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Thursday, July 30, 2020

Review: The Road

I finally tried reading The Road again, this time keeping in mind that it was one of the inspirations for The Last of Us. It's a surprisingly short novel, but once I thought about the purpose of the novel it made sense that it had to be short.

The entire novel is written as a series of vignettes. Every sentence is short, and each vignette is meant to contribute to a specific mood. The setting is the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe that's apparently irredeemable,  and the plot, such as it were, revolves around a father and son traveling south in search of... something.

Much has been written about the relationship between father and son in this novel, but for me, it all rings false. The conversations I've had with my own children have never shied away from difficult truths or attempts to maintain the innocence of the children, and I cannot imagine behaving the way the father in the novel does to his children.

The reaction of society in this post-apocalyptic world is also uniquely American. There's a strong sense of "every man for himself" and the assumption that everyone you meet is evil, which of course turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Other cultures novels depict teamwork and strong attempts to rebuild society and civilization. I definitely much prefer David Brin's The Postman over McCarthy's vision. Go read that one instead!

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Review: Lock Laces

I'm not one of those people who believes in shoe laces. I gave up on them several years ago when I switched to shoes that didn't need them, and I've never met a pair of shoe laces that weren't more trouble than they're worth. The problem is, many kids shoes (especially the nice waterproof ones from Columbia) come with shoe laces.

I was about to return a particularly nice pair when I decided to search and see if there were ways to retrofit them. Indeed, Amazon carries Lock Laces: these are elastic laces that you lace onto a shoe, then you run a toggle lock through them, cut off the excess, and then clip off the ends so they don't fray. For a nice fit, you'd fit your kids' feet in the shoe and lace it up nice and snug before cutting off the excess.

It's very rare that I like a product so much that I'll go immediately buy 2 more. But that's what happened with these: I'm going to upgrade Boen's cycling shoes and Bowen's Columbia Waterproofs with these.

Highly recommended!

Monday, July 27, 2020

Review: Swearing is Good For You

Swearing is Good For You is Emma Byrne's debut book about the research and science behind swearing. It turns out that Byrne is actually a computer scientist and has no special knowledge of linguistics or etymology. Her approach to this book is therefore that of a "survey study" approach, where she reads a ton of related papers in the field and then regurgitates them at you. The topics are grouped in a few obvious fashions: medical (tourette's), workplace, social, and foreign languages. Each topic is covered in shallow fashion, with references to the actual research and study, but Byrne herself has not really contributed anything substantial in this field.

If you're looking for a survey book as a jumping off point to deeper study, this might be OK. As it is I came away from the book feeling very meh.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Review: The Algebra of Happiness

I read The Four and found it enjoyable enough to consider other Scott Galloway books. He's irreverent and fun, so I tried The Algebra of Happiness.

Written in much the same style, and also with no academic rigor, Galloway reflects on life, success, happiness, and kids. Here's the closest thing to real insight you're going to get out of the book:
The mortgage tax deduction is one of the costliest taxbreaks in America. Another? Lower taxation on capital gains, versus ordinary income. These are both positioned as “American”: homeownership and investing. They are simply transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich. Who owns homes and stocks? Wealthy old people. Who rents and doesn’t have assets that qualify for capital gains treatment? The young and the poor. (Kindle Loc 1175)
The rest of the book (mostly short, one page chapters that look like they were ripped out of a blog post)  is mostly anecdotes, little stories, with maybe at most a pithy moral attached to the story. For instance, I've often noted that I find outdoors people who've overcome challenges in nature more real in some way than people who've conquered the corporate world mostly because you can't fool nature or politic against it. Galloway's equivalent insight turns it into a block-headed truism about propagation of species:
WE HAVE friends, a couple, who lost an extended family member to ALS. Soon after, they took stock of their blessings and asked each other, “What could we do to better seize the moments that are our life?” The husband is an adventurer and proposed that, with their three kids, they circumnavigate the globe in a high-tech catamaran. This would be insane if they weren’t both uber-competent people whom others trust with their lives and livelihoods (she’s a doc, he’s a CEO). Even so, cruising around on the open ocean supported by two giant boogie boards feels a tad crazy. They did a test run, a week at sea, which I followed closely on Instagram. The night watches, rough seas, engine trouble . . . all of it. I didn’t get it. This seemed more like punishment than taking life by the horns. And then, in one image, it became clear. The husband’s joy was evident, even in 2D. To be with his family, applying their skills, strength, and wits to embrace and conquer nature made him glow. No filter. Partners who can take what they’ve built together and throw the full force of that at each other’s happiness are likely the root of our prosperity as a species. The most rewarding things in life aren’t accoutrements or our technological progress (Cartier or Boeing) but things that have been baked into us over millions of years to augment the species. (Kindle loc 997)
I'd take a hard pass on this book, unless you want the equivalent of brainless TV entertainment.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Review: Hikenture Sleeping Bag Stuff Sack

