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Friday, July 30, 2021

Review: Light & Motion Vis 500

 There was a Prime Day sale on the highly rated Light & Motion Vis 500, low enough for me to replace the much used (and now worn out) Blitzu Gator on the triplet. Most of my complaints about lights usually revolve around the mount, so I was very impressed when the mount came with an easy on/off rubber strap, and a fantastic retention pin that was easy to use. Once mounted the mount was tight, and worked great.

The actual light operation was awful. A lot of it can be attributed to the worthless "lock" mode. To turn on the light, you have to press and hold the button so it turns on. Hold on to that button too long, however, and it activates "lock" mode. That means the light won't turn on no matter what. So you find yourself flipping the light from lock to unlock and never being able to turn the light on consistently. One day, I found myself unable to turn on the light whatsoever. Maybe it was not charged, but the little LED would flip from one side to the other, indicating that I was doing something. Charging the light did nothing.

I called the customer support line, and Light & Motion's voice messaging system (in the middle of the day) said because of the pandemic they weren't taking phone calls (apparently COVID19 spreads through cell networks and telephone wires --- who knew?). They gave me an e-mail address which bounced instead.

What a shitty customer experience, and what a horribly designed light. I went back to the Blitzu Gator, which is now $10. The mount was so promising, but the horrible UI and complete lack of customer service was a deal breaker.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Review: SQR Saddlebag Quick Release System

 I've always used saddlebags by tying them to the saddlebag loops on my bike. I recently decided to try visiting the office, now that I'm fully vaccinated, and stuck my Macbook Pro 16 into my Carradice Camper Longflap, and then rode it. The Camper swallows everything I can throw at it, and the Macbook was no exception, but then what I discovered that the saddlebag then hits my thigh as I ride. (I'd previously never had the problem on tour, because I'd never stuck such a large flat, rigid object in the saddlebag before) And before you say it, yes, saddlepack systems like the Revelate Terrapin are all the rage for cycle touring, but none of those will ever fit a laptop of any size, let alone the giant-ass inconveniently designed Macbook Pro 16.

OK, let's try the SQR system. It retails for about $50 after shipping from England, and boasts the additional advantage of doubling as a quick release with a handle. It was worth a try. The device is a little tricky --- you have to remove the saddle and slide it on along with the spring and then position it facing directly backwards. But I installed it without a problem, and discovered that I had enough seatpost both before and after the offset part of my Thomson offset seatpost, so those of you with offset seatposts don't have to worry --- even if it doesn't fit below the kink, it will fit above the kink!

In the lowest position, the bag clears the rear wheel, and doesn't touch the thigh. But it turns out that you can lift it higher, to the offset section of the Thomson seat post with no problems. The problem is that unless you stuff the bag full of stuff (like on tour), it sags, so I had to do the cross-strap trick. But that made the radar unusable.

So I stole my wife's beautiful Sackville Bag, and lo and behold, no sag, no problem. It truly is a much better designed bag than the Carradice (as it ought to be, for $100 more!). It even clears the fender!

But as you can see, the Macbook sticks out like a tongue. And to be honest, the Sackville was so small that it didn't need the SQR block, which weighs 149g for the block, 248g for the frame, and 7g for the strap handle, adding nearly a pound to the bike. So I guess I'll steal the Sackville bag for summer riding, and go back to my Timbuk2 for rainy rides where I need to carry the Macbook, which are rare now that I'm in a drought. Or maybe I'll find a way to downgrade to a smaller laptop that doesn't stick out.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Review: Camelbak Hot Cap Vacuum Mug

 REI had a sale for the Hot Cap Vacuum Mug for $5.73. The normal price on Amazon was around $15, so this was too good to pass up. 

The most important feature of this mug is that it fits in a standard size waterbottle cage. I tested it by riding up Montebello road and doing the dirt traverse over to Page Mill road, and the bottle was never in danger of falling out. The lid mechanism is kinda clunky --- no pulling over the valve with your teeth on this one. And if you do extended dirt riding, the lid will definitely get dirt thrown on it by the wheels. However, I discovered that when I started the ride with the mug half full, I'd finish the rest of the coffee by the time I got above the cloud and switched to water instead of coffee anyway.

The claim is that the mug will keep hot coffee hot for 6 hours. I don't know how Camelbak did their testing, but it must have not been on a bicycle bottle cage. At speeds between 6-20mph, after just an hour the coffee had cooled to nearly room temperature, and after 2 hours (admittedly with a  high speed descent through fog) any residual coffee was cold.

The bottle body has a wide mouth, making it easy to clean. The mouth is not quite wide enough, however, to use an aeropress on with its funnel. For car camping I think it'll be good (no 20mph descents will probably keep the coffee much warmer). It's a bit too heavy for anything but the shortest day ride.

There's a 20oz version, but I think for 20oz, it's better to get the mag chute version. That's because 20oz of anything is going last long enough for you to get to the dirt traverse, and the mag chute cap will keep the mouth piece clean. The trade off is that I'm not sure I could get the mag chute cap on and off while riding.

