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Monday, May 10, 2021

Review: Peak - Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

 To say that Anders Ericsson, the author of Peak, is a legend would be an understatement. Over the years, his name has come up in various books I've read, from Talent is Overrated to Moonwalking with Einstein. I'm glad he finally decided to tell stories about his research rather than have someone else tell it for him, even though the examples he used, like the one about Laszlo and Klara Polgar raising three sisters who all became chess grandmasters have been widely told about and used.

True to his research, Ericsson is vehement that deliberate practice is what separates the good from the great. In fact, he notes that the better and best students sleep much more because they work so hard at their practice that they become worn out:

The best and the better students averaged around five hours more of sleep per week than the good students, mostly by taking more time for afternoon naps. All of the students in the study—the good students, the better, and the best—spent about the same amount of time each week on leisure activities, but the best students were much better at estimating how much time they spent on leisure, which indicates that they made more of an effort to plan their time. Good planning can help you avoid many of the things that might lead you to spend less time on practice than you wanted. (Pg. 170)

He notes that music and sports are where all the research is done, because the objective criteria via competitions and selection are stable and not as subject to chance. We know this isn't true, since Producing Excellence kicks off with a story indicating that politics and rigged competition in those fields is the norm. (Though my suspicion is that to win a rigged competition you still have to be good enough for it to be plausible)  Ericsson notes that even if it was true that talent played an important part, believing in deliberate practice was better for you since it would encourage you to work hard.

Ericsson trots out study after study about the effect deliberate practice has on your brain, from taxi cab drivers in London to musicians to poly-lingual kids. One interesting note is that those brain changes are most obvious in people who've studied or started their practice as kids. One exception is mathematicians and scientists who start out much older than their peers in other fields, and so frequently are inspired by great teachers rather than their parents.

The true contribution that this book provides is the notion of providing opportunities for deliberate practice during the work day --- giving employees and team members leeway during presentations to deliberately work on one aspect or another of their presentation skills and then providing immediate feedback. That's a great idea. Another great idea is the discussion of physics education at UBC, where a professor and his team showed that a skill-based approach to teaching as opposed to the traditional lecture system worked much better at teaching physics (and is applicable to other fields such as computer science and math). Those two chapters are probably worth the price of the book alone. What's interesting about that approach to teaching that Ericsson doesn't mention is that the students in those classes think they learn less with this approach!

All in all, deliberate practice is uncomfortable and should leave you feeling drained. One of the big implications is that if you want to deliberately incorporate a culture that values it in a company, you cannot value face-time over effectiveness --- if your employees need to take naps in the afternoon that means they're pushing themselves to the limit. Unfortunately, much as that article about students thinking they learned less with active learning, I suspect managers will think that employees are working less!

Regardless, the book provides much food for thought and many interesting stories. Well worth your time.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Review: Gotham by Gaslight

 The reveal in the animated version of Gotham by Gaslight was impressive, so I checked out the book from the library. With art by Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell, I expected a lot. I was actually disappointed by the writing and the setting --- it's a short read but it doesn't bring anything to Batman mythos, nor does it explore the character in interesting ways. One of the rare examples where the movie is actually better than the book. Hard pass.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Review: Extreme Medicine

 Extreme Medicine is a book about how exploration transformed medicine and vice-versa, and starts off with the discussion of Robert F Scott's death in Antarctica and tying it to the survival of Anna Bagenholm, one of the first people who'd survived due to deep cold conditions. The author, Kevin Fong is an MD and I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the book, but upon reflection realized that Robert F Scott had nothing to do with Bagenholm's survival!

The same sequence would happen all through the book in the early chapters, detailing burn victims, and then you hit smack-dab into the section on the ICU, which has a discussion of the original SARS epidemic and but has zero content about  how the various devices in the ICU works and also noted that the SARS epidemic was won by public health, not by heroic interventions in the ICU. Sure, the ICU saved lives, but as the recent SARS-Cov2 virus showed, no amount of ICU intervention will prevent large numbers of death if your public health infrastructure has fallen down.

Hence, you get a great discussion of the invention of ventilators, only to realize (and to his credit Fong acknowledges that) the polio epidemics was only ended by vaccines.

Only the final few chapters have anything to do with exploration --- the one on traveling to Mars and NASA's repeated attempt at artificial gravity does actually seem like inventions designed to facilitate exploration, as well as the solar flare protection plans. But boy, that's 1 chapter in a book that otherwise never ties its content to its title.

Fong is a good presenter (apparently he's  TV personality in the UK), and writes well. The prose is reasonably interesting, but I'd recommend several other medical-related books over this one.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Review: March Trilogy

 March: Trilogy is the story of the Civil Rights  movement as told by the late John Lewis. I've already read about much of this in Master of the Senate, but this graphic novel (broken into 3 books for no apparent reason) provides details that only an insider can.

