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Monday, February 24, 2020

Review: Words on the Move

After reading Bill Bryson's lackluster book about English, I reflected that John McWhorter's audible series about human language was still by far the most memorable and interesting lecture series I heard last year, so I checked out his book Words on the Move from the library in hardback form. The book did not disappoint.

One thing that his lecture series touched on was that people don't really enjoy Shakespeare, and in a section of this book, he discusses why: many of the words used in Elizabethan times have drifted so far from their original meanings that their use is incomprehensible when presented in speech without prior study and preparation. Ever the pragmatist, McWhorter proposes that we present Shakespeare in translated versions, translating Elizabethan vocabulary into their modern equivalents. The examples he provides are compelling. In a further illustration of similar effects in modern times, he points to Moby Dick's use of certain words (e.g., "wonderful", "pitiful", and "earnest") that have drifted so far that we could never use them in the same way today. "Fantastic" is another word that has also similarly drifted.

The mechanics of why that drift happens and how it happens is similar to the story of telephone: each generation of new learners of the language puts their own twist on the enunciation, and eventually vulnerable syllables and sound drop off and we go from pronouncing "mate" like "mahtee" to "mayte". Entire categories of meaning can also shift, like "meat" used to mean "food", and "wort" usesd to mean "vegetables". Each of those words became more specific to a category, and another word moved in for the generalized meaning.

Upon reflection, this is one of those books where I should have bought the Kindle version. There are too many examples for me to retain, and it's worth reading multiple times. Recommended.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Review: Nimona

I clicked through the sample of Nimona, and found myself enjoying it enough to keep reading, so I checked it out of the library and read it in a couple of hours. The art is simple, as is the story, so what keeps you going are the characters, their interaction with each other, and the plot, which foreshadows a big reveal. The plot revolves around Nimona, a little girl who shows up to apply for the job of being a Villain's sidekick. Of course, she's not what she seems and her presence serves to throw the balance off everyone in the kingdom.

Unfortunately, the reveal never really solves the mystery,  though the climax of the story works and we get an interesting ending that still somehow fails to satisfy. The book is mildly recommended for that reason.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Review: Invisible Influence

Invisible Influence is the a book about social pressure, and how peers and friends influence us. Many of the examples in the book are probably familiar to you, such as the experiment in which actors influence a subject into denying the evidence of his own eyes about the length of a line. Similarly, you might have read about how second born children tend to pick non-academic pursuits compared to their first-born siblings:
Elite women’s soccer players tend not to be firstborn children. Of the twenty-three players on America’s 2015 Women’s World Cup team, for example, seventeen have older siblings. (pg. 64)
What's interesting that I did not know was that the most common opening lines in people of my social class is not at all pervasive in American society:
One of the first questions people from middle- or upper-class contexts ask when they meet someone is “What do you do?” Among the middle and upper classes, one’s job is considered a defining element of who you are. People pick their jobs because it is something they are interested in and passionate about, and they see those choices as expressing them as a person. It’s a signal of their identity. But in working-class contexts, “What do you do?” would likely not be one of the first things you’d ask someone. Or if you did, it might offend people. Because, for many working-class individuals, their occupation is a means to an end rather than a signal of identity. It’s what they do to pay the bills. It’s what they do because they need to provide for their families. (pg. 98)
Even more interestingly, there's a segment about how the names of hurricanes influenced baby names:
When we sifted through all the data, we found that hurricanes influenced how people named their children. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, almost 10 percent more babies were born with names beginning with a K sound (compared to the prior year). After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, names that started with a soft “ah” sound increased 7 percent. That’s thousands of babies getting certain names, just because a big hurricane happened to hit. (pg. 154)
Now these numbers are small (10% means in a class of 20, 2 more kids are named Kevin or Kara than usual), but they're also statistically significant examples of people getting influenced. On an individual level, of course, there's no way for you to know what the influence on you was.

By far the most interesting application of this is the impact on how we do performance evaluations:
Unfortunately, many companies and classrooms use a winner-take-all model. The person who makes the most sales this quarter gets promoted. The top student is named valedictorian and speaks at graduation. While this strategy motivates people who have a chance at the top slot, it often demotivates those who feel they have no shot at winning. Someone who has only half as many sales as the leader may think they are so far back that they just give up. Students that are getting Cs or Ds may feel similarly. Getting an A seems impossible, so why keep trying? ... rather than comparing people to everyone else, some organizations give people feedback that compares them to the person just ahead of them. Opower doesn’t compare people to their best-performing neighbor, they tell people where they are in relation to neighbors with similar homes. Just like basketball teams that were down by a point, making each person feel slightly behind increases effort and performance.(pg. 219)
All in all, the book was worth reading, though the interesting insights like the one above were much less frequent. But it's short, so you can skim through the stuff you already know and only slow down to read the stuff you didn't know. Mildly recommended.

Review: Resmed Airfit N30

I bought the newly introduced Resmed Airfit N30 from Lofta because they offered a 30 day money-back guarantee, and because they had a decent discount.

The new nasal-cushion style of mask fits very differently from my tried-and-true Swift FX nasal pillow. Rather than having nacelles that fit into your nose, these are effectively a block of soft silicone material with two cut-outs where your nostrils are. The effect is very comfortable, with no abrasion whatsoever.

The problem with these is that they work great for one night, and then by the second night the wear from the first night means that the cut-outs will loosen up and no longer give great therapy. By the third night, the cushion is completely worthless. If this doesn't happen to you (I might be particularly tough on masks), then these are worth a shot.

Not recommended.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Review: The Names of the Dead

The Names of the Dead is a shallow, made for Hollywood story. The plot is predictable, the characters stereotypical, and even the places and settings feel like Hollywood cut-outs rather than full blown characters. It's major virtue is that it's short, written transparently, and made for easy reading --- an airplane novel.

