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Monday, March 01, 2021

Review: Ray Bradbury - The Last Interview: And Other Conversations

 I accidentally checked out Ray Bradbury - The Last Interview from the library (I thought I was checkout out a different book), but it was short, so I went ahead and read it. It told me things about Ray Bradbury that I never knew, including that he had an exceptionally good memory for a small boy, claiming that he remembered being born (which I'm not sure I believe), and the influence of his grandfather who died when Bradbury was 5 (which I do believe). There's a lot of writerly advice, including the much debunked - do what you love, and Bradbury, like many successful young conservatives, clearly believed that he was a self-made man, despite the evidence that quite a bit of luck was involved in his career as an accidental architect, for instance.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of quotable quotes in the book that cannot help but endear you to the man. For instance, his memories of being a boy jives with my own:

WELLER: A lot of people—we hear this term—grow up. Do you feel like you’ve grown up? How have you been able to stay connected to your inner child over the years? Because a lot of people lose touch with that. BRADBURY: You remain invested in your inner child by exploding every day. You don’t worry about the future. You don’t worry about the past. You just explode. So if you are dynamic you don’t have to worry about what age you are. I’ve remained a boy because boys run everywhere. They never stop running. They never look back. They just keep running, running, running. That’s me. The running boy. (Kindle Loc 169)

“You don’t have to destroy books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” (Kindle Loc 574)

I’ve known a lot of Hollywood writers over the years who made ten times my income, and they were profoundly unhappy. Because they wrote things they never should have written. They never went on vacation. They never went to Europe and saw London or Paris or Rome. They were afraid that if they ever left Hollywood, they would be replaced. And they were probably right. They were replaceable. But when you write from within, if you write from within and are true to who you are, you are original and you cannot be replaced. No wonder these writers were scared! (Kindle Loc 821)

A short read, providing many moments of joy, and insight into an amazing story teller. Worth your time. 



Thursday, February 25, 2021

Review: Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man 1 and 2

 After playing the Miles Morales video game, Boen asked to read the Miles Morales comic books, so I checked Vol 1 and Vol 2 of the Ultimates Collection out of the library via Hoopla. Being part of the Ultimates universe, this is a different universe and timeline from the mainstream Spiderman books. That didn't confuse Boen - he seemed to understand that the comic books, video games, and movies were all separate universes.

What was annoying, however, was that the story moved at a snail's pace. Having just come off the first collection of Stan Lee's original run, it's quite clear that the new manga-style Spider-man series never told a story in 3 panels when it could do so in  23 pages worth of slow-moving pacing. That's OK when reading manga, because you get a phone book's worth of material in one go and you get a substantial chunk of story, but in a 6-issue format, you just feel ripped off, even when just checking it out of the library for free.

The story also branches off into some cross-over story (Civil War 2?) that never properly resolves, and so things get nice and confusing. We finished both volumes and Boen wanted more, but I'd be damned if I spent any of my hard-earned money for more reader abuse.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Review: The Hustler

 After The Queen's Gambit, I picked up The Hustler. As with the previous book by Walter Tevis, this is an old-school novel, about 200 pages also, and quick read. Just as The Queen's Gambit was about chess, The Hustler is about pool. It's not going to teach you the various games, but it will grant you insight into the types of people who play pool for money, and what their attitude towards life is.

Unfortunately, I don't really like the kind of people who play pool. While Beth Harmon was a sympathetic character, Eddie Nelson is the kind of person you would despise: he treats everyone and everything as someone to be used (including the girlfriend who cares for him when he's injured), and when someone else tries to use him, he acts all shocked and surprised.

Certainly not as compelling to me as The Queen's Gambit. I'm passing on the next book.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Review: The Queen's Gambit

 I actually had The Queen's Gambit on hold at the library but over the holidays my wife wanted something to watch, so we ended up watching the Netflix series. I heard that the series was very true to the book, but never got around to cancelling my hold, so one day it showed up  on my Kindle. I didn't expect to want to read it, but ended up reading the whole thing over 2 days, a testament to how short the book was, and how compellingly readable it is.

Unlike the TV show, the book is mostly linear, and doesn't delve into Beth Hamon's past as much. Hamon's character in the book is also much more proactive about getting herself out of alcoholic stupor, though as impulsive as in the book. While the TV show is mostly faithful to the book, I actually found myself enjoying the book quite a bit more, and probably would have been less enamored of the show if I'd read the book first.