The first big detail was how much training, preparation and selection went into selecting the civil rights protesters. This was not a mob of angry volunteers, but people seriously inculcated in the art of non-violent demonstration, and prepared to put their bodies and lives on the line. The SNCC would actively tell people not to join if they couldn't discipline themselves into not fighting back.

What I didn't know also was the separation of the SNCC (John Lewis's organization) from the SCLC, which was associated with Martin Luther King. The two groups did coordinate actions, but did not always see eye to eye on when to demonstrate. Finally, the description of Malcolm X and what he saw his role in the movement was interesting, though again, the book did not dwell on it or discuss its implications.

I would not have found this book without the help of the Black Lives Matter movement, but having found it, thought it was a great way to tell the story. The art is well done (all in black and white), and many scenes bring home the horror and violence of the segregationists of that period. I've often wondered if the non-violent movements for both India and the Civil Rights movement only succeeded because they weren't up against a truly implacable enemy like the Nazis, but reading this book reminded me that there's no difference between the segregationists, the Nazis, and the modern Republican party.


Monday, April 26, 2021

Review: Ultimate Spider-Man Vol 6 + 7

 Ultimate Spider-Man 6 recounts the story of Venom, but I didn't like it compared to the original story, where the venom suit was originally a symbiote alien parasite. In this version, the suit is actually a leftover from Eddie Brock and Peter Parker's parents, and it seemed so strange that they would spend so much effort developing something and then not actually leave any notes about how dangerous it was.

Ultimate Spider-Man 7 is much better. It depicts Spider-Man's first encounter with the X-men, and does several sleights of hand that gives you the fun of the traditional super-hero encounter (the good guys always have to fight each other) without actually devolving into that cliché, which I enjoyed. Even better, the book ends with an entire issue where we get to listen to Aunt May's side of the Spider-Man story, depicting her sympathetically and explaining her quick adoption of Gwen Stacy. This volume redeemed the mess that was the Venom story.

Both kids love me reading Spider-man to them, and eagerly wait for my hoopla quota to be reset every month so we can check out more Spider-man.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Review: Exercised

 Exercised is an evolutionary biologist's view of the modern invention of exercise. It turns out that Dan Lieberman was the person whose paper inspired the book, Born to Run, which described a tribe of Tarahumara runners in Mexico who run barefoot. But when Lieberman actually visits that tribe, when he interviews everyone, he discovered that most people would say that they didn't race, and definitely did not exercise. When he finally found a racer, he asked the racer about training, and the racer looked nonplused and had to have the concept of training explained to him. It turned out that the Tarahumara race was actually a social ritual, involving kicking a ball, following it, and then kicking it again. The race involved 2 teams, and the team that lapped another team won, so races could go on all night. Lieberman speculates later on in the book that this sport probably evolved out of the need to track animals over long distances while doing persistence hunting.

Lieberman delves into many myths about exercise. The big one (which is the subtitle of the book) is that we were never born to exercise. The hunter-gather tribes live on such an edge of caloric sufficiency that humans who unnecessarily expended energy would have to give up reproduction or other important activities of life, so instead, the human body (and brain!) evolved to do everything as efficiently as possible while expending as little energy as possible. In fact, the average hunter gatherer walks about 20,000 steps a day, which while a lot compared to modern Westernized societies, is only about 10 miles. From this insight, many other aspects of modern ailments and attitudes towards exercise can be deduced. For instance, one reason walking doesn't really result in weight loss is that walking is so efficient that you'd have to well exceed the minimum typically prescribed by health authorities --- you pretty much have to run (an hour or so) or walk tremendous amounts to achieve weight loss.

From this, Lieberman goes on to attack other myths, such as the one about "sitting is the new smoking." It turns out that traditional hunter-gathers do sit a lot. But it's rarely more than 15 minutes at a stretch, and obviously, they're still getting lots of walking in. It's not the sitting that's bad, it's that the time spent sitting in front of a TV or computer monitor is time that isn't spent exercising. Lieberman then explains why exercise is so good for you --- it creates inflammation and then the body hyper-compensates, basically overdoing the repair and eliminating the damaged caused by the exercise and then some. What's important here is that the lack of activity actually induces a mild form of inflammation, which is repaired during recovery from exercise. Because humans evolved in a state where exercise was required to survive, the recovery system never evolved to activate outside of exercise, which is why exercise is so important.

