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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?"