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Thursday, December 31, 2020

Installation Review: Swytch E-bike Conversion Kit (Tour edition)

 Last year, I saw the Swytch Ebike conversion kit on Kickstarter $780 + custom fees (around $30). The reasons to get this over say, a tour capable Calfee conversion were as follows:

  • light weight - mid-drive e-bikes currently weigh over 40 pounds. The conversion kit promised to be 3kg (or 6.6 pounds) with an additional 3.3 pounds for the Tour battery pack, which would grant you a 100km range, more than sufficient for even the most rigorous western wheeler LDT ride.
  • water-proofing - Calfee's conversion was not guaranteed to be waterproof, while the swytch was guaranteed to be waterproof
Little did I know the kit would take more than a year to arrive, between pandemic and the fact that few people ordered the 100km battery pack and 650B wheels (to fit the Cheviot) so we were among the last to receive our kit.

When the kit arrived, I took it out and scratched my head, because neither the battery pack or the wheel setup looked anything like the instructions on the Swytch website. Apparently, the Tour battery pack was an older model, but it wasn't too hard to figure out. I plugged in the battery overnight to charge. Then I figured out that I had to use scissors to cut the hub protectors and zip ties so that I could pull off the nuts and washers.

The worst thing about the Swytch kit is that the axle is designed for 10mm dropouts. My guess is that the target audience is someone who wants to convert a Walmart/Target bike-like object into an e-bike.  Standard bicycle quick release dropouts are 9mm. The net result was that I had to file off 0.5mm of material on 4 sides of the flat part of the axle. Before you ask, this was indeed sanctioned by Swytch. The process took the better part of 2 hours, using a rectangular file, checking frequently for fit. When done the axle fit snugly, and I attached the washers.

After that, the rest of the kit was comparatively easy: snap over the PAS sensor onto the crank, attach the sensor, and run cables up to the battery mount. Looking at the design, I would have mounted the battery on the bottle cage, but of course, many women's bikes have room for only one bottle cage, so it's probably all for the best to have a dedicated handlebar mount, which also serves to slow down most bikes' handling, which is what you want for an e-bike. The PAS sensor secure ring looked ugly, but it stayed on when jumping a curb, so I guess it's better than it looks.

The bar mount, however, is a mess. I had to cut the rubber spacers that came with the device to get it to mount, and the nut and allen head screw came with no way to secure the nut while turning the screw --- a better design would have been a captured nut in a shaped cavity --- again, this is the sign of a kickstarter project that didn't have a good mechanical engineer onboard. I eventually fixed this by getting out a pair of needle nose pliers, and holding it securely. For one of the screws I flipped the nut and bolt positions to get more leverage to tighten it down properly. I tried scheduling a support call to get through the above issues, but their Zoom technician never showed up at the appointed time, so it's a good thing I figured out how to do this without help.

Of course, the kickstand that came with the Rivendell couldn't handle the extra weight of the battery, so I ended up ordering a new double-leg kickstand and installing that as well.

How does it ride? Surprisingly well. The power provided is substantial (250W), and the relatively light weight of the entire kit didn't change the handling of the Cheviot much. The wire sticking out of the hub is unsightly, but it's supposed to bw waterproof, and the PAS sensor is surprisingly sensitive - even a little bit of pedaling will trigger it, which is important to making the e-assist feel responsive --- I would be comfortable starting this bike on the wrong gear on a steepish hill, which I didn't expect to.

My wife complained that having the weight on the front of the bike makes descents feel scarily fast. But of course, weight is weight, whether it's on the front, center or bottom of the bike is going to make descents fast. A lower center of gravity (like on mid-drive bikes) of course is much better than having a battery cantilevered on the handlebars, but that's going to take a purpose built design.

I would be comfortable recommending this kit to anyone using a bicycle for short commutes or around-town riding, where you could opt for the lighter battery (saving 3 pounds). For longer rides on a regular basis, a purpose built e-bike would be better, but now you're looking at more than twice the price and much higher weight! Note that if you don't want to wait a year and are willing to put up with almost twice the weight, you can get a similar kit from a USA for about $900 (without handlebar mount but with a throttle in addition to the PAS sensor).

Monday, December 28, 2020

Review: Post-Truth

 Mike Sojka recommended Post-Truth as a quick short read that explains the Trump era. It is indeed a quick read and covers many topics of interest to current events, tying them together in ways that I've never seen before.

The book was published in 2018, so it covers the events of the 2016 election, but predates the existence of COVID19. McIntyre points out that the era of news being supposed to be accurate is actually an anamoly:

for most of its history the news media has been partisan. Pamphlets were political. Newspapers had owners with business interests and other biases. Indeed, has this ever really changed? Yet we feel entitled to objectivity and are shocked when our news sources do not provide it. But have we been supporting this expectation of fact-based nonpartisan coverage with our dollars? Or really—before the election woke us up—even paid close attention to what was being lost? It is easy to blame technology and claim that “these days it is different.” But technology has always had a role in fake news. (Kindle Loc 1540)

 He points out that the blatant lies being told by the Republican side isn't about misinformation per se:

the goal of propaganda is to build allegiance.42 The point is not to communicate information but to get us to “pick a team.”43 To the extent that Trump is using some of the classic techniques of propaganda (stirring up emotions, denigrating critics, scapegoating, seeking division, and fabricating), Stanley warns that we may be headed down the path of authoritarian politics. The goal of propaganda is not to convince someone that you are right, but to demonstrate that you have authority over the truth itself. When a political leader is really powerful, he or she can defy reality. This may sound incredible, but it is not the first time we have heard echoes of this even within American politics. Remember when Karl Rove dismissed critics of the George W. Bush administration as part of the “reality-based community”? Rove then followed up with the memorable (and chilling) observation that “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. (Kinde Loc. 1639)

McIntyre also traces the history of how the media fell into the trap set by the conservatives, by  giving equal time on the air to both sides as though there's any legitimacy to the anti-science movement (intelligent design, anti-vax, and now public health):

it serves the interest of those who are engaging in deception to succumb to the idea of false equivalence. When we say “a pox on all your houses” we are playing right into the hands of those who would have us believe that there is no such thing as truth. (Kindle loc 1693)

He even tracks back the post-truth era to the post-modernist attack on science in the form of science wars. Now, my personal belief is that the scientists won a resounding victory in the science wars after Alan Sokal definitively showed that post-modernist criticism is intellectual garbage, but the techniques used by the post-modernists were then quickly adopted by the right wing in its approach to confusing the public about "Intelligent Design" and then later on, the Anti-Vax movement.

Is there any hope of exiting the post-Truth era back to an environment in which truth is valued and there's a shared understanding of facts? McIntyre offers some hope:

The media stopped telling “both sides of the story” about vaccines and autism once there was a measles outbreak in fourteen states in 2015. All of a sudden, the facts of Wakefield’s fraud made better copy. One could almost see the TV hosts’ anxiety over their earlier complicity. Overnight, there were no more split-screen TV debates between experts and skeptics. False equivalence no longer seemed like such a good idea once people started getting hurt. (Kindle Loc 2436)

 empirical evidence suggests that the repetition of true facts does eventually have an effect. Recall here the research of David Redlawsk et al., which we briefly discussed in chapter 3.8 In the subtitle of their paper, they ask the pertinent question, “do motivated reasoners ever get it?” They acknowledge the work of Nyhan, Reifler, and others who have shown that those in the grips of partisan bias are strongly motivated to reject evidence that is dissonant with their beliefs, sometimes even leading to a “backfire effect.” But are there any limits to this?...although misinformed beliefs can be quite stubborn, it is possible to change partisans’ minds when one “hits them between the eyes” over and over with factually correct information.11 It may not be easy to convince people with inconvenient facts, but it is apparently possible. (Kindle Loc 2452-2465)

Unfortunately, as noted above, this book was written pre-COVID.  In the light of recent news reports about how COVID19 patients deny the existence of the coronovirus right until death, I'm not nearly as optimistic as McIntyre is. But at the very least, McIntyre points out that you cannot allow a lie to persist unchallenged, and that's something we need to do more of. It seems that Randall  Munroe was right after all:

Monday, December 21, 2020

Review: The End of Everything

 I picked up The End of Everything because it was on the Smithsonian list of top science books of the year. About 20 pages in I realized it wasn't about natural disasters, but the extrapolation of current known physics into the far future. A lot of what's in this book was covered already by Sean Caroll's lecture series on Time, but Katie Mack is such a great writer with transparent prose and a frequent wry turn of phrase that I kept on reading anyway.