I'd somehow lost my stuff sack for the North Face Blue Kazoo, so I looked for a stuff sack to replace it. The Hikenture came up on my Amazon search results, and was a fairly reasonable price so I bought the 20L bag. I probably could have done with the 14L bag, as it turned out that I could stuff both the Blue Kazoo and the REI 0 degree down bag into it! With just the blue Kazoo, I can cinch down the straps until there's no more room, and the bag feels suitably compressed. I could probably put more stuff in it as well. Easy to use, well made, and not an absurd price. Recommended.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Review: Knizia's Lord of the Rings Board Game

With shelter in place, I had the kids at home nearly all the time. I started working through some of the board games I'd bought to play with adults, and came upon Reina Knizia's original Lord of the Rings board game. It was a cooperative game, so the 2 kids were unlikely to kill each other over who won.

The game itself is very abstract, with very light theming. You get a bunch of tiles, you draw them, handle the event, play your 2 cards, and then play moves on. There's a large amount of cooperation and sacrifice, but many events are randomly out of your control. With adults I don't recall playing it more than a few times.

But boy, the kids took to it. Not only did Bowen and Boen got into it, they broke open my unwatched Extended Edition movie trilogy and watched all of them. Then Bowen got out his Kindle and started reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings simultaneously in tandem.

With that kind of response, I can recommend this game, but upon doing a search on Amazon realize that it's now out of print and good condition versions of the game fetch a pretty penny! (Mine are not in good condition, so I'm blase about the kids abusing it, but I will tell them that the board game is out of print and cannot be bought any more!)

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Review: The Masked Rider

I started listening to The Masked Rider before the COVID19 shelter in place orders, and after that got so distracted by various items that I forgot to listen to the audio book, so my memory of the book is kinda disjointed.

The book describes a guided tour Neil Peart took long before the events of Ghost Rider, organized by  David Mozer. I'm not a huge fan of guided/organized bike tours, but for a trip in Africa I would make an exception, but with Peart's trip report, I can certainly see why I've avoided those trips. The small group dynamics is painful, with annoying clashes of personality and disparate riding abilities, which would tax the patience of a saint.

Peart's personality in this book is completely different than that of Ghost Rider --- it's at times larconic, sarcastic, and even unsympathetic and racist in certain moments, describing the culture of most Africans as people who aspire to and want the nice material things in life that North Americans have (Peart is Canadian) but unwilling to do the work (e.g., practicing drumming) to achieve them. There are repeated encounters with locals where Peart repeats this statement.

The days of the tours are described well, but it's also clear that an adventure tour in Africa isn't for the faint of heart. The days are warm and hot (they do take the pains to start early) and the sleeping conditions could make life tough on top of the challenges of the bike tours. The encounters with local officials are a massive pain, and even exiting the country via the airport was fraught with bureaucracy and officials asking for their palms to be greased. I didn't get much of a sense that there was a lot of the joy of cycling to be found anywhere in Africa, or at least Cameroon. I remember my bike tour in South Africa being OK but not something I'd be in a hurry to repeat, especially with kids towing along

If I ever consider doing a tour of Africa by bike, I'll probably make myself listen to this book again just to remind myself what a dumb (and expensive) idea that would be. It would save me a lot of money. Recommended!