Similarly, Lieberman dismisses the paleo-fitness regime. He points out that the traditional hunter gatherer male is 5'5" and 115 pounds, and that modern gym rats with access to weight machines and dumb-bells and access to all the food they want, have exceeded the strength of most hunter gatherers (not to mention weight!). The metabolic requirements of excess muscle would never have been tolerated in a state of caloric scarcity. He does point out that traditional human society do participate in rituals that look a bit like training: dancing and sports, some of which last long enough to evoke endorphin high and other experiences that athletes have experienced,.

The exploration of aging is also excellent. Lieberman points out that hunter gatherers do live to the traditional 4 score and 10 years, but also have much reduced morbidity compared to modern Westerners. The advances in medicine mostly means that people who might otherwise have died earlier, live about as long as hunter gatherers, but in a state of requiring constant medical support in the form of medicine, surgery, and therapy. He points out that even people who never exercise (e.g., Donald Trump) frequently do live long lives --- it's just that they might have to be on medication, and obviously they're not performing optimally, mentally or physically.

The book is well written and I read it compellingly for not just the health nuggets and advice, but also for the stories about the research on the topic. After I finished I wanted to go back and start it again, and wish I'd waited for the ebook version from the library so I could have highlighted the important passages. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Review Fire HD8+

 My Fire HD10 died for no apparent reason, and upon contacting Amazon, it was long out of warranty. The customer service rep offered me a 15% off coupon, but I noted that there was a Trade-In Offer that gave me 20%. The customer rep told me that the two offers stacked, so I took them up on it. After the trade in, that netted me the Fire HD8+ for under $75 after tax.

There were 2 main reasons for going with the smaller display. The first was that the smaller device was lighter. The second was that the expensive version of the device (the HD8+) had 3GB of RAM. It also comes with wireless charging, but I've never been bothered by the need to plug my device in so I didn't consider that a useful feature. Going from 2GB to 3GB have favorably improved my impressions of Android on the phone, so I thought it might be similar for the tablet.

I bought an official used Fire HD8+ case, which folds nicely both horizontally and vertically, though much more vertically than anyone has a right to expect. In practice, the device doesn't seem to be fast, but then one day I compared it with an older Fire HD10 and it was indeed faster. It still chugs a little when switching apps, which is a surprise since my phones never had the issue once they had more than 2GB of RAM, and the Fire HD8+ with its 800p display should be much less demanding than most phones.

It's lighter, and no less good for reading comic books than the bigger device (I've been reading the various Spider-Man comics on it to my kids --- they would sit on the top of a double decker bed while looking down at my screen while I was reading the book to them, and it's a major testament to their eyes that they had no issue making out pictures, etc). I watched a couple of movies on it at night in bed, and the lighter weight reduced fatigue and made it possible to watch an entire movie at once.


Thursday, April 15, 2021

Review: The Nordic Theory of Everything - In Search of a Better Life

 The Nordic Theory of Everything is Anu Partanen's personal journal of her transition to the USA from Finland. It's a good example of how I can agree with everything in a book but still find it wanting, mostly because Partanen approaches everything from a logical explanatory fashion that would work if everyone operated on rational, timeless ethics, but didn't study history.

If you haven't been living under a rock (or maybe if you're just one of those Americans without a passport), you know that most of Western Europe (and especially the Scandinavian countries) have living standards that exceed that of the United States. These include 5-6 weeks of paid vacation, a national healthcare system that means no medical bankruptcies, free college, paid parental leave (for both parents!), gun control laws that means your kids don't get shot at school, great public transit systems, excellent schools, and a generally less financially stressed out life. Partanen takes it upon herself to explain the principles and logic behind those policies, and how they benefit the citizens at large of those countries, while costing less than the American way of doing things.

I agree with all of her logic and explanations, and thoroughly understands why she would miss all the best parts of Finnish society while being thoroughly stressed out by the craziness that Americans accept. But she does all this without explaining why the US is the way it is: a history of racism. Many American counties shutdown their public swimming pools rather than desegregate. Norfolk, Charlottesville, and Warren county chose to shutdown public schools rather than desegregate. When a people are so concerned with "the others" getting what they've been getting that they would rather their kids lose public schooling, no amount of rational pontificating is going to persuade them that giving everyone healthcare is a good idea.

When Obamacare was rolled out, liberals expected that states would expand Medicaid to help their uninsured citizens. But many states (you can guess which easily by looking at any chart of red vs blue states) chose not to expand Medicaid and decided to leave their poorest citizens (colored or white) uninsured instead.  Kansas, for instance had attempted to pass Medicaid expansion several times but failed.