In any case, I wouldn't pay full price for the mug, but at $5.73 it's a good deal. Recommended.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Review: The Gardener and the Carpenter

 The Gardener and the Carpenter begins with an audacious declaration:

parenting is a terrible invention. It hasn’t improved the lives of children and parents, and in some ways it’s arguably made them worse. For middle-class parents, trying to shape their children into worthy adults becomes the source of endless anxiety and guilt coupled with frustration. And for their children, parenting leads to an oppressive cloud of hovering expectations. (pg. 24)

Her argument in the book is that the parenting approach assumes that parents can shape the outcome of a kid's childhood like a carpenter shapes a cabinet --- that what comes out on the other side is a virtuous, competent exemplar of humanity. Her contrasting approach is that parenting is like gardening --- you can provide all the resources needed for the plants in the garden, but they will do what they do. A plant might refuse to grow in one spot but a flower might spread out of its plot.

The preponderance of parenting books, like the preponderance of diet books, should, just by itself, be a sign of their futility; if any of them actually worked, that success ought to put the rest of them out of business. And the gap between private goals and public policy, vivid enough in the case of food, is a yawning chasm in the case of caring for children. A society that is obsessed with dieting has the highest obesity rate—a society obsessed with parenting has the highest child poverty rate. (pg. 25)

Gopnik has an even lower opinion of school than she has about parenting. She notes that schools do even more damage than parents in reducing curiosity, inquisitiveness, and depth:

in one study researchers gave parents and children a bowl of water and a bunch of objects and asked them to figure out why some things sink and others float. The middle-class highly schooled parents and children treated this like a school activity—they spent more time talking about how the lesson would proceed than they did about sinking and floating. The less advantaged parents, with much less schooling, actually talked more about the actual problem, and their children asked deeper, more conceptual questions. (pg. 132)

One of Gopnik's big emphasis is on the important of play. One of the themes in this book is that play is purposeless and looks like it accomplishes nothing in the short term, but in the long term, play improves all aspects of a mammal's overall ability to learn, both socially and intellectually. This is as big deal for success in a highly social environment:

As adults, the play-deprived rats have difficulty dealing with other rats, and their difficulties are instructive. They can do the same kinds of things as the rats who played. They know how to attack and defend, how to make overtures to others, and how to retreat. But they don’t know when to do what. Whether they are fighting or courting, they can’t react to the other rats in the swift, flexible, and fluid fashion of the roughhousing rats. They may sting like a bee, but they sure don’t dance like a butterfly. That ability to dance, to take in a complex social context at a glance and know how to respond to it intuitively, is what makes a rat, or a human being, so smart and sociable...the rats who had played when they were young still maintained the ability to change even once they had grown up—their brains were more plastic. Play didn’t help the rats to do any one thing, in particular. Instead, it helped them to learn to do many things in a more flexible, varied way. (pg. 153-154)

 Translating that to schooling, she observes that children behave differently when observing an experimenter who behaves like a teacher vs that one who behaves like a scientist:

When the experimenter activated the toy accidentally, the children were fascinated and they played. Just by randomly trying different actions they discovered all the things that the toy could do. But when the experimenter acted like a teacher, the children would squeak the beeper, and then squeak it again and again, ad nauseam, instead of trying something new...The children played with the toy longer, tried more different actions, and discovered more of the “hidden” features when the experimenter squeaked the beeper accidentally than they did when she deliberately tried to teach them. So teaching is a double-edged sword. The children were remarkably sensitive to the fact that they were being taught, just as we saw in previous chapters. But teaching seemed to discourage the children from discovering all the possibilities the toy had to offer. The children were more eager to imitate the teacher than to discover things themselves. (pg, 174)

She heavily criticizes  the American approach to play as sucking the joy out of everything:

contemporary middle-class parents may allow themselves license to play only if they are convinced that it is part of the work of parenting. There is a famously puritan streak in America. We have a knack for taking what are simple pleasures in other cultures, from food to walks to sex, and turning them into strenuous work projects. We follow a Mediterranean diet instead of just eating spaghetti and tomatoes, take aerobic hikes instead of after-dinner promenades, and practice The Joy of Sex instead of, well, the joy of sex. (pg. 177)

Turning her attention to society, Gopnik claims that schools should turn away from the "teaching" approach to the apprentice approach. She explains the attraction of sports and music as a result of the fact that those are taught in practice format, with constant, adult-provided feedback rather than with problem sets and textbooks:

Many of the most effective teachers, even in modern schools, use elements of apprenticeship. Ironically, though, these teachers are more likely to be found in the “extracurricular” classes than in the required ones. The stern but beloved baseball coach or the demanding but passionate music teacher let children learn this way. Poor, inner-city children have a tendency to focus on sports and music, even though these skills are far less likely than math or science to help them to actually make a living. Perhaps this reflects unrealistic cultural expectations. But I think it also reflects the fact that sports and music are much more likely to be taught through apprenticeship than math or science or literature...There is no particularly good reason why ballet or basketball should be taught through apprenticeship while science and math are not. As any scientist will tell you, our profession is as much a matter of hard-won skill as piano or tennis. In graduate school, where we really teach science, we use the same methods as a chef or a tailor. My students begin by writing up the easy part of a paper, or designing a substudy of a big grant, and slowly graduate to doing a completely original experiment themselves. And though I don’t exactly wield a wooden sword—or even a wastebasket—I’m told that my “track changes” comments on a student manuscript can be pretty ferocious...Imagine if we taught baseball the way we teach science. Until they were twelve, children would read about baseball technique and history, and occasionally hear inspirational stories of the great baseball players. They would fill out quizzes about baseball rules. College undergraduates might be allowed, under strict supervision, to reproduce famous historic baseball plays. But only in the second or third year of graduate school, would they, at last, actually get to play a game. If we taught baseball this way, we might expect about the same degree of success in the Little League World Series that we currently see in our children’s science scores...Schools aren’t institutions that promote discovery, and they aren’t centers of apprenticeship, either. Instead, what schools do best is teach children how to go to school. School-age children are fascinated by adult skills and inclined toward apprenticeship. It’s natural for them to imitate and practice the activities that are most important to the adults around them. In school, intentionally or not, that means paying attention, taking tests, and getting grades...By the time they arrive in our classes, many Berkeley undergraduates are absolute Matajuros of test-taking. It’s no wonder we’re gravely disappointed—and they’re resentfully surprised—when we ask them to actually be apprentice scientists or scholars instead. Skilled adults continue to face difficult challenges, of course, but passing exams isn’t one of them. Being the best test-taker in the world isn’t much help for discovering either new truths about that world or new ways of thriving in it. (pg. 186-190)

The problem with the apprenticeship model, of course, is that it's labor intensive. I've had the fortunate opportunity to mentor many bright kids as part of various internship programs. In no case could I have had the bandwidth to mentor more than a couple of interns at a time, and do a good job on it. You can't really scale that to the 1:40 or 1:20 teacher/student ratio that we see in most schools. But maybe the approach is to do away with schools completely and ship kids to work along with their parents for appropriate mentoring and teaching. Ok, that's not going to work and it's going to lead to even more inequity/inequality in society.

My takeaway from this book is as follows:

  • Play with your kids. As in really play. Don't turn it into an educational experience. If your kids go to a conventional school, they're going to get plenty of schooling (Gopnik will say, Too much schooling!). But play is the one thing parents can provide that schools won't.
  • Try to give them apprentice-ship opportunities. Give them small jobs, and scale it up from there as they gain competence. This is going to be hard --- they're going to screw up in the kitchen, while camping, or fixing a bicycle. I'm going to try to do this more going forward.
  • Maybe kids should get more "bring your child to work" days.
Anyway, the book gave me lots to think about. Recommended.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Review: Nemo Tensor Sleeping Pad

 I sleep warm, so much so that I use a 30 year old North Face Blue Kazoo sleeping bag and think it's perfectly fine, despite it having lots a lot of warmth. But my wife sleeps cold, and never was comfortable on our camping trips, so when REI had a sale on the Nemo Tensor I bought one in the hopes that the R3.5 insulation (as opposed to the R1.3 on the Kylmit Static V2). When my wife couldn't go because of food poisoning, I stole the pad and used it.

The device comes with a pump sack. You attach it to the valve, and then blow into it gently and then roll it to inflate the pad. It took about 5-6 times to do so, and when you exceed the pressure the pump sack blows off the valve, preventing you from over-inflating the bag. It's nice and soft --- maybe too soft --- I got a back ache the next morning. But it's definitely warmer than the Klymit V2. There's a secondary valve that gets the pad deflated completely and to my surprise I got everything into the stuff sack without too much trouble. It's nice and light, and packs nicely, so no complaints otherwise.


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Review: Camelbak Mag Chute Waterbottles

 There's an REI sale right now on the Camelbak Chute Mag Water Bottle. At the price they're being offered, it was worth getting the 12oz ones for the kids and a 32oz once for myself. These claim to keep water cold for about 24 hours, and after one use, I can't say that I can contradict the claims.

The innovative thing about these bottles is the double-cap. The lid is a wide cap, very similar in size to those found on the Nalgene bottles. These make the vessel itself easy to clean, and there's a second cap that unscrews and is captured by a clip (the "mag chute") for drinking. This second cap I discovered to my surprise, is not self-sealing. You have to screw it on tightly for it to not leak, something I discovered to my chagrin on a recent hike.

The carry handle is nice, though I wonder how practical it would be on a long hike. But I do notice people going on hikes just carrying these by the handles. For me, the handle is just a good way to clip it to my Matador Beast. I filled one with about 6 cubes of nice, poured 2 cans of soda in it, and the kids liked it so much that my bottle was empty by the middle of the hike. Because of the wide mouth, I could easily clean it after the hike. Note that the labels on these are contradictory: one of them said only the lid was dishwasher compatible, while the other said both vessel and lid are compatible. I just hand wash everything because it's so easy.