The story revolves around James Wesley, who starts the book off in jail, only to be freed because his wife was killed in a terrorist attack. That's implausible. Then his CIA operators pick him up so they can hill him, and by himself he attacks and kills them instead, walking away and being picked up by the daughter of another prisoner. Also implausible. Of course it's a woman, and not only does she help him, she (coincidentally) has an open schedule and chauffeurs him all over Spain.

The amount of implausibility in the entire plot was so large, and the attention to detail so little, that I was convinced that the author must have been American. Who else would be so ignorant as to not know the children under 4 travel for free on the Spanish rail system and wouldn't need a ticket? Even more salient, who else would, having gotten a woman who'd helped them out in trouble, would refuse to get all the help they could in rescuing her and instead go into a hostage situation outnumbered just so they could show how macho they were?

Not recommended.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Review: The Fifth Risk

I bounced off The Fifth Risk the first time I tried to read it. The opening always made me depressed and sad, since it was obvious to me that the Trump administration was going to do its best to destroy the good parts about American government. The Audible gave away The Coming Storm, and lacking anything to listen to for a bit, I audited it and was about to write a review when I noticed that it was actually an excerpt from the book. So I checked the book from the library once more, and this time finished it, mostly because I stopped reading it as a litany of issues with Trump's takeover of the government and read it as a paen to the unsung heroes of the government. For instance, the Coast Guard research scientist who not only wrote the papers describing how various objects would drift in the ocean, but after spending a night with the search and rescue operations team, designed and engineered a tool for search and rescue team to use during actual rescues, pulling in data automatically, and calculate the search area to focus searches on.
He’d done what he’d done without asking for much for himself. Back in 1984, as a GS-11, he’d been paid less than $30,000 a year. After thirty-five years he’d risen to a GS-14 and been paid a bit more than $100,000. He hadn’t even expected the attention of others, outside his small circle of search-and-rescue people. It was nice that Taiwan’s Coast Guard wrote poems about him. But that sort of thing never happened here, in the United States. The Partnership for Public Service had shocked him when they sent him the note to tell him he had been nominated for a Sammie Award. But that was it—even after the partnership had made a big deal about him in a press release. Art hadn’t heard a peep from the media or the public or anyone else. He half thought his local newspaper might make him Person of the Week. After all, his own daughter had been Person of the Week, when she had worked on a project to clean up the town. It hadn’t happened for him. (Kindle Loc 2664)
We get to see how the politicians and the press try desperately not to give governments any credit, especially in red states:
“We’d have this check,” said Salerno. “We’d blow it up and try to have a picture taken with it. It said UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT in great big letters. That was something that Vilsack wanted—to be right out in front so people knew the federal government had helped them. In the red southern states the mayor sometimes would say, ‘Can you not mention that the government gave this?’” Even when it was saving lives, or preserving communities, the government remained oddly invisible. “It’s just a misunderstanding of the system,” said Salerno. “We don’t teach people what government actually does.”
(Kindle| Location: 1,191)
The sums of money at her disposal were incredible: the little box gave out or guaranteed $30 billion in loans and grants a year. But people who should have known about it hadn’t the first clue what it was up to. “I had this conversation with elected and state officials almost everywhere in the South,” said Salerno. “Them: We hate the government and you suck. Me: My mission alone put $1 billion into your economy this year, so are you sure about that? Me thinking: We are the only reason your shitty state is standing.” (Kindle Loc 1154)
“I worked in the little box in the government most responsible for helping the people who elected Trump,” said Salerno. “And they literally took my little box off the organization chart.” This troubled Lillian Salerno, and not just because she’d spent five years of her life inside that little box. It troubled her because it made her wonder about the motives of the people who had taken over the Department of Agriculture. (Kindle Location: 1,215)

You get to learn the details of the food stamps program, and the statistics are incredible, basically a huge percentage (87% or so) are the elderly and children, people who cannot be expected to work for their food. Yet any Republican administration will insist on calling them moochers.

Americans have been sold a bill of goods about the incompetence of government, even though examples from the rest of the world have repeatedly shown that healthcare, however, can be run by the government far more cheaply and effectively at lower cost than our corrupt private system. This book is a good antidote for that sort of thinking, but unfortunately, the kind of people who most need to read it will never get to it. Recommended.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Review: The Mother Tongue

After reading The Body, I set off to read another Bill Bryson book, and found The Mother Tongue. Having bounced off several other books about the history of the English language, I thought Bryson might be good about it. I was disappointed in the first several pages, where he repeated myths about languages (such as the Eskimos having 50 different words for snow) that are debunked by John McWhorter's great lecture series.