After enjoying the book, I went and bought The Hustler, which is high praise for someone who's stingy about money.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Review: Bone Silence

 Bone Silence is the final book in Alastair Reynolds' Revenger Trilogy, which is a series about pirates in space. I checked it out from the library in Audio book format, where it was performed by Clare Corbett, who is an astonishingly able reader, with separate, distinguishable voices for every character, and an English accent that fully brings out what a pirate story in the age of sail is.

The story itself is not so good: the first half of the novel is much padded, with the setup and the introduction of the main villain done slowly. By the time the book gets us to the destination world, we have the Ness sisters having captured another ship, one in deep trouble against the primary villain, and the other furiously trying to unravel the stories of the alien races in the universe they're in.

Everything falls apart, however, at the reveal, where we do learn what the quoins (pronounced "coins") are, but the nature of the world, the occupations, the baubles and black-hole technology are all left open, as though there's a sequel coming and Reynolds is trying to portion out his good ideas and save them  for a later book. I found myself zoning out, which is not a good sign.

As a translation of "pirates in space", you could do a lot worse, but for a Alastair Reynolds novel, you could do a lot better. Rereading any one of his Revelation Space novels or House of Suns would be a better use of your time than the Revenger series.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Review: The Last Lion, 1940-1965

 I checked out The Last Lion from the library, a biography of Winston Churchill that was so long that it spanned 3 volumes. So of course I checked out the final volume to skip the build up. It turned out that the author of the first two volume died before he could finish the third, and handed it off to a friend to finish. While reading this book, I understood why --- there's a ton of minutia, the editing of some of it would probably have made the book more accessible to the casual reader.

Yet, the book has much to recommend it, with many of Churchill's famous speeches placed in context, and much of the machinations between the US, Britain, and Russia exposed to both deep analysis as well as recounting. It was very clear that it wasn't an accident that Britain was bankrupt by the end of the war, and the US won more than just a military victory. There were lots I didn't know, for instance, why Greece managed to remain a democracy, and how much of the offensives in Africa were because the allies literally couldn't do anything else. Unlike most world war 2 accounts written by Americans, this account makes it quite clear how much Russia had to sacrifice to defeat Hitler, though much of those losses were due to Stalin ignoring the intelligence and warnings provided to him by British officials.

Finally, it still amazed me how strong someone  like Churchill was. After defeating Germany, he was thrown out of his Prime Ministerial office after losing an election to socialists (Churchill was as conservative as they come). In defeat, he wrote:

“perhaps the most gracious acceptance of democratic defeat in the English language.” Churchill: The decision of the British people has been recorded in the votes counted today. I have therefore laid down the charge which was placed upon me in darker times. I regret that I have not been permitted to finish the work against Japan…. It only remains for me to express to the British people, for whom I have acted in these perilous years, my profound gratitude for the unflinching, unswerving support which they have given me during my task, and for the many expressions of kindness which they have shown towards their servant.” (Kinde Loc 54,807)

One cannot expect such eloquence and graciousness of conservatives in defeat today.

I learned a lot from the book, though at times it was a slog. Recommended.

Monday, February 08, 2021

Post-COVID home and office design

 Recently someone showed me a group photo from a Pokemon GoFest. My immediate reaction was visceral: this looks way too dangerous during COVID19 times --- too crowded, too many people in a small space, never mind that it was outdoors. Before this year, there was hope that with a vaccine and good public health measures we could return to post-COVID19 times, but now it's looking more and more like COVID19 will be endemic.

In the short-term regardless, remote-work has become the norm, but I think that architects and office designers are still behind the curve on designing for a post-pandemic world. I'll start with the home. Prior to the pandemic, great halls were the fashion for home design. In a post-pandemic world where work-from-home is the norm, the great hall is the biggest waste of space you can imagine. Consider:

  • Tall ceilings amplifies noise and creates echo-y environments, meaning that the space cannot be used for more than one zoom call at a time
  • The open space does not provide isolation, whether you're doing home work, writing code, or even writing a report.
  • The big empty space  does not afford power sockets which are still necessary for power or large monitors, even if your wi-fi coverage was fast enough or you had a mesh router.
  • Finally, any one cooking or eating in the great hall will disturb anyone who's trying to work.
It is far better in the post-COVID environment to have a lot of small enclosable spaces than to have one big space, and home designs in the past 10 years have not caught up to that reality, and many home buyers have fallen prey to fashion rather than the practicalities of working from home.