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Review: Katadyn BeFree water filter

My last filter was a Katadyn Virustat, but the product is out of stock and replacement filters are also similarly impossible to find. The replacement is the Katadyn BeFree, which does away with the virus elimination stage of the previous device, but in exchange gives you a collapsible bottle and a filter that does not need to be replaced monthly. Just dry it out between trips, and it should be good for 1000 liters.

The bottle is indeed very light at 63g. The instructions must be read carefully, as there are a few counter intuitive ways where you might break it: for instance, you cannot run the filter under a tap horizontally, as it might destroy it! Similarly, when squeezing water through the bottle, take care not to squeeze the plastic filter as well. And of course, it won't kill viruses, but it does impart a somewhat sweet taste to the water.  In typical Swiss fashion, the bottle nozzle comes with a cap so you can't easily contaminate it. You can drink directly from the bottle, but there's no way to carry the bottle easily (except by hand), so the intention is that you use it to filter water into other containers that you then drink from.

Other than the virus thing, everything about this filter is better than the previous models I was using. Water flows freely, the bottle is much lighter and the collapsible feature is very nice. With this weight, you can carry 2 in case you break one, but if you read the instructions carefully there's no reason you would break one unless the water you're filtering is very badly soiled. This thing deserves the rave reviews and the $40 MSRP.


Monday, July 13, 2020

Review: Amazon Commercial Vinyl Tape

When you have a triplet with 2 kids, what tends to happen is that any weakness in the bar tape will get picked apart until the tape unravels. The solution, of course, is to get electrical tape and tape it up again. In the past, I've always bought the big 3M rolls (around $5/pop at the local hardware store), used it a few times, and then lost it again. During COVID19, I couldn't find the tape again, so went to buy some on Amazon.

I've had pretty good luck with Amazon Basics stuff in the past, and this time saw that Amazon has a different "Commercial" brand that makes tape. It even comes in many different colors, none of which is black.

$4.30 buys you a pack of 10, in 5 different colors. You can see from the pictures that the amount of tape in each roll is much less than that of a 3M roll, but thinking about it, this is actually much more useful as a result: each roll is significantly lighter, so you can bring it while touring. (In general, I always travel with some tape in case hotel rooms have blinking lights on TVs that can't be turned off, in addition to the fix-it situations with handlebar tape and the light) The different colors mean that you can use a color coding scheme if you need to tape together wires, etc. And the total amount of tape is probably more than a $5 roll of 3M black tape. And of course, having 10 rolls means that you're more likely to be able to find the tape and not spend $5 every time you have a taping job. Amazon's product managers are the few PMs I have respect for --- they seem to actually make stuff that I need, as opposed to stuff that's fashionable for other people (I don't care that black doesn't match my handlebar tape on one side vs the other)


Friday, July 10, 2020

Review: MSR Freelite 3 person tent

I bought the MSR Freelite 3 person tent from REI during a sale for about half the MSRP. At 3 pounds 7 ounces it was on a per person basis even lighter than my tried and tested Stephenson Warmlite 2R.  The material felt so light that I bought the custom footprint (also on sale), which at 7 ounces is still very light on a per person basis. Boen wasn't quite ready to go backcountry camping until this year, however, so we didn't try it until recently, though I'd set it up once on the lawn just to make sure it came with all the pieces.

Set up in the field was tricky. Putting together the tent pole (singular, just one) was a snap, as all the shock-corded pieces came together crisply and satisfyingly. But the tent is asymetrical and after you lay it down you still have to remember to swing the T piece and put the tent up. The tent is not free-standing, so you cannot pitch it on say, granite: it requires a minimum of 6 stakes to set up properly --- preferably more as the rainfly has guylines that will need to be tensioned when rain or high winds are expected.