It turns out that it was worth reading, because once she got past the "Big Crunch", the Big Rip"Heat Death", she got to Vacuum Decay, which became much more real than in the past because of the discovery of the Higgs Boson. I'd never seen that covered anywhere before, so the explanation was great and novel (to me).

The rest  of the book goes on to cover string theory, branes, and possible expanding and collapsing universes. The whole thing was so well written you could breeze through it in a couple of days. A good break from the heavy socio-political stuff that I'm reading otherwise. Recommended.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Review: Justice - What's the Right Thing to Do?

 After reading The Tyranny of Merit and discovering that it gave me so much to think about, I decided to see what else Sandel (a Harvard Professor) had written. It turned out that Justice is a spin-off from a class he taught at Harvard (by all accounts a very popular one), so I checked out the book.

I wasn't disappointed. Justice isn't actually a book about law or the legal system, but is actually a book about the philosophy of morals. He covers utilitarianism, libertarianism, Kantian philosophy, John Rawls, and then goes beyond them to discuss Aristotle and teleology, as well as a an exploration of why many people feel the way they do when it comes to issues such as gay marriage.

What I enjoyed about the book is that Sandel bends over backwards to treat each philosophy with respect, and works hard to represent that philosophy as well as he can. At no point does he set up any strawman arguments (I myself would find it hard to avoid being snarky about libertarianism, for instance), and when he points out the strengths and weaknesses of each moral philosophy. He then applies it to the real world with a discussion (for instance) about affirmative action, patriotism, conscription, etc drawing in lessons from court cases as well as how laws evolved and what the consequences are of adopting one approach vs another.

Justice is inescapably judgmental. Whether we’re arguing about financial bailouts or Purple Hearts, surrogate motherhood or same-sex marriage, affirmative action or military service, CEO pay or the right to use a golf cart, questions of justice are bound up with competing notions of honor and virtue, pride and recognition. Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things. (pg. 261)

Sandel does a particularly good job with Immanuel Kant's philosophy of ethics and freedom, and explains why freedom and morality have to be tied together in a deep and fundamental way. I've read a ton of philosophy in the past but no one has explained it as insightfully as he did in this book. I'd also read about John Rawls and have a lot of sympathy with Rawl's approach to justice, but then Sandel does a turnaround and explain why both Rawls and Kant have a blind spot, which is that their philosophies are basically time-free, where each individual is an island with no connection to his past. You might think that's a feature and not a bug, but he points out, for instance as far as patriotism is concerned:

With belonging comes responsibility. You can’t really take pride in your country and its past if you’re unwilling to acknowledge any responsibility for carrying its story into the present, and discharging the moral burdens that may come with it. (pg. 235)

He points out the inherent contradiction when someone claims pride in being American but then turns around and says that reparations for slavery are pointless because no one owns a slave. Either you own your heritage (which means that you also have the responsibility to correct the wrongs of your ancestors) or you shouldn't pretend to value the past at all.

 All in all the book is great. Heck, I'd label it essential. Go get a copy and read it.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Review: The Shadowed Sun

 The Shadowed Sun is N. K. Jemisin's second book set in the world of The Killing Moon. Narratively,  it's a sequel, as the events take place after those of The Killing Moon, and certain characters reappear. However, you could read it independently as well, since all the information you need is retold, though I'm not sure why you would do that, as The Killing Moon is by far the stronger work.

The story revolves around Hanani (a poor choice of  name as it's very close to the dream goddess that's central to the culture, Hananja, so it's easy to confuse), who's an apprentice healer. She's one of the first batch of female priestesses in the church, though the themes of being a woman pioneer only appear (or become apparent) late in the novel.

The writing is clear and compelling as usual for Jemisin, but is also rife full of plot holes that make no sense to me. In particular, it's not clear what the end game of one of the set of villains really would be, and their actions make no sense. There's a post-facto rationalization of the primary religion's exclusion of women from its founding, which also makes no logical sense. Many parts of the background mythology and archaeology are thus ever resolved, leaving me unsatisfied upon reflection after finishing the book.

I still recommend the book, as it's a great read, but I wouldn't tell you that it's heads and shoulders over other fantasies, unlike her other novels.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Review: Poppy! And the Lost Lagooon

 Poppy! And the Lost Lagoon is a comic book that reads a bit like a Tintin pastiche. You encounter Poppy and Colt as they come back to New York from one of their previous adventures, encounter Ramses, speaks with a talking mummy head who then sends them off to another adventure revolving around a McGuffin, some misdirection, and various hijinks.

There's plenty of references to the past (and the Poppy's mysterious grandfather, Pappy) that gets gradually filled in as the story proceeds, and there's even a couple of pages of puzzles for you to figure out, but the puzzle is so badly designed (or the drawing of the key is so poorly matched) that I had a hard time deciphering it.

The art is decent, nothing special --- nothing like the bold lines and colors of a Tintin comic, for instance, and the intrigue just good enough to catch the attention of a 5 year old. (The book is marked for Grade 3-7, but I would consider it a bit on the childish side for my 3rd grader)

Overall, it wasn't a total waste of time (anything that can get Boen to pay attention is good), but a real Tintin comic would be much better.

Monday, December 07, 2020

Review: The Killing Moon

 After reading How Long 'til Black Future Month, I did some research and discovered that The Killing Moon was set in the same world that one of my preferred stories was in, so I checked it out from the library and downloaded it to my Kindle.

The novel fleshes out the world of the short story more, and depicts a world based on ancient Egypt, which I thought was great. In a self-interview at the back of the book, N.K. Jemisin explains why:

I don’t have a problem with medieval Europe. I have a problem with modern fantasy’s fetishization of medieval Europe; that’s different. So many fantasy writers and fans simplify the social structure of the period, monotonize the cultural interactions, treat conflicts as binaries instead of the complicated dynamic tapestry they actually were. They’re not doing medieval Europe, they’re doing Simplistic British Isles Fantasy Full of Lots of Guys with Swords And Not Much Else. Not all medieval European fantasy does this, of course—but enough does that frankly, they’ve turned me off the setting. I might tackle unsimplified medieval Europe myself someday… but honestly, I doubt it. I loved the challenge of writing the Dreamblood books, but I’ve learned that I prefer creating my own worlds to emulating reality. World-building from scratch is easier. (pg. 404)

Indeed, the world of the Nile (even though the book is explicitly set not on the planet Earth) where people talk about how many floods they've seen, is as alien as anything I've read, with priests providing euthanasia as part of their services, along with political intrigue, war, and hidden pasts that are revealed as part of the story in the book.

The characters are great, as is the plot, at many points with me expecting the story to end much differently from it did. If there's any weakness at all, it's that at the climatic point of the novel it felt as though the DM fudged the dice in favor of the players to prevent a TPK, but as a long time DM I'm not opposed to doing that when it fits the story, and in this case it does. The story is complete in and of itself, with no loose endings --- very welcome in this age where novel series have entire books where nothing happen and seem to promote "book series as a subscription based business" as though that's a good thing.

I immediately put a hold on the next book set in this world when I finished this. I'm so glad that my bouncing off one of N.K. Jemisin's other series was an anomaly and not the rule!