I would hesitate to use these on bicycles. By all accounts the 20oz bottles would fit on a bike, but unlike other cycling bottles, you probably couldn't use it while riding. There are many people who would stop to drink from a bottle, but I don't. (I don't even stop to eat most of the time)

At full price, there's no way I would pay for these. But at the current REI sale price ($5.73 for 12oz, $8.73 for 20oz), these are great. Recommended.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Review: Garmin InReach Mini

 I will admit that in all the times I've been backcountry camping, I've never actually needed an SOS device. That's a good thing --- there's actually a limited amount of help an SOS device can have --- for instance, a bear attack is going to happen too quickly for any amount of rescue to get to you. If you fall off a cliff or drown in a river, all a search and rescue service can do for you is to fish your dead body out of the water. And besides, Arturo carries one anyway, so I can mooch off him if I ever decide I need one. And for bicycle touring in Europe, your cell phone always works, so you don't care.

It turns out that the Garmin Inreach Mini will let you text message someone as long as you have a view of the sky. It also integrates with your phone and Garmin Fenix 5X, so if you're a Garmin user you're not even going to look at anything else, even though there are cheaper units out there. This past year, we've been doing quite a bit of mountain biking, and even some backpacking, and reading Garmin's 6000th inReach rescue made me realize that even people driving sometimes use it. With the memorial day sale at $300 each, the inReach Mini (which is the only one I really wanted because of its light weight), I decided the extra 3.5oz of weight on a backpacking trip is worth it.

The device arrived completely discharged, but after about 10 minutes of charging it responded, and powered on. Arturo helped me sync it with my phone, and then the computer to get the latest firmware and sign up for the plan, which was much more complicated than I expected it to be, but tolerable. I never figured out how to set presets, but a few test text messages worked.

This past camping trip, my wife got food poisoning at the last minute, so she had to stay an extra night at the hotel while I took both kids backpacking. The device worked in Yosemite backcountry, allowing me to text her at night when camping, and for her to ask questions (which I did not answer, since any overage would cost $0.50 per text). The one place it failed was when we got to the parking lot, I texted her that we were coming, and then put the backpack in the car. After we were all packed and driving out of the park, only then did the device complain that it couldn't send the text, because even inside an open car trunk wasn't sufficient for it to get signal. This is truly an outdoor only device.

The plan is expensive, but like all insurance, you carry it hoping never to need it. And if you're going to be in a national park with friends but not necessarily hiking together, it's useful for coordinating dinners or places to meet up, so this summer we might even pay up for the more expensive plan. Recommended.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Review: Beginners

 Beginners's subtitle makes zero reference to the most important part of the book, which is that it's actually a book about parenting. The book explores Tom Vanderbilt's urge to engage in the same activities as his daughter. So when his daughter decides to learn to play chess, he enrolls both of them in classes. When his daughter learns to swim, he embarks on vacations with her (and mommy) and engages in wild swimming.

This is such a radical move from the sights you see at all kids activities --- mommies and daddies staring into their phones or laptops doing work, while the kids participates in the learning activity, that I found it remarkable. I can think of countless examples of parents pushing their kids to learn piano and violin, etc., only to discover that the parent himself/herself has never had any urge to learn how to play music or (in the case of this book) learn how to sing!

Singing, like all music education, typically becomes an “elective” after sixth grade. All music participation drops, but particularly singing. Maybe because, unlike violin or piano, parents don’t equate it with academic achievement (for the record, a study at Canada’s Royal Conservatory found that voice students had a higher average IQ than piano students). (kindle loc 1258)

The book does go into stuff Vanderbilt does that has no bearing on parenting. In one example, he learns to draw (which on reflection is something that kids do, but he doesn't compare his results with his daughter's), and in another, he learns to make a wedding ring to replace the one he lost while surfing.

If I had one nit about the book, it's that it reads like a series of magazine articles (which it probably was) than a coherent book, but I enjoyed the variety of new stuff that he gets into, and how he embraces the idea that in many cases, you aren't learning to become an expert (i.e., none of this 10,000 hour stuff), but just to get to a point of competence so you can enjoy doing it, and not to mastery. That's something I think more people could embrace, though in competitive Silicon Valley culture that seems unlikely to happen.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Review: Ghost of Tsushima (PS5)

 I'm learning the professional game reviewers play games very differently from those of us with day jobs that don't involve games, so stuff that they find mediocre can turn out to be excellent. Ghost of Tsushima is one major example. The game play might not be considered anything out of the ordinary for a genre like "Assassin's Creed", but the game has many features that made it particularly playable:

  • No individual mission lasts more than about 15 minutes, making it easy to play for short amounts of time. Conversely, you also have "just one more mission"syndrome in a big way
  • There are no level gates for missions. This completely eliminated the grind. You don't have to the stuff you don't like, and you can pick and choose what you like to do.
  • Leveling up is fast and easy, and resources plentiful. You can finish the game with the majority of the map undone and still hit the level limit
  • Difficulty levels are tunable in the middle of a game or in the middle of an encounter. You never have to bang your head against the wall just because some game designer thought to punish you.
  • Not all skills are important. You can pick your favorite one to spam/reuse, upgrade everything related to it, and have fun.
  • The stories are reasonably well done, and not to repetitive.
  • The production values are high, and nothing is an eyesore. Playing on a PS5, the responsiveness and speed of loading is so great.
Somewhere at Sony, there's a PM who decides what level of features and difficulty should be in a game. Whoever that person is, they're incredibly respectful of a busy dad's time, and this consistently makes Sony's platforms and first party games great to play.  I played this to the end and am still playing to clear the map. Recommended.