When you're finally past the introductory stuff, Bryson shows that he does have a good command of the language and the history of it, and how diverse it really was:
he related the story of a group of London sailors heading down the River “Tamyse” for Holland who found themselves becalmed in Kent. Seeking food, one of them approached a farmer’s wife and “axed for mete and specyally he axyd after eggys” but was met with blank looks by the wife who answered that she “coude speke no frenshe.” The sailors had traveled barely fifty miles and yet their language was scarcely recognizable to another speaker of English. In Kent, eggs were eyren and would remain so for at least another fifty years. (pg. 59)
 How quickly the language evolved is quite striking:
When Chaucer died in 1400, people still pronounced the e on the end of words. One hundred years later not only had it become silent, but scholars were evidently unaware that it ever had been pronounced. In short, changes that seem to history to have been almost breathtakingly sudden will often have gone unnoticed by those who lived through them. (pg. 92)
 He also has interesting observations about how strange the English present tense is:
In fact, almost the only form of sentence in which we cannot use the present tense form of drive is, yes, the present tense. When we need to indicate an action going on right now, we must use the participial form driving. We don’t say, “I drive the car now,” but rather “I’m driving the car now.” Not to put too fine a point on it, the labels are largely meaningless. We seldom stop to think about it, but some of the most basic concepts in English are naggingly difficult to define. (pg. 134)
 English, unlike many other languages is largely driven by common usage, rather than committees or official academies. This is by and large a good thing, since as linguists have discovered, our use of language is instinctual, and prescriptive impositions upon English in the past (like many scholars who tried to use Latin as an standard would tell you never to split an infinitive, which of course, is worthless advice) hurt the language more than they help:
Considerations of what makes for good English or bad English are to an uncomfortably large extent matters of prejudice and conditioning. Until the eighteenth century it was correct to say “you was” if you were referring to one person. It sounds odd today, but the logic is impeccable. Was is a singular verb and were a plural one. Why should you take a plural verb when the sense is clearly singular? The answer—surprise, surprise—is that Robert Lowth didn’t like it. “I’m hurrying, are I not?” is hopelessly ungrammatical, but “I’m hurrying, aren’t I?”—merely a contraction of the same words—is perfect English. Many is almost always a plural (as in “Many people were there”), but not when it is followed by a, as in “Many a man was there.” There’s no inherent reason why these things should be so. They are not defensible in terms of grammar. They are because they are. (pg. 143)
 There are lots of language facts about English usage was interesting as far as the cross-pollination between England and the USA:
Other words and expressions that were common in Elizabethan England that died in England were fall as a synonym for autumn, mad for angry, progress as a verb, platter for a large dish, assignment in the sense of a job or task (it survived in England only as a legal expression), deck of cards (the English now say pack), slim in the sense of small (as in slim chance), mean in the sense of unpleasant instead of stingy, trash for rubbish (used by Shakespeare), hog as a synonym for pig, mayhem, magnetic, chore, skillet, ragamuffin, homespun, and the expression I guess. Many of these words have reestablished themselves in England (pg. 171)
Of course, we like to think of English as being popular, but in fact, that is not so:
 Most estimates put the number of native speakers at about 330 million, as compared with 260 million for Spanish, 150 million for Portuguese, and a little over 100 million for French. Of course, sheer numbers mean little. Mandarin Chinese, or Guoyo, spoken by some 750 million people, has twice as many speakers as any other language in the world, but see how far that will get you in Rome or Rochester. No other language than English is spoken as an official language in more countries—forty-four, as against twenty-seven for French and twenty for Spanish—and none is spoken over a wider area of the globe. English is used as an official language in countries with a population of about 1.6 billion, roughly a third of the world total. Of course, nothing like that number of people speak it—in India, for instance, it is spoken by no more than 40 or 50 million people out of a total population of 700 million—but it is still used competently as a second language by perhaps as many as 400 million people globally. (pg. 181)
 The simple fact is that English is not always spoken as widely or as enthusiastically as we might like to think. According to U.S. News & World Report [February 18, 1985], even in Switzerland, one of the most polyglot of nations, no more than 10 percent of the people are capable of writing a simple letter in English. What is certain is that English is the most studied and emulated language in the world, its influence so enormous that it has even affected the syntax of other languages. According to a study by Magnus Ljung of Stockholm University, more than half of all Swedes now make plurals by adding -s, after the English model, rather than by adding -ar, -or, or -er, in the normal Swedish way. (pg. 182)
 All in all, the book was good reading, but not nearly as accurate (especially when Bryson wanders off topics into discussions of non-English languages --- the man clearly has no background in Asian languages!) as I would have liked, which casts credibility on his other books as well. I think John McWhorter or The Language Instinct is a better introduction to the general subject of linguistics. But hey, at least I didn't bounce off it!

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Review: Super Graphic - A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe

Super Graphic is designed by Tim Leong, who was the Director of Digital Design at Wired Magazine. It's not a book about super-heroes --- there's lots of material here about the Archie comics, for instance, Voltron, The Walking Dead, or even Manga, with a great illustration showing how much variety there is in Japanese comic books, as opposed to American ones.

There's even a great panel showing you how to read a comic book (which my friend Scarlet Tang tells me is not as intuitive as I thought it was, having grown up with them). Some of the charts are particularly clever, for instance, the two panels of pixel-art graphics of some well-known superheroes that double as a chart of the popularity of various incarnations of such heroes! The Venn diagrams are also particularly entertaining, and a fun timeline of which characters were dead and for how long. There's even a decision-tree diagram of how The Punisher reacts to someone greeting him in a bar.

The graphs and diagrams are in no particular order, and it's clear that the entire book was designed as a coffee table book. On a 10" tablet, it's not as striking, but if you view it on a 4K screen with plenty of room, the experience is quite unlike any other book I've read this year.

Unique, and certainly recommended, especially at the current sale price of $1.99.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Review: Gut - The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated Organ

Gut is a strange book. The author, Giulia Enders has a fun sense of humor (I guess that's what it takes to be a gastroenterologist):
Japanese researchers fed volunteers luminous substances and X-rayed them while they were doing their business in various positions. They found out two interesting things. First, squatting does indeed lead to a nice, straight intestinal tract, allowing for a direct, easy exit. Second, some people are nice enough to let researchers feed them luminous substances and X-ray them while they have a bowel movement, all in the name of science. Both findings are pretty impressive, I think. (Pg. 19)
The book thereby proceeds in fits and starts, lurching from subject to subject in an unpaced fashion. (How much of it is because Enders is German and this book was translated from German I don't know)