Friday, December 04, 2020

Review: The Half-Life of Marie Curie

 The Half-Life of Marie Curie is an Audible audio performance from a play. It revolves around Marie Curie and Hertha Ayron. The play is set in multiple scenes, each separated by time, but mostly set after Curie has won her two Nobel prizes. I disliked the early part of the play, where the focus is on Curie's affairs and so on and so forth. The later parts of the play are quite a bit better, but again, there's too little science and too much personal affairs.

The acting is excellent, backed with excellent special effects and fantastic accents. I learned a little bit about Marie Curie, but I'm not sure it was worth all the time spent listening to it. Maybe I should read a biography instead.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Review: Matador Beast 28 Technical Backpack

 I received a Matador Beast 28 backpack over the summer as corporate swag. I've been using it for mountain biking and hiking as a daypack while exploring with the boys.

It comes with a stuff sack for packing itself, which I've never used, has a separate hydration bladder compartment, and 2 zippered compartments, 2 nearly worthless side pocket, 1 nearly worthless zippered bottom pocket, and one definitely worthless outside cinch pocket. The big pocket does unzip nearly all the way, ensuring easy access to anything inside, which I use for the hammock, hammock strap, lunch, and of course the hydration bladder. A nice feature is that the top of that main compartment has straps for hooking the hydration bladder onto.

The small top zippered pocket gets used for keys, clif  bars, gatorade chews, and anything I didn't want in my pockets. The side pockets are nearly worthless - you can use them for a tubeless tire repair kit or a bike pump,  but the bike pump has a tendency to fall out. The big pocket at the back has no zippers, and is so insecure that anything I put there falls out right away, so I can only assume it's just decoration. Finally, there's a small zipper pocket that I use to put a windshell. It's too small for anything else.

The fit is excellent, with easily adjustable straps. The lack of padding doesn't bother me, and the pack snugly hugs my back and doesn't disrupt any of my bike handling. On hot days, my T-shirts get soaked with sweat, but it's never been enough to bother me. The hip straps are easy enough to use that I use them, which helps a lot. The keys pocket work and work well.

All in all, I'm surprised by how much I used it (and we have plenty of other backpacks to use, so that I keep picking it must mean that I like it), comparing it favorably with the Flash 18 and the Dell Tek backpack, which I used prior to this. I'm not sure I would pay the retail price for this ($90), but the $90 waterproof Freerain 32 version of this backpack would be well worth considering for when my Sea-to-Summit daypack gives out.


Monday, November 23, 2020

2020 Books of the Year

 This year I read around 82 books or so, including a number of re-reads. In the context of the mess that's 2020, reading has both been a solace and an explainer. Without even thinking twice, it's been pretty easy for me to say that the book of the year for me was Democracy in Chains. Why we have the situation we have today and what lies ahead of American Democracy is all in this book, and while the book was depressing and difficult to read, it's well worth your time. Runner up would be The Tyranny of Merit, which while it never gives any good solutions to the problems it raises, raises enough questions that made me rethink how I view a meritocracy. It's also well worth your time.

The best fiction I read this year was probably Dune, but obviously that's cheating since it's a re-read. The best new fiction I read was easily Elysium Fire.  You just can't beat Aliastair Reynolds at his best.

For Audio Books, I highly recommend The Silver Linings Playbook. It's well produced and is the only fictional Audio Book that I'd finished.

Comic Books is another one where the re-read of anything written by Alan Moore is going to kick the pants of anything written in recent years. But I found Superior Spider-man surprisingly good and well worth my time.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Review: How Long 'til Black Future Month?

 How Long 'til Black Future Month? is the first collection of N.K. Jemisin's short stories. I loved her Inheritance Trilogy but bounced off "The Broken Earth" series hard, so the short story collection was a great way to sample many ideas in a short read while reminding myself of how great a story teller she is.

The stories range from science fiction (Robots, AI, etc) to fantasy (with a haunting story about sleep magic in the Narcomancer). While some of her novellas went for the twist ending, in this collection of stories twist endings are actually are. Strangely enough, the later stories for me were not as compelling as her earlier stories, since they became much less about fantasy than about contemporaneous events that (for me at least) still hold trauma after all these years (Katerina , for instance), which distracted me enough from the fantasy elements that she was after.

There are many themes in the stories that are there if you're looking for them (one story depicts a family's encounter with the Faerie Queen as an encounter between Black Americans and White women), but none of the themes are so overbearing that they derail the enjoyability of the short story or the book. Almost all the stories in the first half of the book are so well done that I would recommend them to anyone.


Monday, November 16, 2020

Review: The Tyranny of Merit

 In the wake of the 2020 election, there were several events that puzzled me, such as Joe Biden losing Florida despite the $15 minimum wage passing there. It's easy to claim racism, but again, many of Trump's voters also voted for Obama. Fortunately for me, The Tyranny of Merit showed up from my library and does a pretty good job of at least pointing at an approach to solving that puzzle.

There's no question that American society posits itself to be a meritocracy, and the rhetoric and arguments about college entrance (not to mention the scandals) are usually posed as debates about merit. But Michael Sandel points out that this has two side effects that are deleterious:

  1. The winners of the meritocratic sorting believe (and how could they not) that they deserve all their winnings and earnings, and feel neither humility nor the urge to share their outsized gains from education with their poorer off counterparts.
  2. Those who do not win a good position in society as a result of the above sorting not only do not earn as much, their social position is lower and society keeps blathering about the need to improve educational opportunities to rub it in.
This would be one thing if the resulting elites in society have managed society well, but they have not, and Sandel singles out the center-left parties in both the US and the UK for being particularly at fault:

By the time of Trump’s election, the Democratic Party had become a party of technocratic liberalism more congenial to the professional classes than to the blue-collar and middle-class voters who once constituted its base. The same was true of Britain’s Labour Party at the time of Brexit, and the social democratic parties of Europe. (pg 20)

 Over the past four decades, meritocratic elites have not governed very well. The elites who governed the United States from 1940 to 1980 were far more successful. They won World War II, helped rebuild Europe and Japan, strengthened the welfare state, dismantled segregation, and presided over four decades of economic growth that flowed to rich and poor alike. By contrast, the elites who have governed since have brought us four decades of stagnant wages for most workers, inequalities of income and wealth not seen since the 1920s, the Iraq War, a nineteen-year, inconclusive war in Afghanistan, financial deregulation, the financial crisis of 2008, a decaying infrastructure, the highest incarceration rate in the world, and a system of campaign finance and gerrymandered congressional districts that makes a mockery of democracy. (pg. 28)

As a result, you have the working class supporting policies against the welfare state because they'd already bought into this meritocratic sorting:

For decades, meritocratic elites intoned the mantra that those who work hard and play by the rules can rise as far as their talents will take them. They did not notice that for those stuck at the bottom or struggling to stay afloat, the rhetoric of rising was less a promise than a taunt. This is how Trump voters may have heard Hillary Clinton’s meritocratic mantra. For them, the rhetoric of rising was more insulting than inspiring. This is not because they rejected meritocratic beliefs. To the contrary: They embraced meritocracy, but believed it described the way things already worked. They did not see it as an unfinished project requiring further government action to dismantle barriers to achievement. This is partly because they feared such intervention would favor ethnic and racial minorities, thus violating rather than vindicating meritocracy as they saw it. But it is also because, having worked hard to achieve a modicum of success, they had accepted the harsh verdict of the market in their own case, and were invested in it, morally and psychologically...Trump supporters resented liberals’ rhetoric of rising, not because they rejected meritocracy, but because they believed it described the prevailing social order. They had submitted to its discipline, had accepted the hard judgment it pronounced on their own merits, and believed others should do the same...According to global public opinion surveys, most Americans (77 percent) believe that people can succeed if they work hard; only half of Germans think so. In France and Japan, majorities say hard work is no guarantee of success.32 Asked what factors are “very important to getting ahead in life,” Americans overwhelmingly (73 percent) put hard work first, reflecting the enduring hold of the Protestant work ethic. In Germany, barely half consider hard work very important to getting ahead; in France, only one in four does (pg. 72-74)