Going to the office, the situation is even worse. Office designs in the past 10-15 years have been constrained by the costs in high rent areas such as Silicon Valley and the need to pack as many people as possible in a work environment. All the space recommendations of Peopleware for knowledge workers (engineers, artists, etc) have been deprecated in favor of open-floor plans with no walls or doors. There is no way any high end creative technical talent will put up with that sort of environment in a COVID-endemic environment. So you get announcements like DropBox moving out of their offices in favor of pre-reserved collaborative spaces.

I think for very small teams (3-4 people) it's possible to do long term remote work. But if you have a true multi-disciplinary development, you'll soon outstrip the capabilities of Zoom. Even the best remote work environments cannot beat standing together in front of a white board for impromptu design discussions. And for the most collaborative creative teamwork (think video games, or storyboarding a Pixar movie), you will require in person work. Despite my best efforts I have to constantly push people to jump into zoom calls instead of slacking at each other in a slack channel: the bandwidth provided by even an imperfect Zoom call with a shared screen far outstrips most people's ability to express themselves in the written medium!

A big company like Google/Facebook/Dropbox will probably not miss the creativity hit from daily collaborative work (though I'd argue that they do, but just as described in Peopleware, there's no way to measure the business loss from creative ideas not being put into practice, they don't know what they're missing), but if you're a startup (or in a creative endeavor like Pixar or Naughty Dog), you cannot afford to lose this, and if you visit offices like Pixar's, you'll discover that they never adopted the mass open-space fashion of Silicon Valley. (Peopleware cites examples of "skunkworks" projects where the managers successfully placed their teams in non-traditional offices precisely to maximize team work --- the only reason any startup can perform a large company is that they have focus and team work in ways that big companies cannot do) I suspect that the more creative the work, and the more multi-disciplinary the work, the more likely it is that it will benefit from in-person collaboration and team work. Hence, you might want your accounting department to be entirely remote (nobody wants creative accounting), and payroll processing maintenance and programming could probably be done remotely, but putting together a movie, high quality video game, or solving new technical problems might benefit from in person collaboration.

Unlike pre-COVID days, however, you can no longer mandate that your talent walk in the office every day. You have to make them want to do so. A lot of this is building teams where people are eager to collaborate and see each other in person, but making the office a more desirable workspace than most people's homes (which are, as described above, not configured for decent individual creative work, let alone collaborative work) is a good first step.

Those recommendations from Peopleware include:
  • At least 100 square feet of private work space per person, with a door you can close for privacy and/or noise isolation. (Sorry, head phones do not cut it!)
  • Collaborative work environments that are well ventilated, preferably with windows
  • A gradation of private to collaborative to public workspace
Ironically, the pre-built spaces that have these characteristics turn out to be single-family homes built in the 1950s, with low ceilings, individual rooms, and a shared living room work environment. They sometimes even have kitchens big enough for a team to make and eat a meal together. It probably isn't a surprise that many successful startups had houses as office space rather than an actual office building.

If I were to design an office for the future, I would create a hub and spoke design, with large teams divided into smaller teams, each with a collaboration area, and bigger collaboration areas for cross team communications, brain storming, or design. Instead of the monolithic cafetarias of the past, you would construct smaller dining areas that let teams dine together without putting huge numbers of people together to spread disease.

It's fashionable to denigrate offices in favor of remote work now, but I suspect that the future success stories will come out of in person collaboration for the spark and serendipity that cannot occur through scheduled zoom calls. It will take real courage (not the Apple kind) to build these workspaces of the future that cannot look anything like the sardine-packed workplaces of the past, but the ones who succeed will discover that it is well worth the effort, and the reduced cost of offices in the future will be but one component of that.