Our first trip was in surprisingly cold weather, and we woke up dry but there was condensation on the fly. Our camping companion's tent had the same problem though, so I'd just chalk that up to the conditions. On our second trip, the tent stayed dry all night and all morning. To be honest, if you're camping in California, it's quite possible to not encounter rain for the lifetime of the tent, and UV will probably destroy the rain fly after 10 years.

Taking down the tent is much easier than putting it up, the only problem being that the stakes that come with the tent, being red, are very difficult to see if you make the mistake of leaving them on the ground and just unhooking the loops from the stakes to take down the tent first. Solution? Pull the stakes first before dealing with the rest of the tent.

I wouldn't pay MSRP for this tent, but at 50% off? It's a steal and comes recommended.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Review: Born Standing Up

Born Standing Up is Steve Martin's memoir of his time as a comedian and why he gave up stand up comedy. Contrary to my expectation, it wasn't a very funny book. What does come through is how much his relationship with his father affected his life:
MY FATHER, GLENN VERNON MARTIN, died in 1997 at age eighty-three, and afterward his friends told me how much they had loved him. They told me how enjoyable he was, how outgoing he was, how funny and caring he was. I was surprised by these descriptions, because the number of funny or caring words that had passed between my father and me was few. He had evidently saved his vibrant personality for use outside the family. (Page 19)
The story of how he went from performing as a demonstrator at the Disneyland Magic Shop to becoming a full time stand up comedian is low key and interesting: I've never actually seen him live (or even recorded), though I don't remember him being particularly funny in the movies where I saw him.

What was fascinating was his decision to quit at the peak of his success:
 Though the audiences continued to grow, I experienced a concomitant depression caused by exhaustion, isolation, and creative ennui. As I was too famous to go outdoors without a discomforting hoopla, my romantic interludes ceased because I no longer had normal access to civilized life. The hour and a half I spent performing was still fun, but there were no band members, no others onstage, and after the show, I took a solitary ride back to the hotel, where I was speedily escorted by security across the lobby. A key went in a door, and boom: the blunt interior of a hotel room. Nowhere to look but inward. I’m sure there were a hundred solutions. I could have invited friends to join me on the road, or asked a feel-good guru to shake my shoulders and say, “Perk up, you idiot,” but I was too exhausted to communicate, and it seemed like a near-coma was the best way to spend the day. This was, as the cliché goes, the loneliest period of my life. I was caught and I could not quit, because this multi-zeroed income might last only a moment. I couldn’t imagine abandoning something I had worked so hard to craft. I knew about the flash in the pan, I had seen it happen to others, and I worried about it happening to me. In the middle of all this, I saw that the only way I could go, at best, was sideways. I wasn’t singing songs that you hum forever; I was doing comedy, which is as ephemeral as the daily newspaper. Onstage I was no longer the funniest I ever was; my shelf life was expiring. (Pg. 183)
So that's why comedians frequently are depressed --- the nature f the job seems counter-productive to having a good social life. Towards the end he of the book he realized he'd stopped doing comedy:
 I had become a party host, presiding not over timing and ideas but over a celebratory bash of my own making. If I had understood what was happening, I might have been happier, but I didn’t. I still thought I was doing comedy. During this time, I asked a woman to dinner, and she accepted. After the salad course, she started talking about her boyfriend. “You have a boyfriend?” I asked, puzzled. “Yes, I do.” “Does he know you’re out with me?” I asked. “Yes, he does.” “And what does he think of that?” “He thinks it’s great!” I was now famous, and the normal rules of social interaction no longer applied. (Pg. 185)
The book is filled with interesting insights --- and yes, he does eventually reconcile with his parents. Worth the short reading time. Recommended.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Yosemite/Hetch Hetchy Ranchiera Falls

Yosemite just re-opened with massive numbers of restrictions, including reservations required for day-entry, which meant that for the first time in ages, I would consider a visit in the summer. The drive-in permits are first come first serve, but I had my eyes on the wilderness permits, which are available only by lottery.