I found myself highlighting  segment after segment of this book, because it explained so well the political events of the last 10 years, and also points out that the Democratic party has become disconnected from the working class it wants to represent in terms of policy (universal healthcare, minimum wage, etc) and therefore its candidates now lose the working class despite its policies being much more likely to benefit them than its counterparts. Sandel points out that Democratic representatives are now much more likely to be drawn from the credentialed class than from the uncredentialed:

Turning Congress and parliaments into the exclusive preserve of the credentialed classes has not made government more effective, but it has made it less representative. It has also alienated working people from mainstream parties, especially those of the center-left, and polarized politics along educational lines...Throughout much of the twentieth century, parties of the left attracted those with less education, while parties of the right attracted those with more. In the age of meritocracy, this pattern has been reversed. Today, people with more education vote for left-of-center parties, and those with less support parties of the right. The French economist Thomas Piketty has shown that this reversal has unfolded, in striking parallel, in the U.S., the U.K., and France. (pg. 101)

Just this segment of the book itself is worth reading. The second half of the segment asks the question, what is to be done, and there Sandel doesn't have any magical epiphanies to share. He suggests, for instance, that  elite colleges switch to a lottery system for determining entrance for all qualified applicants. Sure, that could work, but the impact of that would take a long time to be felt. He suggests a system of vocational education and apprenticeship (such as those in Germany) for those who aren't college material, so even bicycle repair or plumbing has dignity and a living wage (of course). He suggests a tax on financial transactions to reduce the outsized gains to the financial industry, which he points out doesn't actually do anything good for people at large. The problem with all these suggestions is that they are already policy statements and goals of The Democratic Party! If the problem is policy, the Democratic party already has those policies. The problem is perhaps that the party has been unsuccessful at getting people who can speak to the working class in representing them and getting those people in front of the voters, and Sandel has no solutions for that.

Nevertheless, the book is full of great points, and has made me rethink my previously unquestioning support for meritocracy. I think it's well worth reading for anyone teasing apart the aftermath of the 2020 elections.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Review: ABLEWE KVM Switch

 I was switching a USB hub between work laptop and home desktop, but thought about how much better my life would be if I could just find a KVM switch. The ABLEWE is around $20, and shipped quickly, arriving in just 2 days. It comes with all the cables needed to hook up to two machines, but no power supply --- you're expected to supply a micro-usb cable and power supply if you need to drive anything power challenged from it. Since I was driving a 4K webcam I chose to use it and it seemed to make a difference. After that, a click of the button switches quickly between one machine and another.

Cheap, fast to install, and works. Can't get better than that!

Monday, November 09, 2020

Review: Jabra Elite 65t Active

 I've actually been somewhat happy with my Pamu wireless headset, with but one caveat, that the carrying case was too big! So when the Jabra Store had a flash sale on an Elite Active 65t for $30, I bought it. The case is definitely smaller than the Pamu, but my first set came DOA from the store. A call to customer service and they replaced it.

The headset can pair with 2 devices, so I can pair it with the work laptop and my phone at the same time, and take zoom calls on the laptop or phone calls on the cell phone. The buttons are fiddly, but I figured out how to work it. The sound quality was OK, nothing spectacular, but the surprise came when I used them on the bike. Despite having a reasonably good seal, the headset leaks noise, so music sounds muddy while riding (you can ride with just one ear bud in, and the master one is on the right, which is what you want, so you can leave the left ear open for traffic). The case is also stiff to open, so you're not going to be able to pull the case out, slide out the ear bud and put it on to take a call --- you definitely have to stop.

Despite that deficiency, the size of the case is so small that I find myself riding with the Jabra in my jersey pocket instead of the Pamu. I find myself reaching for it over the Pamu when receiving phone calls as well. I started this review intending to diss the headset, and as I wrote it discovered that I did use it more than my other ones. Recommended.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Review: havit HV-F2056 Laptop Cooler

 Long gone are the days when companies would issue you a desktop and a laptop so you can have lots of compute power. In fact, nowadays, companies just issue you the latest biggest Macbook Pro and then you're done. The Macbook 16" as far as I can tell, is designed to be thin, but mine came issued with a hexacore. Couple that with working in a non-air conditioned house during COVID19 WFH, and my machine would grind to a halt in the afternoons. The symptom of that is that the kernel task suddenly eats up all your CPU.

I asked IT about it and to my surprise, the recommendation was to buy a laptop cooler. They explicitly point me at the havit, and so I bought it and expensed it. The thing is garish, but lo and behold, machine has never slowed down since. It's annoying that it takes up an additional USB socket on a machine that has too few sockets, and it doesn't have any sensors, so it basically just turns on and stays on, but on the other hand, now my company's getting all the compute power its paying for.

It's cheap, it works, and if you do processor intensive things on your laptop, you should have one.

Monday, November 02, 2020

Review: Bushwhacker Basket Panniers

 I'd been riding the kids to and forth from school and various other activities with my now 25-year old Robert Beckman Panniers. Those panniers are definitely showing signs of wear, and the zippers and compartments while nice when touring, just get in the way of a quick delivery and/or for utility cycling. The Bushwhacker Omaha Basket panniers come in at $65/pair, which makes them a much better deal than say, the Wirecutter recommended Banjo Brothers, which come in at $47 each.

The panniers are wide enough and deep enough to store 2 helmets without any risk of them bouncing out, and definitely can carry extra tall items from the grocery store. The supporting struts aren't super strong, but I tested it with a gallon of milk and it could definitely take another 2 gallons but maybe not 5.

The mounting mechanism sucks, to put it mildly. The integrated hooks wouldn't fit around my tubular steel rack, but fortunately, you could unclip the hook from the D-ring, wrap that around the rack, and clip it back in. It's not something you'd want to do daily, but you wouldn't tour with these panniers anyway. To keep the hook from having a chance of reaching the spokes, you can fold it up and hook it to the bungee, and the panniers are stable enough with sufficiently deep hooks that there's no chance of it falling off unladen during normal activities (don't jump curbs with them on your mountain bike without the hook installed!), and when laden, they wouldn't shift anyway. In my riding with them I didn't detect any sway or shifting attributable to them, but of course, the triplet's sway is largely determined by the boys on the bike anyway!

I was pleasantly surprised by these and by the lifetime warranty offered by the manufacturer. They offer no rain protection but a garbage bag would work if it rains. They're definitely much more convenient for in-and-out quick dropoffs than any other panniers, though obviously for touring, you'd go for the Ortleibs or the Robert Beckman panniers.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Review: The Awakened Kingdom

 I didn't realize that there was a novella called The Awakened Kingdom in The Inheritance Trilogy (which I reviewed: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods). I checked out the entire trilogy from the library because that was the easiest way to get access to the novella.

The story revolves around a new god who thinks her job is to replace one of the previously demised gods. As a newborn, she goes around causing trouble and eventually lands in the world of mortals. She then has to figure out where she really is supposed to fit.

In short form, Jemisin really shows off what she can do. Not only are the twists in the story unexpected (and the story does show off the feminist warrior tribe of the novels well), but when they get taken to the logical conclusion, your conclusion is "of course, but I didn't see it before hand!" Well worth the time.  It got me to re-read The first novel of the trilogy, which is still as readable as ever, and worth your time.


Monday, October 26, 2020

Review: The Paper Magician

 The Paper Magician is available to read for free if you're a Prime member, I checked it out, and to my surprised found myself enjoying it so much I finished it in a couple of nights. For whatever reason, the book reminds me a lot of a Hayao Miyazaki movie: the protagonist is a Ceony Twill, a girl who just graduated from a school of magic, and rather than becoming a smelter as she hoped, she was assigned to work with paper.