Additional Reading
Has the Pandemic transformed the Office Forever? (The author seems afraid to draw any conclusions in this article, but it does a good job discussing trends prior to the pandemic)

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Review: Rockbros Cycling Shoe Toe Covers

 I'd lost my toe covers during various moves, so had to buy a pair of new ones. The Rockbros Toe Covers came up on an Amazon search, and I bought a pair. They're well designed, with an opening at the bottom that doesn't need to be cut for SPD cleats, and after 5 months of wear the advertised kevlar bottoms show no signs of wear. They're light and easily fit anywhere while touring or doing day rides. Well worth the extra weight.


Thursday, February 04, 2021

Review: The Price of Peace - Money, Democracy, and the life of John Maynard Keynes

 I picked up The Price of Peace thinking it was a biography of Keynes, the economist and scholar, but I got something much better, which was a biography of the man's ideas and its evolution and adoption (and lack thereof) over time.

I've long held that macroeconomics and Keynes' approach is a lot more challenging to understand than microeconomics for the same reason that quantum mechanics is a lot of more challenging than Newtonian physics. Your daily life and routines, whether as a child, householder, or manager and CEO are constrained by budgets, income, and spending. Yet at the aggregate level, those are not the constraints involved --- governments can run deficits indefinitely (and frequently do), and policy is driven largely by the sentiments of the people involved.

The key insight that Keynes brings to the equation is the debunking of money and markets as being fundamental:

Money, moreover, was not a custom developed by local traders for convenience but a sophisticated tool of rulership that had emerged simultaneously with other developments of the state, including written language and standardized weights and measures. Smith and other thinkers had been led astray by confusing the development of coinage with the invention of money. Coinage, according to Keynes, was “just a piece of bold vanity…with no far-reaching importance”;42 money had existed in “representative” form much longer. Its real significance was as a “unit of account”—the demarcation of debt and “the legal discharge of obligations,”43 which governments had been maintaining in ledger books (Kindle Loc 3623)

 Keynes thus came to see economic history as a fundamentally political story—the tale of riches conquered and surrendered by political powers as empires rose and fell. Economics, by extension, could not be a bloodless scientific investigation into unshakable laws of nature but only a set of observations about trends in human political arrangements. Economics as a field of study had to adjust to the social behavior of human beings, which might very well change over time. (Kindle Loc 3644)

The Treatise, then, was an all-out assault on the intellectual foundations of laissez-faire. There was no such thing as a free market devoid of government interference. The very idea of capitalism required active state economic management—the regulation of money and debt. Keynes had also defined the aim of economic policy: to set the foundations of an exciting intellectual culture. (Kindle Loc 3668)

One of the big ideas I took away from this book is the history and context of Keynes. It's quite clear that if democracy does not deliver rising prosperity and better standards of living due to market gyrations and machinations (which is largely driven by government policy), then usually it's not markets that lose legitimacy (people live with markets every single day!) but democracy. The rise of dictators in the period between World War 1 and World War 2 was largely because of impoverishment and the loss of legitimacy of democratic governments to solve the economic problems of the masses, rather than an inherent cultural problem with people's attitudes. (The same Germans who fought for Hitler also built an amazing post-war economy)

I found myself highlighting huge swaths of the book:

 The General Theory is a dangerous book because it demonstrates the necessity of power. It is a liberating book because it reframed the central problem at the heart of modern economics as the alleviation of inequality, pivoting away from the demands of production and the incentives facing the rich and powerful that had occupied economists for centuries. It is a frustrating book because it is written in novel abstractions, argued in convoluted sentences and dense equations. And it is a work of genius because it proves a simple truth that, once offered, seems obvious: Prosperity is not hard-wired into human beings; it must be orchestrated and sustained by political leadership. (Kindle 4868)

The material abundance of the Gilded Age had sown doubts in Keynes about the supposed scarcity of resources, but it was the ravages of the Depression that made him certain the old order had it wrong. Clearly the trouble was not a shortage of production. Crops were rotting in the fields while children went hungry in the streets. Producers were not cutting back because they couldn’t afford to meet the high wage demands of workers; laborers were roaming from town to town, desperate for any work at all. As he wrote in the opening chapter, “It is not very plausible to assert that unemployment in the United States in 1932 was due either to labour obstinately refusing to accept a reduction of money-wages or to its obstinately demanding a real wage beyond what the productivity of the economic machine was capable of furnishing.” (Kindle Loc 4927)