I submitted 2 applications, one starting on the 3rd (which was a holiday), and one starting on the 4th. For each one, I listed Cathedral Lakes and Sunrise Lakes as my first two choices, and Ranchiera Falls as my second. My application for the 3rd was denied, but my application for the 4th came through for Ranchiera Falls in Hetch Hetchy, a place I had never explored in Yosemite National Park. I hurriedly made arrangements to borrow a bear canister, acquire backpacking equipment for Xiaoqin, and reservations for a hotel on the 3rd, since she didn't want to stay at the Backpackers Campground the night before.

The Wilderness Permit actually lets you enter the park the day before your stay. We drove from home to the park entrance, getting there around 11:30am, but then discovered that the line at the park entrance was more than a mile long. What happened was that they're indeed checking everyone's permit against both a computer database and a photo ID before you're even allowed to buy your entrance permit.
Once in the park, the experience was wonderful compared to previous visits. Vistas like the tunnel view and Bridal Veil falls had plenty of parking, though attractions close to park lodging like the Yosemite falls were still full of people.
We stayed in the park until late and then stayed at the Yosemite West Gate Lodge, buying awful take out from the diner next door. After so long in shelter-in-place order, it felt strange to see a restaurant with indoor seating, so we opted to eat in our hotel room, after the requisite 20 minute airing out of the place.

The next morning, we woke up early put everything in the trunk, and then drove out to Hetch Hetchy. The drive through the National Forest was pretty, and one location was so stunning I had to stop for a few pictures.

I expected to be one of the first people waiting at the Hetch Hetchy entrance when it opened at 8am, but there was already a line there with 5-6 cars ahead of us. When the gate opened we all drove through but there was still a 10 minute wait, with the rangers checking on our permits even though we already had our paid for entry-permit hung on our windshield. The number of wilderness permits handed out hasn't changed despite the situation, and the backpackers parking lot was full so we had to use the overflow parking area.
Knowing what I know now, I should have just driven my family down to the dam, unloaded the backpacks, and then driven the loop back to drop off excess food at the bear lockers before hiking back down myself. It would have saved about half a mile of extra walking with packs on, which everyone complained about., Even I felt the load, since I was carrying 3 sleeping bags, 2 tents (my plan to use the hammock for camping was derailed because REI's expedited shipping option for the mosquito netting for my ENO doublenest didn't live up to its promise --- one of many reasons why I feel punished every time I buy from anyone not Amazon), Boen's sleeping pad, clothing for both kids including wet suits, and all the other sundries including the hammock and straps, which Bowen had volunteered to carry but whined so much about that I took it off him by the time we got to the dam.

Despite starting by 9:30am, the day was already warm when we crossed the tunnel onto the trail proper. I'd started everyone on relatively little water, reasoning that the waterfall was only 2.5 miles away. There were patches of shade where we could rest, but the wide exposed areas had the best views and we all ran out by the time we got to the waterfall. I dug out the BeFree water filter out of my backpack and filled everyone's bottles and brought my camelbak bladder up to 2 liters for good measure. A woman came up and asked if I felt safe drinking the water straight out of the falls: apparently the BeFree looked so much like a water bottle that she didn't notice the filter.

Past the waterfall, the climbing started, taking us over the ridgelines that characterized the area. The view of the dam started retreating behind us until it disappeared completely. The number of hikers had also dropped by a lot. When the elevation started dropping I thought we were close and was heartened by the sound of running water but it turned out to be Tiltill Creek, about a mile but some elevation away from Rancheria Falls. The trail passed through a heavily burned section, which added insult to injury as our shade was taken away from us during the hottest time of the day.
By the time we got to the view of the Rachiera Creek apron, we'd all run out of water again, but fortunately the campground was shaded. A lot of spots were taken so we had no choice but to take one within sight of the main trail. With shade, the pressing need for water was not as urgent so I setup the hammock, pitched the tents, inflated most of the pads, and then we got everything ready to go visit the river, which was full of backpackers soaking to stay cool.