Her mentor is a mysterious wizard, who assigns her inscrutable training tasks but has a dark past that is only alluded to. But that dark past quickly catches up with him in a couple of months, and barely trained, Ceony is caught up in trying to rescue her mentor. The plot is predictable, she overcomes her obstacles, and accomplishes her goals through pluck but not wit.

The world building is great, and the magic system is entertaining. The writing style is easily readable, and clearly aimed at a young adult audience, but suitable for anyone looking for an escape from this election madness. Recommended.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Review: Spellbreaker

 Spellbreaker is set in preindustrial London, in a mythic world where magic exists and is used by everybody, with prices set by markets. The story revolves around Elsie Camden, an orphan who learns early on that she's a spellbreaker, one who can destroy pre-existing spells. She's recruited into a secret society that sends her missions to accomplish, and is caught on one of those missions, leading to a series of events that destroys her preconceptions of what she's been doing.

The writing is transparent and easy to read, and the plot, while simple and full of holes (e.g., we are led to believe that smart as Elsie is, when she's caught and realizes that the people who caught her weren't evil, doesn't immediately start questioning all the other missions she's being sent on), is entertaining enough. I needed a light read after all the previous heavy reads, and this was the right book at the right time (and if you're an Amazon Prime subscribe, it was a free selection). I'll hunt down more of Charlie Holmberg's other novels. Recommended.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Review: Physics of the Impossible

 I checked out Physics of the Impossible from the library, not noticing that it was incredibly dated. The book was written 12 years ago, but so much of experimental physics has changed that some of the book is now obsolete, such as the mention of the search for the Higgs Boson, and the attempts to confirm or deny string theory.

Nevertheless, the book takes on many topics that are fun from a science fiction fan point of view, such as teleportation (e.g., the Star Trek transporter), which are surprisingly potentially feasible, since quantum teleportation is a thing. There's a section on time travel, and force fields are also surprisingly in the feasible category.

Michio Kaku classifies these impossibilities as type 1 (we know the theory and can see a path to implementation), type 2 (we know the theory but the implementation is beyond us), and type 3 (our understanding of physics would have to change for this to work), and surprisingly only 2 categories (pre-cognition and perpetual motion machines) were classified as type 3.

Of course, that we know how to do something doesn't mean that it'd be easy or uncumbersome. Nevertheless, the book is a great read and gets in some physics for the layman as well. I could see giving this (though hopefully an updated version of the book) to a smart 10 year old who'd totally geek out on it. Recommended.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Review: Complexity - The Emerging Science at the Edge of Chaos

 Complexity purports to be a book about the science and math of emergence. In reality, it actually is an account of the history and founding of the Santa Fe Institute, which is not a bad thing. As with many topics in science that cross disciplinary lines, it's unusual for research in that area to be pursued without independent funding.

The book covers not just the mathematical and simulation-oriented approach that led to the understanding of complex adaptive systems, but also the politics behind it, and why the Santa Fe Institute came to be in Santa Fe, as opposed to one of the major universities that everybody knows about. In particular, the proximity to Los Alamos was important and key to attracting physicists.

This turned out to be important, because the first area of research that the Santa Fe took up was complexity in Economics. The description of how physicists reacted to the Economists' presentation was classic and well worth reading:

the physicists were nonetheless disconcerted at how seldom the economists seemed to pay attention to the empirical data that did exist. Again and again, for example, someone would ask a question like “What about noneconomic influences such as political motives in OPEC oil pricing, and mass psychology in the stock market? Have you consulted sociologists, or psychologists, or anthropologists, or social scientists in general?” And the economists—when they weren’t curling their lips at the thought of these lesser social sciences, which they considered horribly mushy—would come back with answers like Such noneconomic forces really aren’t important”; “They are important, but they are too hard to treat”; “They aren’t always too hard to treat, and in fact, we’re doing so in specific cases”; and “We don’t need to treat them because they’re automatically satisfied through economic effects.” And then there was this business of “rational expectations.” Arthur remembers someone asking him during his talk that first day, Isn’t economics a good deal simpler than physics?” (Kindle Loc 2855)

There's lots of stories, including one about a major researcher in the field who drove and organized workshops but didn't pay attention to getting his PhD, which culminated into a crisis.

The boring parts of the book involve the politics and fund-raising. Not to say that it's not enlightening, but the lobbying over who gets to be president of the institute (and who shouldn't be --- a well known Nobel prize winner wanted the position) isn't really relevant to the science of complexity.

Nevertheless, the boring parts are easy to skip and the interesting parts are well worth reading. Recommended. (This book is available to borrow if you're an Amazon Prime customer) 


Monday, October 12, 2020

Review: Blood and Truth (PSVR)

 I got the PSVR several years ago, but until recently never got around to actually finishing a game on it. Part of it is that the medium doesn't work well for long games, and AstroBots rescue mission was just too long and hard --- we never got past the 3rd boss. When Sony had a sale on Blood and Truth over labor day week, however, I realized that The Heist by London Studios was one of the better demos on the PSVR Worlds disc. After finding out that the play time was only 5 hours I went for it.

The game puts you in the perspective of Ryan Marks, a former special forces soldier, engaged in a one man battle with a rival family that tries to take over his family's business after his father dies. The story and tropes are well worn and one-note: this is a game that relies heavily on cliches and the technology to keep you engaged.

The technology does keep you engaged: the game is immersive in ways that no other normal shooter is: the feeling of presence in cutscenes and in the on-rails shooting sections are nothing short of amazing. The ability to turn your head and point your guns at what you intend is amazing. That's not to say that the technology is perfect: I had to restart the game several times whenever the PSVR control calibration drifted, resulting in your hands pointing the wrong way. One particularly frustrating situation was that the act of sheathing your automatic weapons over your shoulders was so clumsy that I could never sheathe my weapons without firing off a few shots, one time killing myself with a rocket launcher. It is a testament to the immersion of the medium and the effectiveness of the game play that I put up with all the clumsiness in order to play.

The reload mechanism, snapping off a magazine from your bandolier and then slipping a clip into your other hand feels intuitive and perfect, as do the "bullet time" sequences that you get to trigger with a cool down. The sections where you pick locks, cut wires, or do other simple puzzles are also excellent examples of integrating haptic feedback, immersion, and interaction design together to make everything feel natural. Kudos to Sony for pulling off a AAA-style game in VR, crude resolution and all, and making it playable. If they can fix the drifting issue, the PSVR will be an engaging medium for many.


Thursday, October 08, 2020

Review: Garmin Varia UT800 Urban Edition

 My light selection from 2017 is no longer in stock on Amazon, just as the battery (which is soldered to the motherboard on the device) is giving out, and of course during the COVID19 bike boom, ensuring that pricing on bike accessories is sky high.

However, I noticed that the Garmin Varia UT800 is now down to $99 as a standard price, and it claimed compatibility with my Fenix 5X, so I ordered one. As with all lights, the most important piece is the mount, which is a strangely heavy outfront mount intended to fit on your handlebars. It worked just fine on my custom fork mount position, though the 135g light would tend to tilt down to touch the fork at the right place. Not a problem, since my Ti fork doesn't have any paint to scratch anyway.

The documentation mentioned the light had a "smart light" feature that would adjust light intensity based on your speed if you had an Edge cycling computer. Since I was using a Fenix, I tempered my expectation, and operating the light in manual mode would have worked just fine. To my surprise, the Fenix 5X does adjust the light intensity based on your speed. The cutoffs seem to be 15mph (maximum brightness), 10mph (medium brightness), and less, which would use the 200 lumen setting. At 200 lumen, it was pretty much the same as my Blitzu Gator. At 400 lumen, it was fine for flat riding, and at max brightness it was suitable for a fast descent but I wouldn't push my limits at night anyway.