Creating large amounts of savings at the top of society did not bring about higher levels of investment. The causal arrow pointed the other way: Creating large amounts of investment caused higher levels of savings. And so “the removal of very great disparities of wealth and income” would improve social harmony and economic functionality. (Kindle Loc 5138)

the market, he argued, was not a reliable statement of society’s preferences, and it could not invisibly guide a polity to salvation. The market simply failed to deliver a host of real social goods that the public enjoyed, particularly art. The things that make life meaningful—beauty, community, a vibrant and multifaceted culture—all required collective, coordinated action. “Our experience has demonstrated plainly that these things cannot be successfully carried on if they depend on the motive of profit and financial success. The exploitation and incidental destruction of the divine gift of the public entertainer by prostituting it to the purposes of financial gain is one of the worser crimes of present-day capitalism.”52 (Kindle Loc 5152)

The history is also pretty good, explaining to me why the English got universal healthcare while the USA didn't (largely because Keynes was involved), and noting the conflict between American interests in the war and British interests.  There's a great discussion of the feud between Keynes and Hayek (long overblown), and clearly the success of Hayek was because he was politically acceptable to the wealthy people who wanted to fight the rise of Keynesian policy and economics.

What surprised me most about the book was that Carter didn't end the book even after Keynes death, but went on to describe the post-war purges that affected the careers of many economists and the rise of neoliberalism brought about by Clinton and Obama and their economic advisors. (Rubin, Krugman, DeLong, et al all come in for a pretty good drubbing)

The book is relevant, and has great explanatory power, even as it largely shies away from a full description of the Keynesian concepts, does provide an excellent roadmap to the delegitimization of democracy we've seen in the past 2 decades. The lessons are pretty clear - either policy has to be developed that raises the standard of living for all Americans rather than the top 1%, or more of what happened in 2016/2020 will continue to happen. You need to read this book.

In 2008, Joseph Stiglitz calculated that if the $48 trillion global economy were simply divided among every one of its inhabitants, a family of four would receive $28,000, high enough to end poverty in every country, including the United States, with its relatively high cost of living.39 In 2018, with an $85.8 trillion economy and 7.5 billion people, the global economy produces $11,440 per person, more than $45,000 for a family of four. The economic problem of humanity is no longer a problem of production but of distribution—inequality. (Kindle Loc 9706)

The European Central Bank and the IMF, in cooperation with the government of German chancellor Angela Merkel, demanded that countries in crisis reduce their budget deficits through fiscal austerity, inducing devastating recessions in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and most famously Greece. The economic ruin brought about by that project—the destruction of local industry, soaring unemployment, stingier social safety nets—has energized neofascist political parties, which now threaten the political establishment in some countries and have been effectively absorbed into mainstream conservatism in others. From Hungary’s Viktor Orb├ín to Italy’s Matteo Salvini to France’s Marine Le Pen to the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson to America’s Donald Trump, this is an era of far-right demagoguery unseen since the 1930s. (Kindle Loc 9721) 

Why has Keynesianism proven to be so politically weak, even among ostensibly liberal political parties and nations? The Keynesian bargain of peace, equality, and prosperity ought to be irresistible in a democracy. It has instead been fleeting and fragile. Keynes believed that democracies slipped into tyranny when they were denied economic sustenance. Why, then, have so many democracies elected to deny themselves economic sustenance? 

Perhaps the type of social change he envisioned can be achieved only through the moral quagmire of revolution that he ardently hoped to avoid. Certainly the American experience does not inspire confidence. The greatest American victories for democracy and equality—the end of slavery in the nineteenth century and the defeat of fascism in the twentieth—came at the end of a gun. This is a dark time for democracy—a statement that would have been unthinkable to U.S. and European leaders only a few short years ago. It took decades of mismanagement and unlearning to manufacture this global crisis, and it cannot be undone with a few new laws or elections. (Kindle Loc 9728-9736)

Monday, February 01, 2021

Review: Neil Gaiman Library vol 1

 The library app which I use to checkout comic books pushed Neil Gaiman Library omnibus vol 1 at me, and since checking out is so easy, I checked it out and read it in a couple of evenings.