Without an understanding of the history, you end up with a book like Partanen's. Completely correct, logical, and agreeable, but without explanatory power. If you don't know anything about European social democratic systems, the book's great. But if you already do, this book won't do anything for you. Read Democracy in Chains instead.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Review: Ultimate Spider-Man 3, 4, 5

The kids have been making me read Ultimate Spider-Man to them, at least a chapter/issue every night, sometimes two. Since these are all easily checked out from Hoopla, I've been indulging them, having never read them. After being impressed by the first two volumes of the series, the next 3 have not been nearly so impressive.

For instance, I was very impressed by Peter Parker revealing his secret  identity to Mary Jane, but in his relationship with Aunt May, he reverts back to form, continuing lying to her and getting himself into trouble. The green goblin story arc so had none of the stakes that came in the original story, not just because nobody dies, but also because Mary Jane hadn't been established enough that even if she had been killed or injured, it wouldn't have had the impact Gwen Stacy's loss had in the original series.

Speaking of Gwen Stacy, I liked her in the reboot, but by putting two women immediately into Peter Parker's life, we actually lose empathy with him --- he's no longer the date-less nerd/geek we saw in the original series. The injection of other superheroes and Nick Fury into the series also feels premature. Nevertheless, the series stays true to the principle that whenever Spider-Man's life gets better, Peter Parker's life gets worse. There's also one humorous story in the fifth collection which sees Peter Parker being unable to change into Spider-Man while in school, which I thought was great but was completely lost on my little kids.

I can't say these were the best comics reading I've had in years, but I thought they were OK.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Reread: Cosmos

 I checked out Cosmos from the library in the hopes of reading it to Bowen. To say that the book and the TV series was influential in my life and shaping my thoughts as an adolescent is an under-statement. The book's telling of the story of Hypatia, for instance, has haunted my thoughts and understanding of the price scientists and truth-seekers have paid for their unswerving allegiance of the truth.  Sad to say, Bowen got bored after I read him the story of how you could use sticks to measure the size of the Earth, but I found myself getting sucked in the book again.

It's a truism that science moves on, and one would expect that books written decades ago are obsolete today, but to my surprise, Carl Sagan picked such a good job picking topics and materials that are timeless and resistant to obsolescence that the book still reads well. Perhaps the only fault I might even consider picking on is the Drake's equation, where today we know that most stars close to the center of the galaxy are likely to have been sterilized constantly by the presence of supernovas nearby and wouldn't be able to harbor life, but doing the math even reducing those numbers by a third doesn't really make a huge difference in the end result.

But what comes through even more is how poetic the book is, and how much the book is a paean to the scientific endeavor and the sense of wonder it brings:

We are, in the most profound sense, children of the Cosmos. Think of the Sun’s heat on your upturned face on a cloudless summer’s day; think how dangerous it is to gaze at the Sun directly. From 150 million kilometers away, we recognize its power. What would we feel on its seething self-luminous surface, or immersed in its heart of nuclear fire? The Sun warms us and feeds us and permits us to see. It fecundated the Earth. It is powerful beyond human experience. Birds greet the sunrise with an audible ecstasy. Even some one-celled organisms know to swim to the light. Our ancestors worshiped the Sun,* and they were far from foolish. And yet the Sun is an ordinary, even a mediocre star. If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the Sun and stars? Hidden within every astronomical investigation, sometimes so deeply buried that the researcher himself is unaware of its presence, lies a kernel of awe. (Kindle loc 4021)

Even the final chapters, written near the end of the cold war about the threat of nuclear extinction, still reads relevantly today: 

The chief danger of adopting a credible pose of irrationality is that to succeed in the pretense you have to be very good. After a while, you get used to it. It becomes pretense no longer. (Kindle loc 5400)

 If we are willing to contemplate nuclear war and the wholesale destruction of our emerging global society, should we not also be willing to contemplate a wholesale restructuring of our societies? From an extraterrestrial perspective, our global civilization is clearly on the edge of failure in the most important task it faces: to preserve the lives and well-being of the citizens of the planet. Should we not then be willing to explore vigorously, in every nation, major changes in the traditional ways of doing things, a fundamental redesign of economic, political, social and religious institutions? (kindle loc 5452)

In today's post-truth society, the ethos of science and scientists is under attack more than ever.  But Sagan still reminds us that science is the framework that lifted civilization out of the dark ages, and that of the essential properties that have made it far different from the philosophy that came before:

it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything. It has two rules. First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. We must understand the Cosmos as it is and not confuse how it is with how we wish it to be. (Kindle loc 5516)

 In the final chapter, you can hear the pleading in Sagan's voice, begging scientists not to abandon public discourse, for fear that the story of Hypatia would become a common-place one. And today, we need it more than ever before. For me anyway, this is a much needed reminder after reading the biography of Enrico Fermi.