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Review: The Sum of Us

 The Sum of Us has a pretty non-controversial - that the world we live in is not a zero-sum world, that when we introduce benefits like Universal Healthcare, Paid Vacation for everyone, Sick Leave, not only do the poor people have better lives, even the wealth people have better lives as well!

What's challenging, of course, is that since the 1970s, that's not been the dominant narrative, and so for the past 50 years, we've been reversing course on that. Today, the USA is nowhere close to better health and equity metrics compared to any of the other developed Western Nations.

The book does a good job of tracing what happened, in a slightly less depressing recap of events told in Democracy in Chains. Many communities had public swimming pools that were denied to black people, and of course when the courts ruled that non-whites had a legal right to the pools, rather than open them up to everyone, those same communities decided to fill in the pools or sell them to a private organization that could turn it into a private swimming club. (There was one in Sunnyvale, and I never even thought about why it was a private swimming club) As a result of that, not only are there fewer public American swimming pools, the pools that are left over are a far cry from what you see in other western Democracies, in spaciousness, facilities, and of course, water-slides.

The same obviously went for public schools, which of course, always struck me as insane that were funded by local property taxes, but McGhee points out that the white communities that run the school districts kept drawing and redrawing the school districts to keep the population of the school district white and wealthy. The irony, of course, is that (again, correlation is not causation) white students who do attend a more diverse school actually do better. (Again, it could be that parents who're willing to not segregate themselves are usually highly educated and so their kids would do well in school --- but this just illustrates that desegregation wouldn't have hurt those wealthy public school districts!)

The list goes on and on, and it's pretty depressing, but the last chapter of the book discusses how there's been recent community building in Maine, helping get rid of anti-immigrant, anti-non-white attitudes, and successfully passing medicaid expansion by ballot initiative, showing that the process can be reversed.

It's a great book, though tough going because of the many depressing sections. But well worth reading. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Review: Camping Solar Shower Bag 5gallons

 I'm old enough to remember the Sunshower, which I never learned to setup properly. But with my wife balking at a 2 night camping trip, I saw the Camping Solar Shower for $9, and bought one. It's surprisingly light and comes with an economic low flow shower mode, and folds up nicely and packs into my backpack just fine.

What I discovered was that the handle hole is large enough to fit over some branches, so I didn't bother much with the flimsy string. Filling it takes more skill than you might expect: you have to keep dipping it in and out with a pumping action to fill the water bag. Bowen did that. On day 2, I got lazy and just used a running stream and only got it about half full.

As advertised, it takes about 3 hours of direct sunlight to get the water from freezing-lake cold to somewhat usable. The thermometer is misleading: it reads the temperature of the bag rather than the temperature of the water, so when it says 40C, the water is still only lukewarm inside.

To my surprise, both Bowen and Boen were much more enthusiastic about the camp shower than Xiaoqin was. They both ended up using all the warm water both nights of our backcountry trip. The shower runs for a surprisingly long time. It's well worth the weight if you're base camping, but for a point to point camping it was a bit much. I asked Bowen if he'd like to carry it next time and he said NO. But for car camping it's probably perfect. For the price, it comes recommended!

Monday, June 28, 2021

Chiluana Falls Backpack

 Arturo suggested Chilnualna Falls as a place in Yosemite that nobody ever considers for a backcountry camping trip, and indeed when I looked on the website I saw that the permit was available for Sunday, May 30th->May 31st. May 31st was memorial day, so we could easily make it. I got the backcountry permit and then got reservations at the Oakhurst Lodge for May 29th, so we could arrive the day before to collect our backcountry permit, and maybe do a day hike. In contrast to the previous year, when the ranger briefing was conducted over the phone, this year they wanted us to show up in person. Also, while the park entrance permit was good for 7 days, this year it was only good for 3!

On Saturday, we drove to the park. Arriving at the park entrance around 1:00pm, it took us until 2:30pm to clear the park entrance, a horrifying wait. The park ranger told us that for our entry the next day from Oakhurst, we should plan to be at the entrance by 7am, because the Wawona entrance was even more impacted! We got to the wilderness permit area just as we started hearing thunder, but the rangers were friendly and gave me the usual spiel about backcountry camping in Yosemite.

By the time I was done with all that it was 4pm. We drove to the mist trail trailhead, but Boen balked at doing the walk. Xiaoqin had also gotten some sort of food poisoning from her trip to the hairdresser on Friday, but Bowen talked Boen into taking the walk by carrying him for a few steps, after which he was OK.

We got to Happy Isles before they decided they were done and wanted to visit the hotel. Xiaoqin was feeling too ill to even walk much, so at the hotel we asked if she could stay an extra night instead of backcountry camping. The hotel manager said they reserved a room precisely for this, so they charged us an extra night.