It was cold as a Sierra creek could be, but with wet suits the kids could stay in there far longer than I could, and I started setting up for dinner. Once the kids saw me setup they suddenly became hungry, and we ate all the backpacking dinners I brought with us, my favorite flavor being Sweet and Sour Pork, which is sadly now out of stock and available only at exorbitant prices.

After dinner, Bowen went for another swim while Boen couldn't wait to play with the tent and went back, but when he came back and saw Bowen in the river again he insisted on joining Bowen, and what could I do but put on my swim suit and join them!
It was surprisingly late by the time we went back to the tents but now the mosquitoes were out in force, so we completely our evening setup, with the sight of bear poop on the trail making me super paranoid about putting the bear canister far away from the tents, and went to bed. Despite opening the fly on the tent to the maximum extent it still felt warm and I tossed and turned a bit before dozing off with my CPAP machine running off the battery. (I'd thought about leaving it behind and saving the 1100g, but then realized that after I was done with the trip I'd have to drive for 4 hours to get home and decided it wasn't worth the risk)

I woke up at 6:00am the next morning seeing mosquitoes gathered on the mosquito netting on the tent, justifying my decision to bring 2 tents. We ate a quick breakfast, and quickly tore everything down as fast as I could for an 8:15am start. Despite that start we still felt warm in the burnt area, but once back in the shade it felt nice, and we could feel a nice headwind blowing towards us cooling us off. It had taken us 6 hours of walking to get to Ranchiera Falls the day before, but we were going at a far faster pace today with the slightly cooler temperatures and the mostly downhill walk. I slipped on a rock and skinned my knee, but it was a minor wound and I'd luckily brought a first aid kit with antibiotic cream.

At the falls again we still had sufficient water, and so pushed on, getting back to the tunnel at noon. Being smarter than the day before, I left the backpacks, wife and kids at the dam in the shade of a tree and walked back unladened to the car to drive down and pick everyone up.
Strangely enough, the mileage yesterday was more than the mileage today, and my guess was that spending a lot of time resting in the shade causes GPS jitter that grants you more miles for the same distance.

If I had to do it all over again, I'd stay overnight at Hetch Hetchy at the backpackers camp so I could get an earlier start, and also drive everyone else to start at the dam to avoid the extra half a mile of pack hiking. I would also avoid giving Boen the Camelbak --- he'd done so well with it on the previous trip, but this time I ended up carrying it awkwardly. Nevertheless, as a 5 year old he's now already done tougher hiking trips than his brother ever did at ages 6 or 7. This was a challenging trip because of environmental conditions, and there really aren't any easier hikes in the Hetch Hetchy area, so we probably won't revisit until the kids are older.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is a history of the eponymous character. It's pretty comprehensive, and doesn't just cover the founding and expansion of the empire, but also its decline and eventual breakup.

Here's the deal: nomadic tribes have obviously been the norm through most of human history. What's unusual is when someone manages to organize them despite the nomadic tribes' inherent instability: when kinship ties are more important than anything else, unity cannot easily be achieved. The book probably could have been organized better, but here's my summary of it:

  • Genghis Kahn managed to organize the tribes not only through fighting prowess and political maneuvers, but also by changing the organizational principles from kinship ties to as close a meritocracy as could be found in those environments. In fact, Kahn went so far to avoid nepotism that as he aged he'd realized that he'd neglected his children: 
"The fighting among his sons made him keenly aware of how much work he needed to do to preserve the empire after his death. His sons did not match up to the needs of the empire. While pursuing his great quest to unite the steppe tribes and conquer every threat around him, he had never devoted the attention he should have to his sons, and now they were all reaching middle age and were still unproven men." (Kindle Loc 2570)
 More conversations and quotes survive from this phase of Genghis Khan’s life than any other, and they show a growing concern but lessening power to control his family. After too long a neglect of their education, he tried to teach his sons everything at once, and in doing so he struggled to articulate lessons he had learned and ideas he had but had not verbalized clearly. He was accustomed to giving orders, not making explanations. (Kindle Loc 2587)
 That engendered sufficient loyalty to him personally that he effectively united all the tribes and organized them to conquer the large swathes of empire that probably wouldn't have been feasible through a purely dynastic environment.
Just as Genghis Khan promoted men from the lowest levels of society to the highest ranks of leadership based on their skills and achievements rather than birth, Khubilai’s administration constantly promoted men from the lowest jobs, such as cooks, gatekeepers, scribes, and translators. Both the promotion of low-ranking men and the movement of them into new areas increased their dependence on and loyalty to their Mongol overlords and lessened their connection to the people ruled. (Kindle Loc 3957)