Monday, April 05, 2021

Review: Invincible Compendium 2

 Invincible Compendium 2 carries on from the first book, and you can see Kirkman having settled into a rhythm - have one threat in the background while the hero is dealing with another, and keep them coming fast and furious.

Superhero comics tend to escalate - after you've saved the world, you need to save the galaxy. After you've dealt with super-powered aliens, you have to deal with an army of them. This together with the problem that punching problems is of limited use in the real world, superheroes also tend towards taking over the world if they want to break out of the doom loop of capturing supervillains, putting them in jail, and then having them escape again only to do their dastardly deeds.

To his credit, Kirkman's book deals with all these issues. And it does so well in the context of the story -- Mark gets a younger brother who's half-alien, and hence doesn't have the same perspective as a human, and naturally asks wouldn't he have saved more lives if he'd killed the super-villains, given their penchant for escaping prisons and coming back to hurt more people. Similarly, by the middle of the book, he's questioning how much good he's actually doing by just repeating the super-hero loop, especially when one of the villains succeed in blowing up a city, and proving that the result was beneficial in the long run.

Kirkman isn't the first to deal with these issue. Alan Moore classically does this in Miracleman, still the best re-constructionist telling of the superhero story in history: the ultimate conclusion of the Superman history has to be Superman taking control of the world. It can't end any other way satisfactorily. A similar theme shows up in Warren Ellis's The Authority series, which also features the hyper-violence in Kirkman's work. To be honest Miracleman is a much better told story, tightly paced, and with much better science fiction (e.g., Miracleman's powers are explained, while Invincibles powers just rely on you knowing the superhero tropes). But Kirkman does do coupled superhero stories in ways that I thought were uniquely his own, so I still think his stuff is well worth the read.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Review: The Pope of Physics - Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age

 I picked up The Pope of Physics as an audio book when it was on sale.  One of the classic interview question types during technical interview is the Fermi estimation problem. But other than that, I realized I didn't know very much about Fermi, so a biography would be well worth reading.

This biography of Fermi turned out to be educational in more ways than just learning about his contribution to physics and how Fermions were named after him. Not only did it cover the rise of physics from being a backwater of intellectual progress (there were more professorships of Math in Italy than there were professors of Physics) to the forefront of war, it also covered the way the rise of fascism in Italy was ignored by high social ranking families who thought they were immune. Fermi's wife, Laura Capon was Jewish, and her father was a (retired) admiral in the Italian Navy and a war hero. Because they thought they were protected, they were complacent about the semitism that was on the rise in Italy at the time. By the time Fermi realized he had to flee, it was almost too late --- he eventually used the Nobel prize ceremony (he won one in 1938) as an excuse for him and his family to visit Stockholm and London and then ran away to the United States. The lesson I take from this is that if you're not a Nobel prize winning physicist and the country you live in is about to turn fascist (and you're not a member of the ruling party), you absolutely cannot wait until the last minute to take precautions and plan to escape.

One would think that after that intrusion of politics into Fermi's personal life would make him more of a political activist, but Fermi truly was a physicists' physicist, happy to make statements about how physicists don't have any special insight about how atomic bombs should or should not be used. In fact, when the hydrogen bomb was initially proposed by Teller, Fermi voted against pursuing it because he and others spotted flaws in the proposed implementation. When a revised implementation plan was proposed, he was so taken by the technical implications that he happily joined in against the effort!

All in all, the book does a great job in providing the context behind an amazing thinker (including many examples of how he was at the same time a theoretical physicist, an experimental physicist, and a teacher --- all of which he did well), as well as a good idea of what it took for him to do this --- his children grew up estranged from him, as he spent more time with his students and experiments than with his children.

Well worth the time. Recommended.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Review: Optix 55 AntiFog

 I asked my optometrist what he did to keep his glasses from fogging up when he had a mask on. He told me to buy the Optix 55 AntiFog. "It's the best I've tried, though not perfect." "Is it better than baby shampoo that scuba divers use?" "Better by far!"

My first impression was disappointment. My glasses didn't fog up white, but instead was smeared all across like a worn out windshield wiper on a car used in rain. I was about to write a scathing review when I read that you had to leave it on longer before wiping it.

That did the trick. It's still possible to overload the anti-fog, by riding through fog, but for normal breathing out of a mask, the glasses never fogged up again. Well worth the money. Recommended.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Review: Yubico FIDO Security NFC

 For years, every time I turned on MFA on my Google accounts, within weeks, I'd be turning it off because of some issue with authentication, or needing to use my account on a device while traveling. The gold standard, of course, was a security key, but those are expensive, and I was doubtful as to whether or not they'd do any good. You'd need at least 2, so you always had one as a backup.