The next morning I got the kids up at 5:30am, ate a quick breakfast and was on the road by 6:15, arriving at the Wawona entrance by 6:45am. There were 5 cars ahead of us, but when we got to the front gate we saw that it was a self-registration system with no one checking slow computers for permits, so we just drove straight through. It was much faster, and we arrived at the trailhead around 7:00am. I repacked the contents of my backpack for 3 people instead of 4, and then we embarked up the trail.

The trail already had people on it, but as we hiked past the stock trail intersection we stopped seeing many people. The trail was beautifully maintained, lined with shrubs with white flowers that were likely pollinated by mosquitoes. I started feeling bites and we stopped to put on sunscreen and insect repellant.
At a natural river access point, I hiked down to the river to get fresh water, and was horrified when at first my Katadyn BeFree refused to filter. I looked at the bottle and saw that it told me to swish the filter, so I took it out and did so and finally it produced water. Lesson learned: always bring a spare!

The hike up got warmer as we got higher, but not uncomfortably so. We were told by some hikers to eat lunch at a place with weeping walls, and it was indeed nice. They even gave us water!

It was a good call, because right after that we left the shade to climb the last 600 feet to the trail intersection signs. We all ran out of water then.

Lots of hikers coming down told us that there was great camping, including a site between the two waterfalls. But when I got there I saw that most of the sites were actually illegal, except for one, and it was already occupied. I finally settled for a spot that was barely hospitable, but was next to another spot that a couple of families that were camping, which was how I met Naomi, Naomi (there were 2), Ansel, Avi, Shoshana, and more people whose names I couldn't remember. I pitched the tent, fetched water, but the exposure was too much, so I took the hammock down and we went in search for a shaded place with views of the cascades.

In the evening, I realized I'd forgotten toothpaste, and offered to trade marshmallows to the other families in exchange for toothpaste. The kids were enthusiastic, and started a campfire in less time then it took for me to pee.

The next morning I woke up with a sore back but the trip down promised to be short and fast, so after a quick breakfast, we packed up and left around 7:45am. The hike down was gorgeous but we were soon reminded that mosquitoes were active.

The kids ate the rest of the marshmallows on the way down, and we took one last look at the waterfall before heading down to the parking lot and home.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Review: Radium Girls

 Radium Girls is the story of the dial painters for the Radium Corporation, how it recruited women to pain watch dials and other instruments with luminous paint, but neglected to provide a safe working environment despite the well known cases of cancer in various researchers since as early as 1903. It was amazing to me that even though Marie Curie died of cancer, even by 1923, there was no medical literature connecting the use of radioactive materials with health issues.

What made the Radium Corporation's behavior particularly egregious was that even after women started dying in gruesome ways (the book is unflinching in discussing the various deaths from the disease), the company still did not change its workstations or training for its women, and its lawyers and executives continually assured the workers that radium was safe, while fighting in court with all the modern tactics we've come to associate with tobacco companies and the oil industry.

All this took place before the formation of OSHA, and you would think that the government was moved to act (almost all the victims were white women), but of course, this happened during a Republican administration, and the laws actually had to be changed before the women could start winning in court (the statute of limitations was involved). In one case, a lawyer started winning so many cases against the Radium Corporation that the company during its settlement with the women specifically required him to stay away from all future cases against it!

The book is long, and the audio book version of the story is kinda long winded, which I solved by listening to it at 1.4X speed. Even then, it took 2 renewals from the library to get through it. Still, it's well worth reading. Recommended.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Review: Klara and the Sun

 Klara and the Sun is Kazuo Ishiguro's "science fiction" novel about a single mom who purchases an Artificial Friend (AF) for their ailing daughter.  The "science fiction" is in quotes, because it's very clear that Ishiguro doesn't understand very much about the technology behind machine intelligence, nor does he really care. The novel, as it is, is a story about how humans would treat different intelligences differently. The novel is told entirely from Klara's point of view, and Ishiguro chooses to endow Klara with very human like traits, for instance, Klara is solar powered, so she develops a religion revolving around worshipping the sun.

Ishiguro loves playing with perspectives, and how you view Josie, her mom, and the family next door changes as you proceed through the novel, learning one thing after another about the family and the world they live in. Again, this isn't science fiction --- there's no true world building in the novel, and in fact, the world Klara exists in isn't believable in any way, shape or form. An AI with the intelligence of Klara would probably not be trusted with children unattended.

I didn't dislike the book, but many times I thought the characters in the story (especially Josie's dad, but also Rick) indulge in Klara's requests without questioning, which I would have found peculiar and you could see the author manipulating those characters to fulfill his story, rather than thinking through about whether you would do something to indulge even a beloved, innocent-looking AI.

This is one of those books that would only be successful if written by a Nobel-prize winner. A typical genre science fiction writer publishing this book would be dismissed out of hand. 

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Review: Working Backwards

 Working Backwards is written by two Amazon executives who'd each been at Amazon for more than 10 years. When reading business books like this, you expect the usual business guy's self-aggrandizing focus on his great decisions, his ability to work heroically, and how great his CEO was. But Working Backwards surprised me with first, how easy it was to read, and how clear and honest the authors were.