But there are some good tidbits, like:
Of particular interest to those fighting fat is that olive oil also has the potential to help get rid of that spare tire. It blocks an enzyme in fatty tissue—known as fatty acid synthase—that likes to create fat out of spare carbohydrates. And we are not the only ones who benefit from the properties of olive oil—the good bacteria in our gut also appreciate a little pampering. (pg. 53)
Nevertheless, the book is full of practical tips, though because of the translation, some of it seems a little confusing:
One example of bacteria dilution in the home is washing fruit and vegetables. Washing dilutes most soil-dwelling bacteria to such a low concentration that they become harmless to humans. Koreans add a little vinegar to the water to make it slightly acidic and just that bit more uncomfortable for any bacteria. Airing a room is also a dilution technique. If you dilute the bacteria on your plates, cutlery, and cutting board nicely with water, then wipe them over with a kitchen sponge before putting them away, you may as well have licked them clean with your tongue. (Pg. 227)
 Nevertheless, I enjoyed some of the interesting stories, and many of the stories were new to me, such as this one:
A group of South Americans had to learn that through bitter experience. They had the clever idea of taking pregnant women to the South Pole to have their babies. The plan was that the babies born there could stake a claim to any oil future reserves as natives of the region. The babies did not survive. They died soon after birth or on the way back to South America. The South Pole is so cold and germ-free that the infants simply did not get the bacteria they needed to survive. The normal temperatures and bacteria the babies encountered after leaving the Antarctic were enough to kill them. (pg. 240)

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Review: The Body - A Guide for Occupants

I've bounced of a number of other Bill Bryson books before, so I approached The Body with low expectations. To my surprise I found myself reading the book in earnest, highlighting passage after passage. Here he is about lifespan:
Many factors determine life span, of course, but it is a fact that men who have been castrated live about as long as women do. In what way exactly testosterone might shorten male lives is not known. Testosterone levels in men fall by about 1 percent a year beginning in their forties, prompting many to take supplements in the hope of boosting their sex drive and energy levels. The evidence that it improves sexual performance or general virility is thin at best; there is much greater evidence that it can lead to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. (Kindle Loc 2490)
 I remember reading in one of John Medina's books about how hunter-gathers might walk as much as 10 miles a day. Here's Bill Bryson debunking that:
According to The Economist, some American companies have begun offering rewards to employees who log a million steps a year on an activity tracker such as a Fitbit. That seems a pretty ambitious number but actually works out to just 2,740 steps a day, or a little over a mile. Even that, however, seems to be beyond many. “Some workers have reportedly strapped their Fitbits to their dogs to boost their activity scores,” The Economist noted. Modern hunter-gatherers, by contrast, average about nineteen miles of walking and trotting to secure a day’s food, and it is reasonable to assume that our ancient forebears would have done about the same. (Kindle Loc 2968)
 Ok, that's all stuff you already know. But here he is on the puzzle of allergies, and the increasing rate of asthma among children:
An estimated 300 million people in the world have asthma today, about 5 percent of adults and about 15 percent of children in those countries where it is measured carefully, though the proportions vary markedly from region to region and country to country, even from city to city. In China, the city of Guangzhou is highly polluted, while nearby Hong Kong, just an hour away by train, is comparatively clean as it has little industry and lots of fresh air because it is by the sea. Yet in clean Hong Kong asthma rates are 15 percent, while in heavily polluted Guangzhou they are just 3 percent, exactly the opposite of what one would expect. No one can account for any of this... (Kindle Loc 3551)
In children, it is closely associated with both being obese and being underweight; obese children get it more often, but underweight children get it worse. The highest rate in the world is in the U.K., where 30 percent of children have shown asthma symptoms. The lowest rates are in China, Greece, Georgia, Romania, and Russia, with just 3 percent. All the English-speaking nations of the world have high rates, as do those of Latin America. There is no cure, though in 75 percent of young people asthma resolves itself by the time they reach early adulthood. No one knows how or why that happens either, or why it doesn’t happen for the unfortunate minority. Indeed, where asthma is concerned, no one knows much of anything.  (Kindle Loc 3567)
As we all know, it's Speaking English that kills you. There's a significant amount of medical history in the book, with lots of tidbits like this one:
in 1970 Congress canceled the only comprehensive federal nutrition survey ever attempted after the preliminary results proved embarrassing. “A significant proportion of the population surveyed is malnourished or at a high risk of developing nutritional problems,” the survey reported, just before it was axed. (Kindle Loc 3986)
 Bryson doesn't shy away from politically inconvenient facts, such as the US being the worst country in the world to get healthcare in the developed world:
Even now, however, there is huge variability in maternal mortality rates among countries of the developed world. In Italy, the number of women who die in childbirth is 3.9 per 100,000. Sweden is 4.6, Australia 5.1, Ireland 5.7, Canada 6.6. Britain comes only twenty-third on the list with 8.2 deaths per 100,000 live births, putting it below Hungary, Poland, and Albania. But also doing surprisingly poorly are Denmark (9.4 per 100,000) and France (10.0). Among developed nations, the United States is in a league of its own, with a maternal death rate of 16.7 per 100,000, putting it thirty-ninth among nations. (Kindle Loc 4830)
But even within the US, it's not evenly distributed. Much of the medical problems the US has can be addressed. For instance:
 California addressed preeclampsia and the other leading causes of maternal death in childbirth through a program called the Maternal Quality Care Collaborative, and in just six years reduced the rate of childbirth deaths from 17 per 100,000 to just 7.3 between 2006 and 2013. During the same period, alas, the national rate rose from 13.3 deaths to 22 deaths per 100,000. (Kindle Loc 4859)
Of course, this stuff doesn't make the news, and the libertarians are happy to tell you that "government can't solve any problems," even when other countries with government run healthcare manage to do far better than the USA's private system.
 The second thing that can be said with regard to life expectancy is that it is not a good idea to be an American. Compared with your peers in the rest of the industrialized world, even being well-off doesn’t help you here. A randomly selected American aged forty-five to fifty-four is more than twice as likely to die, from any cause, as someone from the same age-group in Sweden. Just consider that. If you are a middle-aged American, your risk of dying before your time is more than double that of a person picked at random off the streets of Uppsala or Stockholm or Link√∂ping. It is much the same when other nationalities are brought in for comparison. For every 400 middle-aged Americans who die each year, just 220 die in Australia, 230 in Britain, 290 in Germany, and 300 in France. These health deficits begin at birth and go right on through life. Children in the United States are 70 percent more likely to die in childhood than children in the rest of the wealthy world. Among rich countries, America is at or near the bottom for virtually every measure of medical well-being—for chronic disease, depression, drug abuse, homicide, teenage pregnancies, HIV prevalence. Even sufferers of cystic fibrosis live ten years longer on average in Canada than in the United States. What is perhaps most surprising is that all these poorer outcomes apply not just to underprivileged citizens but to prosperous white college-educated Americans when compared with their socioeconomic equivalents abroad. (kindle Loc 5798)
You would think that being wealthy in the US would protect you from a lot of health problems, but it turns out that  many of the problems are systemic:
“Even wealthy Americans are not isolated from a lifestyle filled with oversized food portions, physical inactivity, and stress.” The average Dutch or Swedish citizen consumes about 20 percent fewer calories than the average American, for instance. That doesn’t sound massively excessive, but it adds up to 250,000 calories over the course of a year. You would get a similar boost if you sat down about twice a week and ate an entire cheesecake. (Kindle Loc 5816)
And of course, that idiot driver will kill you just as easily in a country where no one has a choice but to drive everywhere:
 the United States records a really quite spectacular 11 traffic deaths per 100,000 people every year, compared with 3.1 in the United Kingdom, 3.4 in Sweden, and 4.3 in Japan. (Kindle Loc 5826)
 Finally, I enjoyed his treatment of longevity as well:
The longest-lived person that we know of was Jeanne Louise Calment of Arles, in Provence, who died at the decidedly ripe age of 122 years and 164 days in 1997. She was the first person to reach not only 122 but also 116, 117, 118, 119, 120, and 121. Calment had a leisurely life: her father was a rich shipbuilder and her husband a prosperous businessman. She never worked. She outlived her husband by more than half a century and her only child, a daughter, by sixty-three years. Calment smoked all her life—at the age of 117, when she finally gave up, she was still smoking two cigarettes a day—and ate two pounds of chocolate every week but was active up to the very end and enjoyed robust health. Her proud and charming boast in old age was, “I’ve never had but one wrinkle, and I’m sitting on it.” (Kindle Loc 6072)
In any case, the book's chock full of fun reading (I'm not even using half the stuff I highlighted for future reference), and even occasionally has some actionable stuff. Recommended.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Review: Superior Spider-Man