Over the Christmas holidays, there was a deal that got me 2 Yubico NFC keys for $26 shipped, which was a fantastic deal. These are the right kinds, because while traveling you're most likely to need the USB-A, and if you're bringing a laptop with only USB-C ports, you can also bring a USB-C to USB-A dongle, while the reverse dongle isn't easy to get.

My first impression registering the key with Google accounts was fine. With Facebook, if you already have MFA setup, you can't replace it with the key, which is annoying as heck. I was extremely disappointed when I discovered that all banks I used didn't allow the use of the key, and of my brokerage accounts, only Vanguard allowed the registration of the key. As always, Vanguard has the best IT of all the financial institutions, and if you care about security, they're the only people who deserve your business. Even then, to my surprise when I tried to logon to Vanguard with my phone's web browser (Chrome or Edge, it doesn't matter), the browser fell back to insecure SMS instead of using the NFC security key feature, so I'm not sure how much security this even buys you!

Having 2 keys mean you can have one tied to your key ring, and another in your wallet, or give one to your wife when traveling. The device seems robust, and if only Amazon allowed you to force the use of it, my kids would be prevented from buying themselves presents. For a low security person like me (not a target of state actors), this device is overkill, but it's been 2 months since I got one and I haven't wanted to turn it off yet, so it's not horribly inconvenient (yet! During COVID19 I'm not traveling!). I wouldn't recommend this at full price, and adoption amongst the majors (Amazon and Facebook in addition to most banks) is so abysmal I'm not sure what this gets you. I wouldn't recommend it for most people --- it's lack of use for the most important stuff (banks! money!) seems to indicate that you're better off using a regular MFA app (I recommend Microsoft Authenticator) than trying to use this fiddly crap.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Review: Galileo and the Science Deniers

 The story of Galileo was the story that turned me permanently off Christianity (I went to a mission school, and my parents were kinda surprised that all 3 kids rejected the religion being foisted upon us daily). I thought I knew it well, but Galileo and the Science Deniers goes one further. Far from the story of Galileo's scientific achievements (which are many), it's also a celebration of the man as a true renaissance person, who achieved as much in the arts, while doing the best he could with the hand he dealt.

The section of the book that goes over the legal fight leading up to his permanent house arrest is a bit of a slog, going into detail the politics and the details of the legal briefs, as well as the personalities and political machinations involved. What does come through is that the brand of science denial that existed in Galileo's time is alive and well, and the same people who can't wait to get the latest gadget are perfectly comfortable denying evolution or denying climate change.

What got me to leave off the recommended tag on this book is that the legalistic section was far too boring (and provided little illumination), and the author doesn't provide any solutions for debunking the science deniers.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Review: Ultimate Spider-man Vol 1 & 2

 Ultimate Spider-Man is a retelling of the Peter Parker story in an alternate universe, updated to the 2000s.  The drawings are different, and the origin story gets drawn out into multiple issues instead of having everything compressed into one issue. I enjoyed some of the differences: for instance, Peter Parker instead of inventing the web-fluid, adapts it from a formula left by his father. The origin of Spider-man, Green Goblin, and Doctor Octopus are all tied together into one coherent plot-line, instead of being different.

Peter Parker instead of being a goody-two-shoes all the time, behaves a little bit more like a teenager, with signs of rebellion, and occasional anger at his care-takers. There's a great reference to the uniquely dysfunctional American legal and health care system, where Peter Parker blocks a punch by Flash Thompson, breaks Thompson's hand because of his new found strength, and Ben and May Parker gets sued for hospital bills and Peter is left protesting against his guardians for defending himself instead of letting himself get beaten-up and bullied. I particularly enjoyed Peter Parker revealing himself as Spider-man to Mary Jane at the end of Vol 2, which eliminates all the stupid angsty stories of personal conflicts between the couple, preventing you from wanting to shake Peter and say, "You idiot, just tell her!"

Both Bowen and Boen enjoy the books enough to ask for more. That makes the series recommended.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Review: The Hype Machine

 I read The Hype Machine hoping to find some answers about social media and how it was used to destroy democracy. I did learn a few things, some of which you probably already knew, about the lies spreading and being more easily clicked on and read and believed than the truth:

Abnormal trading volume rose by 37 percent over the three days following the publication of real news articles and 50 percent more following the publication of fake news articles relative to real news articles. In other words, investors reacted to fake news even more strongly than to real news. The reactions were more pronounced for smaller firms and for firms with a greater percentage of retail (as opposed to institutional) investors. Fake articles were clicked on and read more often than real articles, and trading volume increased with the number of clicks and times an article was read. (Kindle loc 685)

I learned the technical term for measuring the effectiveness of a social ad, "lift", which basically measures the influence and ad has for changing your actions. This is more subtle than you might think, since for instance, an ad that's shown to you that confirms your biases and reminds you to buy something you would have bought anyway doesn't contribute to lift.