What's the ideal application for this? I've had several occasions to use it on a Montebello Sunrise climb, where the approach would use the high to medium intensity, and then the climb would switch to low intensity. After the sunrise, I'd manually switch it to flashing mode, and the light would last a good 3-5 hours. It's not useful for say, riding in Houston at night, where your speed would keep it at high intensity the whole time (except for the occasional stops at the stop signs or traffic lights), or commuting, where you might want high beam on all the time to remind motorists that you're there. Ironically, for my (no longer actively run) Moonlight Mt Hamilton ride, the auto feature wouldn't be useful, since the whole point is to turn off the light while climbing so you can appreciate the moonlit landscape, and the retrogrades would demand that you turn on the light manually. Obviously you have to have bought into the Garmin ecosystem for any of this to make sense, though at the new $99 price point, it's very competitive with say, Light & Motion's lineup, but obviously not competitive against any of the Chinese brands, though I certainly wouldn't trust their claims of 800 lumens, while Garmin at the very least is reasonably competent (or at least not crooked) about labeling their light intensity.

I bought it without a return policy, that's how much I tend to trust Garmin. And I even paid full price since I needed the light for the pre-dawn rides that I'm doing. It's a rare thing for me to pay full retail, so you can take that as an endorsement from me.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Review: Jetboil Flash Camping and Backpacking Stove

 For many years, I've been using the cheapest stove I could find on Amazon. The $12 specials are nothing special, but they're light and do the job. What I noticed, however, is that they're insanely bad at fuel consumption. Our overnight trip in Hetch-Hetchy(4 mountain house meals, 3 packets of oatmeal, and some apple cider and coffee) took a single canister from 210g to 130g. For a 2 night trip like I was anticipating, I'd have to carry 2 canisters. That got me to look into a more efficient system.

The JetBoil has a good reputation, despite it's expense, but the integrated mug/cozy promised a much reduced fuel consumption rate. Arturo told me that it would be 5g of fuel per boil, instead of what I was getting. It would also most likely not leak very much when attaching or detaching from the fuel canister, which would provide more weight savings.

At sea level, the Jetboil does indeed do a boil at 100s or less. What most reviewers won't tell you is that the max fill line is actually 2 cups (473ml), which is just right for a single packet of mountain house freeze dried food, so for a family of 4, you're actually going to activate the stove once per person. At 10000', it would actually take almost 3 minutes per boil, and the boil indicator (the sides of the cozy change colors and rise as it approaches boiling) is also excellent for saving fuel: when you're using filtered water, you don't need a full boil for apple cider, hot chocolate, or coffee. We also saved more fuel by realizing that our Costco packets were smaller than the Mountain Houses I used to buy, so we didn't fill to the 2 cup limit after our first couple of meals turned out soggy.

The fuel canister stabilizer/stand is a mess. I used it a couple of times and after that decided not to bother with it any more. It was a bear to get the canister to fit in it. Everything (canister, burner) fits into the cozy, while there's a cap to protect the heat exchanger at the bottom) The piezo lighter was much more reliable than my $12 special, but the cap for the heat exchanger also has room for a box of matches as a backup (which I would always have anyway!).

Because our trip was aborted, we didn't do as much cooking as I thought we would need to, so over conserved. Over our 2 days, we did 7 mountain house meals (lunch - 2, dinner - 4, breakfast - 1), 3 packets of oatmeal + coffee (2 cups), 2 rounds of apple cider (2 cups each). When I returned home and weighed the canister it came up to 164g (and started at 215g). That's an impressively efficient fuel consumption by any standards, and way better than my cheapo stove. The weight of the entire setup is 388g (rather than the claimed 371), but if I were you I'd ditch the lousy stabilizer/stand and save 24g. That's significantly lighter than my cheap amazon stove (112g) and Snowpeak Ti pot (279g) special, not counting the fuel savings.


Thursday, October 01, 2020

20 Lakes Basin/Hummingbird Lake Trip

 The labor day forecast was for 100 degree+ weather in the Bay Area and bad air quality. Arturo had suggested Leavitt Meadows, but a look at the forecast indicated that it would still be over 90F at 8000'. The 20 Lakes Basin was at 10000' and would have a reasonable temperature of 78 degrees, and even better, had no wilderness permit quota, so I made a reservation, called the ranger, passed the quiz, printed out the permits, and on Friday afternoon drove the whole family out to Mono lake where we stayed at a motel with trepidation.

On Saturday, we drove up 120 (having failed to get the Yosemite entrance permit we had to approach from the East), drove off the Saddlebag Lake turn off, and onto the dirt road. Once there, we parked at the edge of the pavement, packed up our backpacks and walked in.

A key feature making this trip possible was that Saddlebag Lake had a water taxi that could take your family (and packs --- yes they charge per pack as well) round trip for about $60. That saves 2 miles of hiking at 10000', a huge savings because everyone else complained about it being hard to breathe, despite having already spent the night before at 6000'.

With 2 days of food, we made it up to Hummingbird Lake, and were elated when 2 hikers coming the other way told us that they'd camped out there the night before and there was no one there. We used their established site and had lunch. It was warm, so warm that both kids put on their wet suits and played in the water and I braved a swim. Unfortunately, while setting up the Stephenson Warmlite, I heard a "crack" sound, and discovered that one of the poles had slit into the other and mushroomed. I managed to get the tent up anyway, but it was clear that I wouldn't be taking down the tent and setting it up again on this trip elsewhere. Once it was down it would be impossible to put it up again without doing serious damage to the tent --- it wasn't even clear that I could take it down without doing further damage.

The altitude made them lethargic, and it was all I can do at 2:00pm to persuade them to walk over to the next lake over, Z Lake. There was a huge amount of whining and stopping to rest the entire way, which was not even a mile long for a hike.

Not 5 minutes after we arrived at the lake, a plume of smoke (that we now know to be from the Shaver Lake fire) came in and we started to smell bad stuff in the air. The plume of smoke was obvious and it had to be a new fire.
The hike back from Z lake to Hummingbird Lake was easy, being downhill the whole way, so I heard zero complaints. We had an early dinner and turned in, as the temperature dropped with the sun's obscuration.

My plan to do the 20 Lakes Basin loop was shattered the next morning when everyone from Xiaoqin to the normally intrepid Bowen asked to go home. We'd woken up to ashes on the tent, though it was clear from the views of the moon and the stars that the smoke was actually mostly gone. I thought it would be been fine to stay but I was over-ruled.

Reluctantly, I packed up all the equipment, took a few final pictures, including one of a Coyote that met us just as we were departing Hummingbird lake. After we hiked back to the water taxi dock.I took one final hike to see Greenstone Lake while the others sat down and waited.

The water taxi arrived and picked us up and 2 other backpackers who were abandoning their trip for the same reason. Our trip was over. What a bust!

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Review: Democracy in Chains

 It is rare that a book takes me a full 3 weeks to read when checked out from the library. Democracy In Chains took me this long not because it was difficult material, but because it's so incredibly depressing. The book traces the rise of the right-winged anti-democratic forces in recent history. The intellectual history winds through from F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, James Buchanan, Milton Friedman, and of course, Charles Koch, who funds the radical revolution. If I thought Kochland was an indictment of Koch's activies, this book makes it quite clear that Koch's anti-climate change agenda is just the tip of the iceberg. His goal was (and continues to be --- even beyond the grave) the destruction of Democracy in America, returning it to the state it was in the 1900s, after which it took 3 entire decades before a FDR was elected to fix it. And this time, by stacking the judiciary (the end-game of which played out recently), even another FDR might not be able to fix it.

Here in this book, you'll find out why the radical right (for instance Peter Thiel) frequently thought that giving non-whites and women the right to vote was bad for democracy. Well, he used the word Democracy, but he meant bad for the overlords of capitalism, of whom he is one.