I picked up Superior Spider-Man from Comixology Unlimited after reading the first issue, which posted a heck of a fun premise: Doctor Octopus has somehow managed to take over Peter Parker's body, and has now sworn to prove himself the better Spider-Man than Peter Parker ever was.

Dan Slott was also credited with the writing for PS4's Spider-Man which made me more willing to read the entire series. The early part of the series was the best: there's a lot of "damn, he's way more organized than Peter Parker was, and wow, he's convincing me that he could be better than Peter!" He starts a startup, develops sensors so he doesn't have to physically go out on patrol, and even goes back to school to get a PhD, all while juggling all the Spiderman duties, and even stops flaking out on his personal affairs!

Later, of course, Dr. Octopus's megalomania and history of villainy gets the better of him, and he starts acquiring minions and all the artifacts of a super-villain.

The weakest part of the story is the return of Peter Parker. While there's some justification for Otto Octavius' giving up without much of a fight, it doesn't play in character for him, and none of what happens can be attributed to Peter Parker's personal attributes as the protagonist of the series. I was disappointed by that, and apparently the rest of Dan Slott's run on Spider-man is mediocre, so I was happy to stop at the end of the run, even though it would have been fun to see Peter deal with the fallout of Doctor Octopus' handling of his relationships and monetary affairs.

In any case, the series was a lot of fun (not deep!) and worth my time. Recommended.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Review: Zero G

Zero G is an Audible-exclusive radio play written by Dan Wells. It's clearly intended for a younger audience (the protagonist is 10), but I listened to it anyway in case it's something that I can recommend to Bowen.

The production values are impeccable: there are multiple actors with the narrator having a different voice than everyone else. The intonation, acting, and stress are great, and the story goes out of its way to explain nearly every bit of science available, including the likely process of traversing interstellar space without FTL technology.

The world-building is iffy, though probably because it's done in service to the plot: the author clearly wanted space pirates, no matter if the economics doesn't make sense, and the plot holes in the story are big enough to drive a starship through, including a Turing-complete AI that nevertheless behaves like an idiot, and a starship strangely lacking in redundancy in life support systems.

Nevertheless, it'll be fun for me to listen to it with Bowen to see if he spots the plot holes and things that don't make sense. It's difficult in this day and age to find stories with little boys as protagonists (and an Asian boy at that --- I will note that the protagonist's voice actress is a girl, in common with many shows like The Simpsons), and I commend Amazon for bringing this into production, plot-holes and all. Recommended.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Review: Specialized BG Sport Full Finger Gloves

I'd poked holes through every finger of my old long-fingered gloves, Specialized BG gloves have always fitted me quite well, though they have the unfortunate habit of changing names year over year making it impossible to find stuff that used to work for you.

Since I'm ignorant of fashion trends and don't care whether I wear this year's or last year's models, I ended up searching online and finding Specialized BG Sport Full Finger Gloves discounted at a high rate from a reputable site. They arrived and are on the thin side, which is fine for California riding down to about 40F. Below 40F I find that they don't quite provide sufficient insulation, so you're better off with more insulated gloves if you're on an extended ride. However, I have a tendency to prefer to suffer a little rather than carry more weight, so these were just right.

