past mistakes, etc. And what if you got a chance to do it again and again?

With a multiple decade span, Grimwood's protagonists try everything, from winning horse races, betting on stocks, hiring Spielberg/Lucas to make movies, etc. The drawbacks of all these opportunities are also presented in focus. The novel even does a good job of ensuring that there's a reasonable ending, though of course, no reasonable explanation of why the protagonists are the only people to get a chance to re-live life that way is posited (or explained). All the actions are drawn to their logical conclusions, and I was happy with the way the novel ended.

Recommended, and thanks to Terence Chua for the recommendation!

Monday, October 07, 2019

Review: Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry

I checked Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry out from the library hoping that Bowen would read it, but Bowen turned his nose up at it after reading one chapter. To my surprise, I found myself sucked into it and just finished reading it in a couple of days.

The book does a fantastic job of introducing the Big Bang Theory, the 4 fundamental forces, and Hubble expansion, relativity, and myriad other topics without either talking down to the reader or resorting to equations and dense mathematics. In some cases, like relativity or quantum mechanics, the topic is mentioned as relevant and the reader is left to do more reading and research if interested, but the subject isn't beaten to death.

The book's a short quick read, and I hope to get Bowen to give it another chance one day. Recommended.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Review: The Witcher Omnibus

I was browsing Hoopla and found The Witcher, which intrigued me, since it apparently told new and different stories and weren't based on the novels or the video game.

The book itself is split into 5 different unrelated stories with no transition between them --- you can read all the stories out of order as there's no apparent chronology linking them. In fact, in one of the stories Geralt loses both his swords, and there's no story that explains how he gets them back.

One of the stories is a one shot, but two of them are fairly long, involving plot twists that are very similar to those found in the novel or the video game, which I enjoyed. On the other hand, the other stories seem a little more straightforward, and in all but one of the stories, the art is lackluster.

I came away from the graphic novel thinking that it was good and not a waste of time, but thinking that the video game was by far the best version of all the stories.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Review: Pamu Slide Wireless Headset

My biggest issue with the Taotronics headset was that while the sound was fine, the headset didn't work very well for phone calls, with 30% of people complaining that I sounded muddy. Even worse, the device took up to 9 seconds to pair with the phone when taken out of its case, which makes them less useful for receiving phone calls than I had hoped. Pamu Slide's indiegogo page indicated that they'd been shipping product for quite some time, and had sold quite a number of units, meaning that whether the product sucked, you would at least get something for the money. They seem to be running a permanent indiegogo campaign, where even after reaching production, they're using the crowd-funding website as a sales channel.

They're currently charging $80 + shipping for a pair, but when I made the purchase it was $50 + shipping. The reviews on the web seemed reasonable, so I ordered a pair. The thing with indiegogo as a platform is that once you commit it's hard to back out and difficult to get refunds, and at the current price, they're not priced any better than any number of competitors on Amazon, so I wouldn't recommend you try these.

At $50, the device has a few advantages compared to the Taotronics unit. First, it charges using USB-C. Secondly, the case is much less prone to flipping open accidentally and dumping out the ear buds. (The Taotronics does so with impunity). Third, no one has ever complained about phone calls made using the unit. Fourthly, the battery life is supposedly longer, but that wasn't an issue since I don't tend to have these types of earbuds in my ear for more than half an hour at a time anyway. The case's battery lasts pretty much forever, and I don't have to charge the case more than once a month. Finally, the latency between pulling out the headphones and connecting to the phone is about 3s, which means that it's actually useful for receiving calls. In extended use, I discovered that after about 30-40 minutes of use the unit would power-off and reboot! This is no big deal for me, since I don't tend to use these ear buds for more than 30 minutes at a time, but it could be a deal breaker for many, especially at the $80 price point. The unit is also heavier than the Taotronics.

Disappointingly enough, the unit isn't better about dropped signal than the Taotronics, and it doesn't sound any louder. In single-earbud mode, it might actually be softer! The fit feels more secure, and the device comes with 6 extra pairs of differently sized buds so you can find an optimum fit. One problem which happens with the Pamu but never happens with the Taotronics is that occasionally the device would hit a software snag and shut itself down for no apparent reason. Despite that, I found myself leaning towards the Pamu slide for day to day use, reserving the Taotronics unit for trips where I needed both the powerbank and headset features.

All in all, at about $50 or less, I think these are a reasonable upgrade over the Taotronics. But at the current asking price of $80, I'd pass on them. They're better, but not that much better.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Review: Logtech MX Ergo Mouse

I've been quite happy with my old Logitech M570 trackball for years. It's frequently on sale for $20 or less, and has been reliable, though obviously nothing can withstand Boen picking it up and throwing it hard enough on the floor to smash into teeny little bits.

The purchase of the XPS 13, however, made the M570 more inconvenient to use: that machine has no USB-A slots! While Dell thankfully provided a dongle, it definitely made switching between machines more of a hassle than it had to be, so when Boen broke one of the M570s and it was time for a replacement I picked up the MX Ergo Mouse instead.

The device when it cames, comes with a steel plate so you can tilt the mouse at 20 degrees or zero, a base that has provides 30 degrees of tilt, and a unifying receiver. I plugged the receiver onto my desktop and was almost immediately in business, no pairing or software installation needed. I then pushed the selector switch, and paired it with the XPS 13. Not only did it pair with the XPS almost immediately, flipping between the two machines was near instantaneous. The unifying receiver on the desktop allowed me to bypass the cheap bluetooth dongle that I still haven't found a good replacement for.