In some ways, Amazon is by far the most surprising of the FAANG companies. They weren't known for being able attract great engineers and amazing designers. They were famous for being frugal, but frugality has never been a sexy virtue in American culture. Yet over and over they beat Google at cloud computing, and search. (Yes search --- raise your hand if you've been trained to visit Amazon for product search instead of Google) But what comes through in this book is that their true secret is this: a process for making good decisions beats out even those other attributes of computing businesses.

One of my favorite examples in the book was Amazon's reaction to Apple's announcement of iTunes for Windows. If you recall, this was the announcement that music has gone digital for all computer users, not just those who had opted into Apple's walled garden. Rather than being baited into reacting immediately, Jeff Bezos pondered and thought for several months before assigning an executive to create an organization around digital goods. Fundamentally, having a single clear owner (Amazon's executives borrowed the computer science term "single threaded" and applied it to leaders) allowed the organization to work on the problem and come up with a long term solution which led to the Kindle. Note that the Kindle was a slow burn, but one that exceeded internal expectations when it sold out right away. It's also very clear that there was no way a company like Google would have had the attention span to devote to something like this, and reading was way too clearly unsexy (and unpopular) an activity to attract Apple's attention.

Another clear sign of the honesty in the book was when one of the author's excerpted from his own self-assessment for a performance review one year.  He gave himself a D for making an error in launching Amazon Unbox. Again, the explanation of the process was clear --- the advantages Amazon had in retail was in delivery and distribution, but with a digital market place, those advantages were levelled, and Amazon had to either move upstream to content creation (which it eventually did), or downstream to owning and controlling the device (which it did earlier, in parallel with creating the FireTV, Fire tablets, and eventually Amazon Echo). The analysis of that decision is well explained and again, you could see that Amazon's competitors were late.

Many of the anecdotes were relevant and clearly explained, such as the creation of the Fire Phone, and an explanation of how one of the authors built in automatic refunds for stuttering video on Amazon Prime rentals, something that I did not expect to see at the top level, but in retrospect, there was no way it could have been a 20% project done by an engineer. One cannot imagine a business leader at Apple or Google deliberately building in a feature into a product spec that would cost the company money. Just that story alone makes the book worth the time spent reading it.

The successes are also explained, such as the evolution of AWS and Amazon Prime. I think this is one of those cases where Amazon's weakness (it never could get as many good engineers as Google) was actually a strength. Amazon's monorepo broke relatively early, while Google's ability to hire good engineers ensured that even today, Google lives with a monorepo and doesn't want to move beyond it. The breakage of that monorepo forced Amazon to learn how to support REST APIs and that in turn meant that when they launched AWS they already had experience in supporting one, something that Google struggled to do.

What comes through in this book is how clear the reasoning behind those decisions are, and I attribute a lot of this to the principle at Amazon where PowerPoints are banned and 6 page narrative arguments are used instead. The book provides examples of those documents, and the process of how to use them and stories about the debates are explained. A key point is that the assumptions behind a PRD has to be written down so they can be debated, not just what the actual product is.

The ultimate secret behind this book is that this type of process is actually very difficult to adopt. Definitely something you'd want to do early on in a company's life cycle, rather than after it's gotten past the startup stage. Well worth reading. I picked up the book one Saturday afternoon and read it overnight. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Review: Fundamentals - Ten Keys to Reality

 Ten Keys to Reality is a book by Frank Wilczek about physics. Wilczek won the Nobel prize in 2004, and so is in a good position to teach physics. I was impressed by how lucid the writing was, and I enjoyed his account of the names of the various forces, including Axions, which he named after a brand of detergent. Unlike many books for the layman, Wilczek isn't shy about what he thinks dark matter is. I enjoyed the book and probably should have waited to read the Kindle version so I could mark it up and quote from it, as his descriptions were strangely lyrical and pleasant to think about, forcing me to read the book slowly.


Thursday, June 10, 2021

Review: Invincible Compendium 3

 Invincible Compendium 3 is the last book in the Invincible series. It covers the fighting  Viltrumite factions and demonstrates that in a superhero universe, there's no way that any good deed could possibly go unpunished --- every enemy you let go eventually comes back with improved powers and then sets about using those to try to kill you. Strangely enough, the heroes never learn and never learn to end villains.

Except... this is the last volume, so Mark Grayson finally learns this, and there's a serious attempt to learn. Kirkman does a good job of reusing powers and and situations from previous sections of the series, and you don't feel cheated even in the "instant revive" powers that Eve demonstrates. To his credit he takes that to the logical conclusion and indeed, Eve is immortal as a result of her powers.

And yes, it takes superheroes to take over the world and give everybody universal healthcare. It's amusing that this is a comic book where utopia turns out to be Sweden, Finland, and the Norweigian methods of government.

The book does provide a happy ending, surprisingly enough, and it's not bad. Recommended.

Monday, June 07, 2021

Review: Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism

 Deaths of Despair has a simple, unique thesis. The thesis is that the cost of healthcare and private health insurance has gotten so high that it has basically broken American capitalism for most people not in the top 1%. The argument goes as follows: when health insurance exceeded somewhere $12,000/year, the cost of hiring a low paid worker becomes so high that you might as well outsource all that to another company that essentially treats their workers like crap and don't provide significant benefits. This not only reduces the wages of that janitor, it also completely eliminates the path by which the mailroom person becomes the CEO of the company --- that pathway is completely blocked, and now you've permanently pushed the uneducated workers into a separate caste.