The gloves have tips that are supposed to work on touch-screen cell phones. In practice, the tips work sometimes, and don't work other times, depending on the temperature, humidity, phase of moon, and other irregularities. I wouldn't buy these if you needed more than 50% reliability when it comes to operating a phone.

They pack up very nicely, and fit in my handlebar bag, which means they'll be handy on tour at all times. Being light and breathable, they'll dry fast as well. I like them and will recommend them provided you don't need too much insulation. They're definitely not waterproof, but at the price I paid for them, they don't have to be. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Review: Judge Dredd Year One

Judge Dredd is pretty much of relevance only to those who grew up in the English colonies, with regular access to the weekly newsprint comic, 2000AD. Of course, from those pages came amazing talent like Alan Moore (Ballad of Halo Jones, Tharg's Future Shock), Dave Gibbons, Gary Leach, and Brian Bolland, but also iconic characters like Judge Dredd, ABC Warriors, Rogue Trooper, and Slaine the Celtic warrior.

Judge Dredd Year One appears to be a prequel, rather than a reboot. The unfortunate problem, of course, is that rather than take the "here's how Dredd became who he is" (Dredd's always been the caricature of the stoic, strong, silent fascist lawman), the story chose to portray him as being pretty much the way he's always been depicted in the comics, though perhaps a little bit too given to boast that he graduated top of the class in one-thing-or-another.

The story is pretty much classic Dredd, with time-travel, psionics,inter-dimensional travel, and lots of police action thrown in in short order.  There are no new revelations, and nothing of note, which makes it completely unremarkable. Not worth your time, unless you need a strong dose of nostalgia havinga grown up with the titular character.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Reread: Saga of the Swamp Thing Books 2-6

After reading Swamp Thing Vol 1, I realized that I'd never actually read the entire Alan Moore run of the Swamp Thing in one go, so I set out to do just that. Book 2 (love and death) launches the Swamp Thing's relationship with Abby Cable into being one of the most fully detailed relationships in comic books (especially in a comic book set in the DC superhero universe). It ties up all of the previous storylines neatly, and serves to prepare the reader for the next segment.

Vol 3 ("The Curse") introduces John Constantine (whose spin-off Hellblazer has proved so popular that it became a TV series)  ramps  into the American Gothic series of horror tropes, and while it might have been innovative at the time, has least withstood the test of time. The tropes (vampires, werewolves, etc) just don't seem that terrifying today, and I'm pretty sure even as a kid I probably wouldn't have been scared.

Vol 4 ("A murder of Crows") is marred by DC's need to tie in "Crisis on Infinite Earths" the first of many reboots. While the other tie-ins during that era were rather ham-fisted, Alan Moore cleverly stitched it into his American Gothic series by postulating that the rise of the horrors in previous issues were part of an attempt by a South American group of shaman/wizards to summon the ultimate evil. But even Moore's virtuoso can only do so much: there are many untied mysteries (for instance, the evil/shaman-wizard group is never heard from again, despite never having been dealt with properly, and one never learns why they thought summoning the ultimate evil was a good idea --- it didn't seem that they were able to control it or wanted to have anything to do with it). The introduction of most of the DC universe's mystic characters (Sargon the Sorceror, Zatana, Zatara, Doctor Fate, Deadman, the Spectre) is cursory, and while the death of some of these characters might be a big deal if you were a big fan of the DC universe, were never given sufficient build up that the pay off was worth anything. Even worse, it never feels as though their deaths made any difference to the plot, since the titular character seemed to have resolved everything without any of the sacrifices prior having done anything.

Vol 5 ("Earth to Earth") gets to start from a fresh slate. This is by far one of the most impactful (and politically courageous) volumes of its time. It features Abigail Cable being arrested for "indecent relations with a non-human", and then resolves in an all-out assault on Gotham City. One might expect the traditional "Superheroes fight and then become friends" trope, but Alan Moore, having established that the Swamp Thing is an Earth Elemental, takes that to its logical conclusion --- the outcome was never in doubt. The logical argument Batman makes for releasing Abigail was great: "What about that guy in Metropolis. Didn't he have a relationship with a human? Don't you have to arrest him too?" Perhaps the only weakness was that Luthor finds it too easy to deal with the Swamp Thing, but that's easily forgiveable, since the second half of the book deals very well with the apparent death of the titular character.

Vol 6 is a transition from the story arcs previously introduced into a series of  science fiction/horror stories. It is nothing short of a tour de force, showing off Alan Moore's virtuosity. Not only does he adept to different artists, he romps from various DC comics properties (Adam Strange, Green Lantern, and even Jack Kirby's New Gods) without missing a bit. There's a science fiction story in here illustrated by Bill Sienkewicz that not only takes advantage of his art style, but also ties together time travel, the Swamp Thing, and John Varley's Titan series of books while being its own story, all in a tightly knit 23 page comic book story. Nearly every 23 page chapter in this volume would be considered the pinnacle of any other comic book writer's career, but this being Alan Moore, I still don't think it compares to Miracleman. Some of the contemporary events of this volume sets the dates (there are references to Iran-Contra), and it's quite clear in the final polemic that Moore is a bleeding-heart liberal as he takes to tasks most of humanity's valuing of money and material possession over everything else, even the ecosystem that supports humanity's existence. But reading this in 2020, none of it is outdated, and in fact, Moore's indictment of the nasty aspects of humanity still stands as accurate, salient, and relevant, remarkable for something written in the 1980s for a comic book, which explains why the books remain in print today, while many of the much hyped and marketed contemporaries (e.g., Crisis on Infinite Earths) has faded away and no longer remembered (or even ignominiously ret-conned out of existence!).