It turned out that Gaiman had collaborated with various artists to illustrate a few of his short stories, but I'd somehow missed them or read them so long ago that I was going into them fresh. A Study in Emerald is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche that mixes the Holmes mythology with that of the Cthulhu mythos but to a limited success. Murder Mysteries, however is a fantastic piece of work, with the framing story and the internal story juxtaposed perfect, with art so nearly perfect as to be magic. How to Talk to Girls at Parties was also a mixed success, with the art providing a good complement to the story, and Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire is a 4th wall breaking story about writers and what they choose to write about, juxtaposed with a tribute to the old EC Comics stuff.

Taking together, all 4 stories deliver, and are well worth your time. I'll be checking out their successor from the library, since it's quite clear I've missed much more of Gaiman's comic books than I knew about, and the comic book story is clearly a good medium for him. Recommended.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Review: Spider-man: Miles Morales vol 1 & 2

 I was very impressed by the story in the PS4 game Miles Morales, so when Boen asked me to read a Spider-man book to him, I checked out Spider-man Miles Morales Vol 1 and Vol 2 from the library.  It's usually a truism that the book is better, but in this case it's clear that both the movie and the video game are much better than the books, which never tells a story in 1 panel when it can stretch it out into 20 panels.

What makes things worse is that the second volume ties into a cross-over story, which means that you get no resolution as to the greater story and the story immediately pivots into a new subplot (and one not even about Morales, but about his father) without notice. There's very little action, and by the middle of the second volume, Boen had gotten bored and not asked me to keep reading it to him (something which never happened when I read the original 1963 Spider-man stories to him and his brother!)

Monday, January 25, 2021

Switching to Bar Soap

 I'd been using Nivea 3-in-1 shampoo and body wash for myself and the kids through a series of Amazon deals, but then ran out in the middle of the summer. I felt a little guilty about the amount of plastic being thrown away, and read a few articles about the much reduced carbon footprints of bar soaps and decided to try them.

Dove is the default brand at both Costco and Amazon. Each bar lasts about a week, but the book Clean noted that Dove as a PH-neutral soap did not clean as effectively as real soap! So I tried the whole foods branded 360 Soap. The kids love the smell and my wife stole a bar, but the pine tar version left a nasty black residue in the bath tub. Each bar lasts a week as well, but is an awkward shape and doesn't really fit well in the bath.

I remembered using the Grant Petersen approved Grandpa's Pine Tar soap, which is more expensive per ounce than either of the above. The kids didn't love the smell, but after a week of use (each bar lasts two and a half weeks, so you would be willing to pay twice as much per ounce for this soap compared to the whole foods or Dove soap), all eczema was gone, and any residual itchiness they complained about on a regular basis is gone as well. I guess this is the one to get.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Review: Spider-man Miles Morales (PS4 Pro)

 I wasn't going to pick up Spider-man: Miles Morales until it had dropped in price, but all the reviews mentioned that it was a short game, which meant I might actually get a chance to finish it during my winter break. My biggest complaint about most video games is how they feel like a slog, or are too hard, or take too long so I never get to the finish, and I played the original Spider-man so much that I got the platinum trophy, so I decided that I should put my money where my mouth is and play it.

From a game play point of view, the game isn't much different than the prior Peter-Parker rendition. Miles Morales has several bio-electricity powers that Peter Parker doesn't have, and as a result, the game's more willing to throw lots of densely packed enemies at you, so you get a chance to use those powers (and you get punished if you don't). In exchange, you get a lot fewer gadgets.

The story is great: it's nothing like Into the Spider-Verse, since the previous Spider-man game had already killed off Morales' father. The game introduces a new Peter Parker model that looks a lot more like Paul Holland's character in the movies. The tension, angst, and family drama are every bit as good as any of Peter Parker's stories, though there isn't any romantic interest or tension in the story. The theme is appropriate, especially for a year when Black Lives Matter has been on every person's mind for at least a few months, but in no way does it feel like a cash grab or cheap.

Reflecting on this game as well as The Last of Us Part II, I've been very impressed that all the games that I've really enjoyed have come out of one Sony Studio or another --- forget the hardware, these games really do sell the system and keep me in the Playstation ecosystem for the long haul. Well worth your time, and a great substitute until the next great Spider-man movie comes out.

Highly recommended!