You can install software for it: it's called logitech options. The intended use case is to let you copy/paste between computers, or line up two machines and move the mouse from one to the other to switch. (If you have a logitech keyboard, which I don't, switching the mouse moves the keyboard over as well) The software works, but isn't more convenient than just pushing the button on the mouse.

As for the rest of it, it's a well functioning trackball. It has a rechargeable battery so I don't have to replace AA batteries like on the M570, but on the other hand, the need to replace the M570's batteries every couple of years or so hasn't been a big bother, so that part's a wash. Being able to not have to deal with dongles on the laptop, however, is a big win all around. Recommended!

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Review: Kochland

Kochland is Christopher Leonard's history of Koch Industries, and how it became not just a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, but also a political heavy weight, with deep influence on not just by defeating Democratic initiatives such as cap-and-trade for carbon, but also Republican initiatives that you might or might not have heard about because they were defeated before even being publicly debated.

Before I read the book, I thought that the main reason Americans didn't vote for a greener lifestyle or better working conditions (such as longer mandated vacations, etc) was because they were either too uneducated, selfish, or simply in-thrall with religion to understand the issues involved, even though many of them were really simple (seriously? oppose a mandated family leave policy? or do away with for-profit health insurance companies?). To some extent I think that, still, but now I know that's not the entire story.

The Koch brothers were MIT trained. What that meant was that all their malice and avarice had purpose, and was guided by an engineer's ability to optimize their goals in ways that less competent evil people could have done. They also started with a fairly substantial legacy left by their father, Fred Koch, who was also a right wing libertarian. The author does a very good job of balancing the coverage of early Koch industries as being driven by profits above all else (including a lack of compunction when it comes to polluting the environment) before Charles Koch came to the conclusion that compliance with the law not only made business sense in terms of avoiding punitive fines, but also ensured that the legal system didn't have an excuse to investigate him so he could maintain his privacy.

I cam away from this book not only with a better understanding of how Koch Industries changed the political landscape until attempting to reduce greenhouse emissions is considered anathema to the Republican party, but also a strong sense that if there was any justice at all, the entire company and all its executives should be convicted of crimes against humanity. Not that I'm about to hold my breath --- I read with dismay of passage after passage describing how chillingly competent the Koch political operations are, and the surprisingly little amount of money it takes to buy American politicians.

If you want to understand the modern political landscape (as well as what's likely to happen after the 2020 elections), this book is invaluable. And you know what, when my sons start to blame me for what are sure to be more horrifically hot summers to come in future years and decades, I'll want to have a copy of this book handy to give to them and show them that there was no way I could have stopped this evil juggernaut from screwing them over.

The one thing the jumps out at me is that philanthropists like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have made a fundamental strategic area in where they've put their money: it does no good to save millions in Africa from malaria when you've got the Koch brothers putting their money and leveraging it and turning the USA away from solutions to the climate change that is already causing mass migration and will surely kill many more in the future. It's quite clear to me that Koch has gotten a huge ROI on their investment in their political infrastructure, and now that this book is in public hands, I wouldn't be surprised to see more wealthy people join them.

You should stop whatever you're doing and read this book. That's how important it is.
In 2007, for example, Koch Industries quietly funded the work of a Democratic-leaning think tank called Third Way. The think tank promoted “New Democrat” policies such as those embraced by Bill Clinton: neoliberal policies that sought to combine New Deal goals with free-market methods. Lobbyists at Koch’s office knew that Third Way’s economic study program supported free-trade policies such as NAFTA. Such trade policies were under attack in 2007 because they did not deliver the economic benefits that they had promised to huge swaths of the American population. The textile industry of South Carolina, for example, was decimated by trade agreements, such as NAFTA. This was stoking opposition to such trade agreements among both Democratic and Republican politicians. Koch Industries supported free-trade agreements and wanted to ensure the passage of future trade deals, while blocking any reversal of existing deals. The possibility of any trade war was dangerous for Koch Industries not just because the company had extensive business holdings around the world. To take one specific but very high-stakes example: Koch’s Pine Bend refinery, still a major profit center for the company, was deeply dependent on oil imports from Canada. Any trade disputes ignited by renegotiating NAFTA could dramatically hurt Koch’s profitability. (Kindle Loc 7343)
 ExxonMobil also funded third-party groups that sought to raise doubts about the science behind climate change and to fight the cap-and-trade bill. But Greenpeace, the environmental activist group that fought hard to limit air pollution, found that Koch Industries fought to undermine the scientific consensus around climate change for longer, and more fiercely, than even Exxon. A 2010 Greenpeace analysis of spending on climate-denial groups between 2005 and 2008 found that Koch Industries and its affiliates spent $24.9 million to support such groups, almost triple Exxon’s $8.9 million in spending.V And Koch was more uncompromising than Exxon, whose lobbyists made it known that Exxon might support some sort of carbon emissions plan, such as a carbon tax. (Kindle Loc 7407)
 Of the eighty-five newly elected Republicans who arrived in Washington, seventy-six had signed Americans for Prosperity’s carbon pledge, vowing they would never support a federal climate bill that added to the government’s tax revenue. Of those seventy-six members of Congress, fifty-seven of the signees had received campaign contributions from Koch Industries’ PAC, according to an analysis by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. Koch Industries had terminally stalled the Waxman-Markey bill in the Senate, and now it had salted the earth behind it, ensuring that a new climate change bill would never grow. (Kinde Loc 7502)