Taken altogether as a volume of work Alan Moore's Swamp Thing is a masterpiece. It contains all of his hallmarks: a rewrite of a moribound and cheesy character and flipping around and demonstrating how much could be done with the character while holding on to its initial concept. Then Moore would play around with the concepts and take everything to its logical conclusion. In many ways Alan Moore's approach in later volumes feel a lot like Joss Whedon at his best. ("Oh yeah? You think my best stuff is in the dialog? Let me show you an episode with no dialog!") There are entire issues where Moore (to various degrees of success) explores an aspect of comic book writing (e.g., there's an entire issue of Swamp Thing rendered entirely in monochromatic blue!), and by and large he succeeds. If you haven't read any of Alan Moore's work, I still think Miracleman or The Watchmen is still far more accessible (and in the case of Miracleman, I actually think is superior to Swamp Thing). But if you've skipped Swamp Thing because of its horror-B-movie reputation you owe it to yourself to ignore that reputation and read Alan Moore's run. You will not be disappointed.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Review: What Doesn't Kill Us

What Doesn't Kill Us suffers from a fundamental problem with science as explained by English majors, which is that the plural of anecdotes is not data. The thesis of the book is that the Wim Hof method of continual exposure to cold temperatures along with a certain method of breathing exercises allows you to control your immune system consciously, improve your fitness, and allow you to (amongst other things) summit Kilimanjaro in 2 days without altitude acclimation (the climax of the book).

Early on in the book, there's a pursuit of a theory that brown adipose tissue (BAT, or Brown Fat) is the mechanism by which these metabolic effects work. But we quickly discover that that's a dead-end:
just under 2 weeks cold exposure almost reversed the symptoms of diabetes. As one of the pioneering researchers on BAT, van Marken Lichtenbelt predicted that the metabolic changes would come with a corresponding increase in their BAT levels, but when results from the PET/CT came back it turned out that most of men had the same levels of BAT as when they entered the study. Cold exposure had changed the men’s underlying condition, but the lightning that van Marken Lichtenbelt was trying to bottle must have come from somewhere else. (pg. 102)
After that brief flirtation with science, Carney gives up and goes whole hog into the multiple-celebrity theory of scientific proof.  We get a cameo by Orlando Bloom practicing this, an exposition of Laird Hamilton's adoption of the Wim Hof techniques, an exploration of the new "tough mudder" style of obstacle course racing, and the aforementioned Kilimanjaro record-setting summit.

All of these are effectively small group studies, usually without controls, and definitely without statistical success. Every one in the sample sizes is self-selected, and though some of the anecdotes are impressive (an arthritic blacksmith regains control of his muscles, a Parkinson's sufferer halves the dosage required to keep his Parkinson's under control), they fall into the "ok, if you're this desperate, you might as well try this. You've got nothing to lose" category.

There's some evidence that our climate controlled environment might not be great for us, and that it's good to get exposure to nature, but there's no systematic teasing out of how much exposure makes a difference, and how this folklore is better than your mom's "you'll catch a cold" folklore.

As an entertaining piece of journalism the book's fine. It's also a decent airplane read. If you're desperate for a solution to your immune problems it might be worth looking into the method, but the entire account is far from scientific.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Review: Did you just eat that?

You've probably heard of the 5-second rule, or the story the electric hand dryers spew germs all over the bathroom. Did you just eat that? covers all these personal hygiene topics and more from a scientific point of view, right down to publishing the procedures for replicating their studies.

Ok, most of the stuff is just common sense: yes, eating food off the floor is unsafe even if you picked it up with 1s. They trace the origin of the 5-second rule myth to Julia Child picking food that'd fallen off onto a stove top (not the floor!) and somehow that story turned into a generic rule. Wow.

The stuff that I was surprised by was that yes, electric hand-dryers are really much worse than paper towels for personal hygiene, and that yes, you need to put the toilet seat cover down before you flush or you'll aerosolized any bacteria in your stool! Also, the most bacteria-ridden item in a restaurant? The menu! Definitely wash your hands after touching the menu!

The different types of dip have different anti-bacterial properties, but surprisingly, the mechanical viscosity of the dip matters much more for preventing the spread of germs caused by double-dipping that both chocolate and cheese dips will outperform salsa, despite the salsa's higher acidity.

There are a few questions I have: if you wash your hands for 10s instead of 20s, how much bacteria is left? Those practical questions were not asked or answered in this book.

The book was a quick short read and you'll never look at a restaurant menu the same way again after after reading it. Recommended.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Reread: Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 1

The thing with reading a lot of comic books is that after a while you realize that none of them can hold a candle to Alan Moore's work, or at least, your memory of Alan Moore's work. Not even Neil Gaiman, who can do character development well but couldn't plot his way out of a paper bag.

Saga of the Swamp Thing was Alan Moore's breakthrough opus in the USA. It opens with a bang, but having recently read Miracleman, I realize that there's a parallel that wasn't obvious when I read the two separated by significant amounts of time. Both reveals are followed by the appropriate protagonists becoming extremely incensed to the point of murder. It's quite clear that Moore lifted the Swamp Thing's reveal directly from his work on Miracleman.

The villain, such he is, however, is much more sympathetic than the ones in Miracleman. The setup for the second book takes its time, however, though with the benefit of hindsight one can easily see the foreshadowing happening. The American Gothic series of Swamp Thing comics was very well reviewed, but looking back, I think it's not anywhere close to Alan Moore at his peak. Nevertheless, middle of the pack Alan Moore is still way better than say, J. Michael Straczyinski. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Review: The True Queen

The True Queen is a sequel to Sorceror to the Crown. The events in this novel take place after the events of Zen Cho's earlier novel, but the lead characters are completely different. It revolves a pair of sisters who've lost their memory and are on a quest to understand their past and what caused them to forget who they were.