Monday, January 18, 2021

Review: Canon Image Class MF644Cdw

 The wife and kids have been asking for a color printer for a while, and at the same time my ancient brother scanner started dying, able to only scan one-side of a double-sided piece of paper. Thanks to black Friday, the Canon Image Class MF644Cdw was under $300, and would replace both. I also considered the bigger counter-part, but those came in close to 60+ pounds, and our printing volume was not expected to exceed what the MF644Cdw could do. At 50 pounds the MF644Cdw was close to what I could lift by myself.

Other people have waxed lyrical about the unboxing experience of an Apple product (I myself have never been impressed) but the Canon MF644Cdw's unboxing is an experience to behold! Basically, you unfold the flaps and pull on them and the entire box comes off. The engineers who did this have definitely achieved something.

As expected, the 50 pound weight is a pain, and once you're done you have to peel off various seals and stickers that exist to keep the device's various accouterments from flipping open while you lift and shift the thing. Once plugged in, you use the device's touch screen to connect it to WiFi, and then you have to login using a web browser to configure it to accept scans via SAMBA (which I sent to a OneDrive sync'd folder, so that any scans would automatically get shared and uploaded to the cloud), as well as manage defaults. You can also arrange for scans to be sent via e-mail,  but thanks to improved security, I couldn't set it up or get it to work with the TLS enabled gmail SMTP server. The web menu is unintuitive and painful to use, but it's a one-time setup, and once all the defaults are setup correctly you won't ever have to do it again.

Apple devices automatically recognize the printer over the wire via airplay, while Windows devices can get a dedicated driver installed via USB or CD-drive. As usual, the windows devices are more finicky to setup, but in exchange you get toner status data and other such features.

Scanning is fast and easy, as is copying and printing. About the most annoying feature of the printing is the noise --- the fan spins up, there's a whining sound, then it prints, and after that the fans and whining continue for quite some time after the print job is finished. It's not really noticeable during a zoom call (I sit right next to the printer), but I could imagine that if print jobs were frequent I'd be looking for a closet so I didn't have to hear it.

The paper tray is small, so definitely go for the next size up if your print loads are heavy. But as an all in one device it works and works well, very much like a full-size office device. Recommended.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Review: D&D Adventure Begins Cooperative Board Game

 So much of what I could do with Bowen was because he was a precocious reader, never being intimidated by board games that required reading or even RPGs that required multi-hundred page books to play. Boen is a different story, but so when the D&D Adventure Begins Board Game went on sale, I bought it hoping that it would work for Boen.

You have to set expectations for this correctly. First of all, it comes with no character creation rules, but several decks of cards. Not surprisingly, the decks of cards are basically flavor text, all with the same game mechanics. And then there are various bosses, also with mostly flavor text, and then the adventure deck, which actually are quite different from boss to boss, which gives each adventure scenario a different flavor.

The character levels only go up to level 2, which is just fine for a short board game. DM control passes from player to player, but requires that the DM be able to read, so when playing with Boen, Bowen and I traded DM roles. The combat encounters are fun, and death is at most temporary, with no one permanently kicked out of the game unless a TPK happens, which would require a lot of bad luck in combination with poor strategy. This is a far easier game than any of the adult D&D board games. 

By far the best thing about this board game are the role playing encounters. Some of them are really whimsical and fun and in keeping with a 5-year old's spirit. One of them asked all the players to do a silly dance and have the DM judge which one is silliest. Boen really got a kick out of this one!

We sat down to play one boss and after defeating it, the kids immediately asked to play another one. And would have proceeded to playing all 4 scenarios if I hadn't gotten bored. This one's a keeper. Recommended.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Review: Clean

 Clean was on the Smithsonian 20 best science books of the year, and it was written by a doctor who's a staff writer at The Atlantic, so I checked it out of the library. The book begins strongly, with the doctor proclaiming that he hadn't showered for years. Then he gets into the reason behind it, including a fun reading history of soap, as well as the sad lack of regulation behind personal care products:

European Union and Canada have been reviewing ingredients in personal care products for decades. More than 1,500 chemicals are banned or restricted from these products in the European Union, and some 800 are banned or restricted in Canada. California state lawmakers proposed a bill in 2019 that would ban the inclusion of lead, formaldehyde, mercury, asbestos, and many other potentially harmful compounds from personal care products, which, if enacted, would be the first legislation of its kind in the United States. As of this writing, the effort has not yet been successful. (kindle loc 1505)

But the detail isn't there. There's no discussion as to whether not showering or bathing will solve eczema, a common childhood ailment. No studies (double-blinded or not), just loads and loads of anecdotal evidence. We get lots of copy text about how little regulation there is for makeup and other health supplements (which you would know about if you'd even read one other non-fiction book about the topic), but the scientific evidence is sadly lacking. There is a note that Dove is a particularly ineffective soap, which is why it gets to be marketed as mild!