A prime example was Buchanan's protege's work on Chile:

 it was Buchanan who guided Pinochet’s team in how to arrange things so that even when the country finally returned to representative institutions, its capitalist class would be all but permanently entrenched in power. The first stage was the imposition of radical structural transformation influenced by Buchanan’s ideas; the second stage, to lock the transformation in place, was the kind of constitutional revolution Buchanan had come to advocate.5 Whereas the U.S. Constitution famously enshrined “checks and balances” to prevent majorities from abusing their power over minorities, this one, a Chilean critic later complained, bound democracy with “locks and bolts.”.. Under the new labor code Piñera promulgated in 1979, for example, industry-wide labor unions were banned. Instead, plant-level unions could compete, making one another weaker while their attention was thus diverted from the federal government (“depoliticizing” economic matters, in Buchanan terms). Individual wage earners were granted “freedom of choice” to make their own deals with employers. It would be more accurate to say that they were forced to act solely as individuals. “One simply cannot finish the job,” Piñera later explained to would-be emulators, if workers maintain the capacity to exercise real collective power ...Piñera designed another core prop of the new order: privatization of the social security system. This freed companies of the obligation to make any contributions to their employees’ retirement and also greatly limited the government’s role in safeguarding citizens’ well-being. Ending the principle of social insurance, much as Barry Goldwater had advocated in 1964, the market-based system instead steered workers toward individual accounts with private investment firms. As one scholar notes, it “was essentially self-insurance.” Fortunately for the plan, the regime had full control of television. At a time when three of every four households had televisions, Piñera made weekly appearances over six months to sell the new system, playing to fear of old-age insecurity owing to “this sinkhole of a bureaucracy,” the nation’s social security system. “Wouldn’t you rather,” he queried viewers, holding up “a handsome, simulated leather passbook,” see your individual savings recorded every month in such a book “that you can open at night and say, ‘As of today I have invested $50,000 toward my golden years?’”...In short order, two private corporations—BHC Group and Cruzat-Larrain, both with strong ties to the regime—acquired two-thirds of the invested retirement funds, the equivalent, within ten years, of one-fifth of the nation’s GDP. (José Piñera, for his part, went on to work for Cruzat and then promoted U.S. Social Security privatization for Charles Koch’s Cato Institute.)9 Other “modernizations” included the privatization of health care, the opening of agriculture to world market forces, the transformation of the judiciary, new limits on the regulatory ability of the central government, and the signature of both the Chicago and Virginia schools of thought: K–12 school vouchers. (kindle loc 3299, 3311, 3316, 3325)

 If you've been paying attention over the last 30 years, this of course, has been the Republican/Libertarian goal for the US all along --- to turn us into Chile, which despite ousting Pinochet still has a constitution that's anti-democratic in nature. This book, more than any other I've read, explains why the USA has had a uniquely weak social security net:

two of the country’s most distinguished comparative political scientists, Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz, recently approached the puzzle of U.S. singularity in another way: they compared the number of stumbling blocks that advanced industrial democracies put in the way of their citizens’ ability to achieve their collective will through the legislative process. Calling these inbuilt “majority constraining” obstacles “veto players,” the two scholars found a striking correlation: the nations with the fewest veto players have the least inequality, and those with the most veto players have the greatest inequality. Only the United States has four such veto players. All four were specified in the slavery-defending founders’ Constitution: absolute veto power for the Senate, for the House, and for the president (if not outvoted by a two-thirds majority), and a Constitution that cannot be altered without the agreement of three-quarters of the states. Other features of the U.S. system further obstruct majority rule, including a winner-take-all Electoral College that encourages a two-party system; the Tenth Amendment, which steers power toward the states; and a system of representation in the unusually potent Senate that violates the principle of “one person, one vote” to a degree not seen anywhere else. Owing to such mechanisms, Stepan and Linz note, even in the late 1960s, “the heyday of income equality in the United States, no other country in the set [of long-standing democracies] was as unequal as America, and most were substantially more equal.” As arresting, even the most equal U.S. state is less equal than any comparable country. What makes the U.S. system “exceptional,” sadly, is the number of built-in vetoes to constrain the majority. (Kindle loc 4606)

 MacLean points out that even the white supremacists who think they're "owning the libs" will turn out to have been played for suckers (which is accurate, but still might not change the election):

The libertarian cause, from the time it first attracted wider support during the southern schools crisis, was never really about freedom as most people would define it. It was about the promotion of crippling division among the people so as to end any interference with what those who held vast power over others believed should be their prerogatives. Its leaders had no scruples about enlisting white supremacy to achieve capital supremacy. (Kindle loc 4760)

This is probably the most important book I've read all year. It's depressing, but if it galvanizes you into action this November, it's essential reading. Highly recommended. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Review: The Night Tiger

 Someone on Facebook recommended The Night Tiger as a novel over Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians series. I picked it up and read it over 3 days, as it is compellingly readable despite the flaws.

Set in Ipoh, Malaysia during the 1930s, the story is oriented around a series of killings, either by the fabled were-tiger, or a serial killer. Told from the perspective of Ren (a 10 year old servant boy) or Ji Lin (a young woman denied her educational rights by the patriarch of the family, as is common to women of that time or even later --- my mom was also denied the right to go to university by her father), the story provides much context for the action, including the culture of Malaysia, the food, the delectable tropical fruits (though the Durian King of Fruits is left out!), the weather, and the living conditions of both the locals and the expatriates.

The book illustrates how important having a readable style is: despite the many flaws of the book, I was still compelled to finish. The book fails on several levels. First of all, it's an unfair mystery story: there's no way for the reader to have figured out who the killers are, as plot on top of plot is layered with a key clue deliberately held back or missing before the reveal. Secondly, it also fails as the author clearly moved certain characters based on the needs of the plot like playing pieces, having them act completely out of character to who they are. For instance, one particular character having been exposited to be truly faithful to his orders and place, somehow uses a potion that he was directed to give to someone else on another person, poisoning the wrong target. Sorry, I can't buy that. Similarly, a character who's continuously volunteering at a hospital, etc. is revealed to be a villain. Again, even if she's playing the long game, the motivation seemed empty. And finally, one of the characters despite repeatedly surviving near-death experiences, throws away an opportunity to consummate the love she feels for another. Having character after character violate their nature for the sake of plot and theme did violence to my suspension of disbelief.

I can see why someone would recommend this novel over Crazy Rich Asians. But I can also see why Crazy Rich Asians has popular appeal over something like this novel (which has also sold well, despite its flaws). Mildly recommended.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Review: The Calculating Stars

 The Calculating Stars won the 2018 Nebula Award for best novel.  It postulates a world in which a meteorite strikes the Atlantic Ocean in the 1950s, wiping out the entire Eastern Seaboard and creating a water vapor environment that would, after the initial cold, create a runaway greenhouse effect, forcing the planet's inhabitants to put in a crash program to colonize space.

The protagonist is Elma York, a computer with the world's equivalent of NASA (renamed NACA in the book for no apparent reason). She's brilliant, and also was a pilot during World War 2, which of course in a just world would qualify her to be a pilot. The story mostly focuses on her journey to overcoming the institutions between her and being an astronaut, while depicting the job of a computer who manages to become a TV celebrity at the same time.

The book does a good job of depicting the lives and prejudices in the 1950s, and of course, providing good characters and great antagonists (York's major antagonist stays very human, and is not a cardboard villain). The book is weakest at the science: it never explains why the water vapor wouldn't just precipitate out of the atmosphere during the cold period, which would just stop the green house effect completely.

I enjoyed the book and the obvious detail it presents, even if the scientific premise is kinda broken. The characters are reasonably rendered and not annoying to read about.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Review: Mother Knows Best?

 Mother Knows Best is a kindle freebie. It's a book about all the old wives tales (and occasional sailor's stories) that may or may not have some truth in fact. Each myth is labeled true or false and you get to read about why it's true or false. It's light reading and may teach you something (it taught me a few sailor's ditties I didn't know before, beyond "Red Sky at night..."). It's not nearly as good as How To, though, so keep your expectations tempered.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Review: Hacking Darwin

 I checked out Hacking Darwin because the Amazon reviews were good. I'm lucky I didn't spend money on it and just checked it out from the library. The book is shallow technically, and reads like an Engadget article about the glories of genetic engineering of embryos and future ability to select for traits. There's no caveats, just an assurance that this is coming and we should have an ethical debate about what should be allowed and what's not.