What the book does not provided are easy answers. At no point does the author Aral come to a conclusion as to whether the Russians succeeded in throwing the 2016 election to Trump. He does not that the amount of lift a campaign of that size, if targeted properly at the right voters in the right places, would decide the election:

“the proportion of misinformation was twice that of the content from experts and the candidates themselves.” When they calculated whether a state had more or less Russian fake news, they found that 12 of 16 swing states were above the average. They concluded that Russian fake news was “surprisingly concentrated in swing states, even considering the amount of political conversation occurring in the state.” Although more than 135 million votes were cast in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, six swing states (New Hampshire, Minnesota, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania) were decided by margins of less than 2 percent, and 77,744 votes in three swing states (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) effectively decided the election. (kindle loc 778)

He notes that a society that can converge onto the truth is wise, and clearly we do not live in such a society:

They called societies that did so “wise.” They found that a society’s network has one simple and complete characterization of wisdom—one requirement for being able to arrive at the truth. And that is that it does not have, in modern vernacular, “influencers.” As Golub and Jackson wrote, “Disproportionate popularity is the sole obstacle to wisdom….Having agents who are prominent, causes learning to fail, since their influence on the limiting beliefs is excessive.” Societies without wisdom lack “balance,” meaning some groups have disproportionately more influence than others and may not pay sufficient attention to the rest of the world. Sound familiar? This is the world we live in, where Barack Obama and Donald Trump have 110 million and 67 million Twitter followers, respectively. Where Kanye West has 30 million followers and follows 300 people. (Kindle loc 4496)

Basically, societies where a few influencers lead and a bunch of followers follow without thinking for themselves will lead to a polarized society where truth loses value and arguments are meaningless because nobody changes their minds. Unfortunately, like many researchers and media people, Aral commits the mistake of "bothsidesism" when clearly one side has gone mad while the other still has some grip on reality. 

Another interesting phenomenon is how protest movements in recent years appear to gain viral momentum only to disperse with no impact on policy or lasting change:

Zeynep Tufekci’s book Twitter and Tear Gas provides a comprehensive deep dive into how social media has changed social movements. Her thesis, backed by stacks of research, suggests that protest movements enabled by technology rise rapidly but often sputter at their zenith. At the precise moment they make headway and capture the world’s attention, they experience what Tufekci calls “tactical freeze”—an inability to adjust tactics, negotiate demands, and push for tangible policy changes. What causes tactical freeze? The rapid mobilization that the Hype Machine enables is typically accompanied by leaderless, ad hoc decision making and a shallow organization that develops without much early planning. (Kindle Loc 4769)

This is in contrast to the social movements that brought lasting change in the past, which erupted into protests only after years of organizing, training, and discussing how to bring about that change. So social media has corrupted even basic functions such as the ability to organize and protest and bring about change.

he very technology that enables protests can be co-opted by the governments they oppose. In 2019, for example, the Chinese government used disinformation on social media to disrupt the Hong Kong protests and to change the domestic and international perception of the protesters by exaggerating the harm caused to bystanders. The Chinese government is suspected of hiring as many as 2 million people to insert propaganda into social media; the political scientist and statistician Gary King and his colleagues at Harvard estimated that they fabricate and post about 448 million social media comments a year toward this end. In Russia, Putin’s allies simply took over VK and squashed protesters’ online presence. As the stories of modern protests make clear, the Hype Machine enables social mobilization but in a fragile way. (Kindle loc 4779)

Is there any hope? Aral suggests that breaking up Facebook, for instance, isn't as useful as forcing Facebook to allow competitors to reach into its network and integrate with it. This would generate true competition. In this case I think Aral commits the usual media mistake of ignoring the fact that by forcing Facebook to spinoff Instagram and WhatsApp and then implementing the forced integration API at arms length (and allowing competitors to access that same integration) would immediately also provide competition where there was none.

All in all, I think the book is worth your time --- but be careful of Aral's conclusions. I don't know if his intentions are pure (he certainly spends many words in his book promoting himself and his relationship with Facebook which enabled him to perform experiments on Facebook users at scale and collect data), but he seems altogether too protective of Facebook's monopoly for me to take anything he says at face value.




Thursday, March 11, 2021

Review: Breath-taking

 Breath-taking seems to be a very topical book - a book about lungs and respiratory diseases, of which COVID19 is one. The book, however, seems like a mish-mash reprints of columns published in a magazine, rather than a coherent and cogent exploration of our lungs.

It starts, for instance, with a brief discussion of mindful breathing, but doesn't actually go into the clinical studies or scientific evidence. Then it jumps into a discussion of the history of our understanding of lungs, some of which is actually enlightening, such as the exploration of cells that generate surfactants that enable us to breathe.