The book then branches out into various other aspects of the hygiene hypothesis and the rise of allergy and asthma:

 In wealthy countries around the world, people now spend more than 90 percent of their lives indoors. Friends and family are not allowed to touch babies unless their hands have been scrubbed or coated in antibacterial gels. The indoor air is lacking in the wealth of bacterial particles that used to temper our immune systems. Our diet is hyperprocessed and cleaned and low in fresh fruits and vegetables—which are naturally loaded with bacteria. An average apple contains 100 million microbes. (kindle loc 1765)

But there's no real detail behind it. There's nothing about whether eating apple skin is good for you, no studies, and definitely no clinical recommendations. The entire book goes on like this, with forays into green space exposure and outdoor exercise vs indoor exercise: 

A number of studies have reported associations between green-space exposure and self-reported health, birth outcomes, and reduced morbidity. A 2018 meta-analysis found statistically significant associations between exposure to green spaces and reduced blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol levels, incidence of type 2 diabetes, and death from cardiovascular disease. Exercising outdoors may also have health benefits you don’t get at the gym. Much work has been done in this area by Diana Bowler and colleagues in the UK, who compared the effects of exercise in “natural” and “synthetic” environments and found that a walk or run outside “may convey greater health benefits than the same activity in a synthetic environment.” (kindle loc 2004)

At least this particular instance had great relevance to me and some literature citations, but the author provides no quantification of the results, and clearly the science here is difficult to do (how do you do a double-blind study of a topic like this one?). I came away with the book vaguely dissatisfied. I cannot sincerely recommend this book.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Review: The Last of Us Part 2

 Several years ago, I reviewed The Last of Us and compared it with eating your vegetables. Not having very much experience with video games, I didn't realize that the game was basically a 3D combat game, where each level could not be traversed without killing everything in it. Yet the story was haunting, as was the music, and of course the art direction and graphics made your jaw drop.

I'm a cheap skate, so I didn't buy The Last of Us Part 2 at launch, but rather, waited until it had dropped in price to $30, and then put in a Best Buy coupon to bring it down further.  I'd played all the PS3 and PS4 naughty dog games, so I thought I knew what to expect, and I really enjoyed the sensibility that Naughty Dog brought --- the games were more like movies than they were simple shooters, alternating between walking simulators, and the art direction and cinematography were second to none.

The opening of the game made my jaw drop once again. I'd played Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy, but The Last of Us Part II made me forget that I was playing a video game and not watching a live action movie more than one. While Xiaoqin had occasionally commented that some of the previous games I'd played looked like movies, none of them (not even Red Dead Redemption 2) came close when I was holding the controller. The game play is quite similar to the first game, but with my expectations set correctly by the first game, I no longer tried to get through levels without killing everything --- I knew now that you had to kill everything to get through, and that the game would actually do a reasonable job of replenishing your supplies, but if you stealth-killed a few enemies early on you had less pressure for the rest of each level.

The levels were huge. I was very pleasantly surprised towards the end that one of the levels was so large that I could go back to a previously cleared section to run away and pick up supplies to continue fighting and eventually cleared the level. That running away is an option was a good thing --- I'm not so good at video games that I can just play through them, and continually dying was not fun and broke the cinematic experience. I mostly played the game on normal, but had 2 encounters where I dropped the difficulty level to easy because the game was so atmospheric that playing in the dark hours of the morning I got more than a little bit spooked.

The scenery is good, but there's nothing as spectacular as what I saw in Uncharted 4 or even in the original Last of Us. Seattle, for instance, was frequently overcast, and I never got high enough to get a grand view, though certain sunsets were pretty.

Which leaves the pacing and story. Here be spoilers. So read no further if you wish to be surprised during the game.