  • The fast moving nomads could out maneuver traditional armies because they didn't depend on supply chains being dragged behind them, but also because they effectively could pasture and hunt as they go. This also naturally limited the extent of their empire, but also explained their approach as they expanded: they would trample fields and burn cities so that those areas would revert to pasture, ensuring that they had a line of retreat.
  • Similarly, they were big on religious freedom, and welcomed all religions equally as long as they were willing to be subservient to the state. I did not know that the Mongolian court had Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Taoists all present. Their debates never turned into religious wars, which was remarkable.
  • They were very willing to co-opt skills and people who would help them with administration, including clerks, translators, engineers, and so forth. Again, this was unusual, but again, the Mongols themselves only developed written language after they'd encountered other civilizations.
  • The empire was finally brought down by the bubonic plague, which broke up the connections that the far flung empire had made:

With each group cut off from the other, the interlocking system of ownership collapsed. The plague had devastated the country, demoralized the living, and, by cutting off trade and tribute, deprived the Mongol Golden Family of its primary source of support. For nearly a century, the Mongols had exploited their mutual material interests to overcome the political fault lines dividing them. Even while sacrificing political unity, they had maintained a unified cultural and commercial empire. (Kindle Loc 4726)
 All in all, the book definitely dispelled my understanding of what the Mongols were like, and was worth the read. Recommended.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Review: Death by Black Hole

Death by Black Hole is such a great title that even if it hadn't been written by Neil de Grasse Tyson I would have checked it out. As it was I figured it would be worth a laugh if nothing else.

The book turns out to be a collection of columns from Natural History magazine, and most of them have nothing to do with black holes. Unlike books that were written with an objective in mind, the book just divides the columns into seven different sections and then organizes them with a curated order so that they're not jarring. But unfortunately, that means that many individual "chapters" are repetitive of one another, and he never gets into anything that can't be done within a couple of thousand words. As a result, the book gets quite tiresome in places, and probably could have been a hundred pages shorter if more effort had been put into it.

The book is probably at its best when it explains science to the lay person:
Science is occasionally accused of being a closed-minded or stubborn enterprise. Often people make such accusations when they see scientists swiftly discount astrology, the paranormal, Sasquatch sightings, and other areas of human interest that routinely fail double-blind tests or that possess a dearth of reliable evidence. But don’t be offended. Scientists apply this same level of skepticism to ordinary claims in the professional research journals. The standards are identical. Look what happened when the Utah chemists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed in a press conference to have created “cold” nuclear fusion on their laboratory table. Scientists acted swiftly and skeptically. Within days of the announcement it was clear that no one could replicate the cold fusion results that Pons and Fleischmann claimed. Their work was summarily dismissed. (Kindle Loc 4688)
The question though, is that is the lay person likely to read Natural History magazine? Anyway, some of the less relevant (non-black hole) stuff was fun to read, like when he criticized James Cameron in person for the night sky in the the movie, Titanic:
So after I whined for ten minutes on the subject, he replied, “The film, worldwide, has grossed over a billion dollars. Imagine how much more money it would have made had I gotten the night sky correct!” (Kindle Loc 4426)
Yet later on the director's crew called him and asked him to help fix the night sky for a remastered edition of the movie.

So, the book wasn't a total waste of time, just not as interesting (or as short) as it could have been. Mildly recommended. Would have been a better match for paper books, so people could look at the cover and say, "Wow, cool title!"