The novel is written in a transparent prose, and the characters at first seem like outright idiots, making you want to slap their faces for being so willfully stupid. By the middle of the novel, however, the plot becomes obvious and you understand why they had to behave the way they are. In retrospect, you can see the character flaws that caused them to behave the way they did, rather than just having to do what the plot requires.

The characters from the first book show up, but most of them are sideshows rather than main characters. Zen Cho would have made a great DM, because she kept the main characters having to do stuff, because the great heroes of the past are too busy working on other important problems. The reveal when it comes does seem inevitable, and I didn't feel cheated.

The big seams in the world building are that by unifying the magic of the Indonesian islands with that of the English faerie, you end up with a mish-mash of stuff that doesn't quite fit together, and doesn't make thematic sense. On the other hand, you could argue that it's all magic anyway, so why would you get so picky.

All in all, a great book to read while you're sick in bed. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Review: Symphony in C

Symphony in C is Robert Hazen's book about everybody's favorite element, Carbon.  Far from a dry recounting of its properties, Hazen describes not just the creation of carbon in the hearts of stars and its unique place in the periodic table, but the evolution of earth's deep carbon cycle.

Interesting stories include:

  • The great oxygenation event affected not just the biosphere, but also minerals, as minerals reacted with the oxygen that was in the air and changed their properties.
  • Coal is formed during the several hundred million years in which nothing could digest cellulose. Once fungi learned to digest cellulose, trees dying no longer made coal. That's why there's a limited amount of coal in the ground.
  • Life on earth will continue despite humans killing themselves by making the climate too hot for primates to survive. The majority of the biosphere are made out of single-cell microbes, and those will do just fine in the absence of humans.
  •  Carbon dating is only useful for dating items in the near past (50K years or so). Once past that, the limits to our C-14 counting methods means that we don't have accuracy any more. Furthermore, modern changes to the atmosphere (from atomic explosions to the dramatic increase in C-12 content created by our burning fossil fuels) means that future generations might not be able to easily use carbon dating to date objects from our era.
There's much more other stuff, including a discussion of various theories of how the first single-celled creatures created, to the creation of Eukaryotes. It's mostly good, though Hazen is all too fond of his "symphony" metaphor and tries to use music terminology throughout, which was annoying at times.

Nevertheless, good stuff and well worth the easy listening (I listened to the audio book edition).


Monday, January 13, 2020

Review: Sorcerer to the Crown

Sorcerer to the Crown is a mash up of Jane Austen with a dash of the Napoleonic wars. The setting is a world in which magic exists, and that England even has a royal sorcerer as an official position. To prevent the world from drifting too far off history, the story has it such that sorcerers on both sides are forsworn from entering the battlefield.

Into this milleu, the plot revolves around a couple of outsiders: an African ex-slave who through a sequence of unlikely events becomes the royal sorcerer, and a child abandoned by her father when he drowns and brought up in a magical finishing school for girls. The two characters meet, interact, and of course have adventures that reveal all their secrets to each other.

The writing was transparent, the plot moves quickly (unlike say, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, where the plot moved at such a glacial pace that I abandoned the book long before my library loan period was up). All the words are spelled English-style, rather than American style, lending the book a nicely English flavor.

Recommended as a light airplane novel. Too many attempts to write fantasy have drowned in recent years due to annoying affectations in the writing style, so it's important to single out transparent prose when you see it.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Review: Talking to Strangers

Talking to Strangers is Malcolm Gladwell's book about making sense of other people, and why we're so easily fooled. Written in his trademark, breezy style, it's a fast and easy read that nevertheless provides some color for some of the famous incidents you might have read about/heard about, while not providing any easy answers.

The story that Gladwell tells is that it's easy for people to fool us because there's a huge penalty for paranoia (the story of Harry Markopolos, who discovered that Bernie Madoff was a fraud but couldn't get the SEC to follow up on it is enlightening --- the poor guy got so paranoid that he ended up carrying a gun and becoming a recluse, convinced that everyone else was in cahoots with Madoff), while there's strong societal pressure to "go along to get along,."

The flip side of it is that if you don't conform to society's idea of how you should behave in certain circumstances (like Amanda Knox, whose roommate was murdered), then you're going to pay a penalty for not behaving that way and people will be suspicious of you no matter what, even if you're perfectly innocent.

Then Gladwell dives off into meandering themes: alcohol (Brock Turner), suicide (Sylvia Plath), and finally policing (Sandra Bland). Gladwell nicely avoids the nice and pat answers (such as the Paul Eckman micro-expression stuff which has by now been well and goodly debunked) and points out that people are so bad at judging facial expressions that a face to face interview is much worse than not meeting someone in person.

Well worth the short time you'll spending reading the book. Recommended.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Review: Permanent Record

Permanent Record is Edward Snowden's account of his career with the CIA and NSA as an independent contractor/employee and how he came to become a whisteblower of mass surveillance. Maybe for someone who hasn't been in Silicon Valley for a while the story about mass surveillance might be a new one, but I think anyone who hasn't lived under a rock over the past decade or so has realized that the private sector is probably the biggest offender of privacy, and that the public in general, is pretty OK with the so-called invasion of privacy.

The deeper story for me, of course, is how much the IT outsourcing of the CIA and NSA to the private sector has probably meant that those organizations have lost control of the critical infrastructure surrounding their work.

In any case, I'm a firm advocate of the Transparent Society view of privacy. I don't think anyone should have any privacy, least of all the rich and powerful.  I think that for all intents and purposes we have already lost privacy, and the right thing to do is to point the same technologies towards the politically/materialistically powerful and hold them accountable for the world we're in.

Did I enjoy the book? It was good reading, but I found Snowden's pontificating tiresome --- at no point did he point out how the alphabet-soup government agencies did anything particularly egregious, compared to what Alphabet/Facebook companies have done. Certainly if my children did what he did, my reaction would be: "What? For what gain? Who have you benefited?"