I think that's unlikely --- in general, humans are no good at predicting the future, and even when the future is predictable (e.g., the climate crisis), humans tend to avoid making decisions and put it off for as long as possible. And seriously? Given how competitive parents are about kids, there's no question that we will push the boundaries as far and as quickly as we can.

Interestingly enough, the best discussion of the ethical issues and parental competitive isn't in non-fiction books like these, but rather in science fiction. Read Nancy Kress's Beggars In Spain instead. That book was published 11 years ago, and explores these issues in a deeper fashion than Hacking Darwin's author could.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Review: The Invention of Surgery

I picked up The Invention of Surgery expecting a tightly focused book about surgery, but instead, what I got was a comprehensive history of medicine as it relates to surgery. This makes sense, as you can't really do surgery without anesthesia and antibiotics, and the invention of both of those pre-requisites are just as important as the developments since then.

I bought the book as an audio book (it was on-sale), but it would have been way better as a Kindle book. I loved the chapter on William Halsted, who was a pioneering surgeon who was addicted to cocaine. Since he was on a stimulant effectively all the time, the modern medical residency program was effectively designed around the awake/crash cycle of a drug addict! But the man also invented surgical gloves and several procedures, many of which were first performed on family members.

I do have some nits about the book: he continually acknowledges the deficiencies of the American medical systems: its expense, its inequities and in many cases, the lack of even a national registry for implants, which meant that doctors who wanted to know the efficacy of an implant had to find a way to access foreign databases. But he keeps touting the American medical system as being the best in the world. The book was written pre-COVID19, and I think during this pandemic at least, that illusion has long worn through.

Nevertheless, the book was a great listen, and well worth your time. Highly recommended.

Review: HexClad Non-stick Cookware

 If you've ever visited Costco, you might have seen the Hexclad demo. There's a guy with the non-stick pots and pans and woks, and he shows how you can cook with these even with metal spatulas and it won't scratch the non-stick. If you've bought into all the hype about how bad Teflon is for you, you'll be tempted to pick up a set of these, despite their incredibly expensive prices.

Well, I'm too cheap to buy these, but my wife isn't, and when they arrived, I tried them. I have to say that these are the worst "non-stick" pans I've ever used. They require seasoning, but the seasoning doesn't last. Eggs stick and no matter how much oil you use, they will stick to the bottom. Forget butter. Even bacon sticks to the bottom.

Compared to the TFAL non-stick pans at 1/10th the price, I'd recommend that you buy those, and replace them once a year for 10 years, than to buy these. If I was the one buying these, they'd be back at Costco already. But I'm guessing that someone in the family has Stockholm syndrome from having invested so much money in them, so I'm stuck with them for a while (though I'm going to wait for a sale and buy more TFAL for my personal use eventually --- that's how frustrating the Hexclads are).

Recommended for those susceptible to marketing. (There's one born every minute!)

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Review: Tomboyland

Tomboyland is Melissa Faliveno's collection of essays. I picked it up because of Amazon's Kindle First Reads program. These essays cover a gamut of topics, from gender identity to growing up in Wisconsin, and her various relationships. The writing is excellent and perhaps uniquely American, with the wide open spaces of identity and mobility at the author's feet, moving from farm country to Wisconsin to New York and back again, the constant questioning of who she is, justifying her decision not to have children with great defensiveness.

There are a few nits. For instance, it is apparently that many of her close friends were met when she played roller derby. I would have hoped for an essay/story describing the sport, as it's not quite a mainstream sport and if she'd made so many close friends that way it was clearly a big part of her identity. But nope, we get oblique references but nothing about the joys of the sport and how it is played.

The final essay in the book is Driftless, which won a notable selection in the 2016 edition of Best American Essays. It's lyrical and beautifully written, and ended the book on a great note. If the rest of the book was at that level it would have been uplifted into another category.

In any case, as a view of alternative lifestyles and gender explorations and identity, the book's short enough and worth your time.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Review: Temtop M10 Air Quality Monitor

 With the fires raging near us, I broke out all the air purifiers I bought last year during Amazon Prime Day, purchased specifically for such an occasion. But even with 3 air purifiers, you can't cover an entire house, so it's important to figure out where to put them. I researched air quality monitors and eventually settled on the Temtop M10: I didn't need fancy wireless readouts. I just wanted it to display what the current air quality is.

The first sample I received was garbage. It just was stuck at 4, no matter if I could smell smoke, indoors or out. So I returned it to Amazon and got a second sample. This second sample is good, accurately rating HCHO/PM2.5, TVOC, and AQI depending on where it was in the house, whether it was cooking, and matching Purple Air and/or AirNow's readouts.

At $80, it's pretty cheap and of course is now completely sold out on Amazon. The battery lasts for 6 hours, which is enough for you to stick in your pannier/trunk bag/handlebag and go out for a ride and let you know when the air has gone bad enough for you to need to go home. Recommended.

Monday, August 31, 2020

My Covid 19 Excursion List

With COVID19's shelter in place in effect, our vacation plans were needless to say, all cancelled. Rather than sit home and mope, I decided to try to make the most out of it and explore trails and places that I'd neglected and ignored prior to the crisis. When you've got semi-frequent trips out of town (or better, out of country), you can get into a rut at home because the breaks don't make you feel stale. It goes against my instinct to publish these on my blog, since I don't really want these places to become over-crowded, but with only 300 regular readers on this blog if you're reading it you probably already know about these places.

Rocky Point: This is part of Mt Tam state park. The most famous hike, of course, is the Matt Davis/Dipsea/Steep Ravine loop. But at the Steep Ravine/Dipsea intersection, if you ignore the trail that goes to Stintson beach and keep going on the Dipsea, there's a nice trail segment that's nothing short of gorgeous. Rocky Point's campgrounds are closed, which means that the place is isolated and has gorgeous views:

Mindego Hill:  I somehow lived in the Bay Area for many years but never came here. It's a very exposed hike, and you can make it easier by using bikes to get most of the way there. Don't attempt this in the summer, but in Spring it's stunning, with lots of wildflowers and gate traversals that the kids had fun with. The views from the top are unique and clearly different from anywhere else in the Bay Area.

Berry Creek Falls: You can do this as a long hike from Big Basin HQ, but with 2 kids it's far better to drive out to the coast and ride in about 10 miles to the bike rack where you can lock your bike. During the week, it's very isolated, and very pretty. It's also mostly shaded so good for hot days.

Esteros Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore: This trail is 4 years old, relatively new, and traverses a part of Point Reyes National Seashore that look so much like Scotland, except that it doesn't rain on you. The trail ios very easy, but the last segment to sunset beach is not worth the trouble, though of course once you're there you might as well go. An easy relaxing bike ride.

Maple Creek Falls in the Forest of Nisene Marks: I made this hike much harder than it had to be. You can actually drive into the park most of the way and then it's only a 3 mile hike, but the website for the park hadn't been updated to reflect that the parking was now open, so we hiked into through the Vienna Woods entrance instead. The last half a mile to the falls is strenuous, with lots of river crossings. Of course, that just makes it more fun for the kids.

Rodeo Beach to Tennessee Beach: The Marin Headlands is overly visited, but I saw a much smaller beach with easy access from Rodeo Beach. Well, laying out the Garmin route misled me into doing it the much harder way, with a descent that required hiking sticks (which we had), and even then the kids fell a few times. Tennessee Beach is surprisingly busy. I think I should have reversed this hike.

Garrapata State Park/Sobranes Point: Unlike Point Los State Preserve or Big Sur, this park has suffiicient parking for the visitors it attracts. You can explore both the ocean side and the redwood side, but do not ignore the tide pools, which are a great source of wildlife viewing.