We get an exploration of the history of lung transplants (the success rate is improved but the long term survival rates are abysmal - only 6-7 years), and the challenges they face, and then a pivot into the politics and ethics of transplant recipients' prioritization. There's a brief chapter on smoking (I was very surprised by the statement that 13% of Americans still smoke, as I would have thought the rates were much lower now --- then did a double check and discovered that 35% of Germans between 18-25 smoke, a much higher proportion than I would have thought, so my social circle is simply not representative).

There's a section on asthma, on asbestos (the book mentions that we still import asbestos from Russia, since a court overturned the asbestos ban, but no deeper dive into what we're still using it for, and why the overturn occur'd).

I really wanted to like the book, and I did learn stuff from it, but found that I couldn't really overcome all of its faults to give it a recommended rating.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Review: Biking Buddy MTB Tow Rope

We've been mountain biking with the kids consistently every weekend, with me wearing running shoes and walking down and pushing the kids up the hill. I kept wondering if there was a better way, and then one day I saw a parent at Russian Ridge with towing his kid up.  This led me to search for a MTB tow rope on Amazon, and the cheapest option that looked safe was the Biking Buddy Tow Rope. (A google search will show you all sorts of tow ropes that aren't rated for a decent amount of weight!)

I bought one and took the kids over to the Soquel Demonstration forest after replacing my flat pedals with my beloved SPD clipless pedals. OMG riding with SPD pedals is so much easier than with flat pedals, and with the increased efficiency I could tow each kid up the mountain separately, not as easily as a tandem would have been, but the whole point of MTB riding is to get used to doing your own risk assessment and learn bike handling skills, and a tandem would have negated that.

The rope does have limits --- if the kid eases off, you'll find that your bike might not have traction and you'll be subject to the indignity of walking. If both of you pedal, however, you can pretty much make it up anything that you're strong enough to do, and get a better workout to boot.

The biggest weakness of the product is that there's no easy way to stow it on the bike. I made the mistake of sticking it in a pocket and a key piece of the rope fell off and I had to go back for it. I learned to clip the towing section to the carabiner and then clip the carabiner to my backpack so I can't lose it and that helped. When descending I tuck the whole thing into the outside pocket of my Matador Beast, and secure the carabiner to one of the external loops, and the whole thing works fine.

When driving to destinations I often point out little details about other cyclists to my kids. For instance, a sure sign of a newish cyclist is the lack of step-in pedals --- they're usually the last thing a cyclist buys. But every time I've gotten to switch from flat pedals back to the step-ins, it's always been a revelation --- nothing beats the extra power and security you get from them. I can easily do bunny hops on them, but can never do them on the flat pedals. Just for giving me back my clipless pedals on my MTB alone the price of the tow rope's $34 would be worth it.

Or, you can compare the $34 tow rope to a $50 per person ski lift ticket you'd have to pay for at many of the public parks and you'll realize it's well worth the money. Recommended.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Review: Invincible Compendium Vol 1

 Usually when I review comic books I like to review multiple volumes at once. Most comic book stories are so short (especially the anime-style story-telling today) that it takes more than a couple of volumes to tell a complete arc. But Invincible Compendium Vol 1 breaks all those rules.  To begin with, it's massive, weighing in at around 5 pounds and 1024 pages. The book is huge! What makes the book even more impressive is that the library copy I checked out wasn't falling apart at the binding the way books like The Food Lab (a hardcover volume at 958 pages) did.

OK, physically the book is impressive, but how about the art and story? The art is simple and nothing special --- certainly nothing that wow'd me the way Todd McFarlane's initial run on Infinity, Inc did. There are a few creative moments (there's a 2-page spread with the climax of a battle scene overlaid on top of a series of panels depicting the fight that led up to the climax), but I wouldn't buy or read this for the art.

The plot, however, is great. Kirkman (who also wrote The Walking Dead and SuperDinosaur) throws us a curveball, first by depicting what we think as being unusual, which is the story of a superhero who's father is also a superhero and is around to guide him, and then throwing us a curveball when the reveal depicts something much more sinister. Kirkman isn't a wordsmith like Alan Moore - the dialog is never more than workmanlike, and the captions never approach the lyricism, metaphor, or meaning of Alan Moore's work, but the twists, the depictions of recurring villains, and some of the ideas are great. The book never gets reset to status quo, and the characters are believable, even if goofy.

It took me 3 entire days to read the book, and midway through I just went back and placed holds on the rest of the series. I'm looking forward to it premiering as a TV show on Amazon Prime in March. Recommended!

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 Orbán 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.