The talented kid who, for one reason or another, did not get educated to his or her ability can no longer work his or her way up from being a janitor to being a CEO, because the janitors and CEOs work for different companies and live in different worlds.25 There is a world of the more educated, and a world of the less educated; no one in the latter has hope of joining the former. Perhaps most crucially, the outsourced workers are no longer a part of the main company, they do not identify with it, and, in the evocative words of the economist Nicholas Bloom,26 they are no longer invited to the holiday party. They cannot find pride, meaning, and hope in being a part—however humble—of a great enterprise. (kindle loc 2805)

The net result is that those are the people most likely to experience pain, get prescribed addictive opoids, and then never get out of it and eventually kill themselves (either explicitly with guns or through overdose, etc)

The authors argue that the traditional Republican callout of the people caught in this trap as "lazy" and "gaming the system so they get money without working" is false:

We are sure that there are people who manipulate the system to their own benefit, but given what has been happening to pain for less educated people, and given how closely those patterns match deaths of despair, we suspect that the malingerers are relatively few. (kindle loc 1527)

That these people die means that they're crying out for help, not being lazy. The authors point out that the US is unique amongst all developed countries in having these problems:

Less educated workers live in a much more hostile world than did less educated workers of half a century ago. Much of this hostility can be seen not only in the United States but also in other rich countries. Wages and working conditions have deteriorated in several of them; they too have experienced a decline in manufacturing in favor of services, slowing rates of economic growth, and a decline in unionization. But these other countries do not face the costs of the American healthcare system, and they have much more comprehensive systems of social protection. None has seen wage stagnation for as long as has the United States. All of which could explain why we do not see epidemics of deaths of despair across the rich world. (kindle loc 4183)

The book is well argued, and contained many great points that made me highlight part after part from the book. It's well worth the time, and provides a much needed rebuttal to books such as Hillbilly Elegy,  which mostly blame the victims of poverty for being lazy. Recommended.


Thursday, June 03, 2021

Review: Molecules - The Elements and the Architecture of Everything

 I bought Molecules hoping Bowen would read it. He showed no interest but I read it and loved it! Chemistry was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and this book reminded me so much of what was fun about it. There's a great explanation of valence, electron shells, and even the quantum nature of atoms, and it's not dumbed down in any way and accurate. There's an explanation of what organic chemistry is vs inorganic chemistry (something my high school never got to), and then great diagrams and explanations of the various substances and how they work and differ from each other.

At times Theodore Gray waxes poetic:

Flowers are known for sometimes looking dramatically different under ultraviolet (UV) light. That’s because bees see further into the UV spectrum than we do, and the colors and patterns of flowers are for their benefit, not ours. It turns out that many organic compounds absorb some light in the UV range that bees can see, so while nearly all organic compounds are white to us, to bees more of them look colored. What colors are they? We have no words for these hues. Their names can be spoken only in the dance language of the bees as they tell their tales of the paths they have flown and the flowers they have seen. (Kindle Loc 2996)

What a great book. Recommended!


Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Review: Happy City

 Happy City is a book about urban design. You probably already know the principles behind it if you've ever lived in or even visited for a week's stretch a European city:

  • Deny cars access to the city center, or at least, design the city center around walking rather than cars
  • Create mix used neighborhoods, the antithesis of the American zoning system, where you can have shop-houses (shops at the street level, living quarters at the upper level)
  • Increase density, but not too much (the author describes how bad long corridors in shared high rise towers are)
  • Create spaces for people to gather and look at other people
Much of the book is a rant against American-style suburbia:

Foley’s own clients invariably wanted to trade up: they all wanted a bigger house on a bigger yard in a more perfect neighborhood, and Foley helped them get it. But after a few sales cycles she noticed that those big homes did not seem to be making her clients happier. “Time and again,” she told me when I called her, “I would walk into an absolutely gorgeous home with a beautiful pool that never got used and a game room that was never actually filled with friends, owned by people who were living really unhappy lives.” People’s new homes were so big that they created a whole new layer of housekeeping, and so expensive that they forced their owners to work harder to keep them. One day Foley joined a Realtors’ tour of a spacious stucco tract home. The walls were pristine—Foley still remembers the color: Navajo Sand. The carpets were immaculate. But the place felt like a campsite. There was practically no furniture. A lone TV sat on a packing crate, and just about everything else lay on the floor. Clothing, books, and tools, all stacked in neat piles. Mattresses and futons lined the carpets in the bedrooms. It was clear that the house purchase had taken the family right to the edge of its financial wherewithal. They had spent everything they had. There was nothing left for furniture or garden supplies. The yard was a mud pit. The family had joined the ranks of what Foley called “floor people,” since floor space was all they had (pg 79)

The book describes how when tested against other commuters cycling commuters are by far the most joyful, much better off than people who drive, take transit, or even walk! This should not surprise anyone, as our natural mode of locomotion is walking, but as John Forester has noted, cycling is like walking but on an exhilarated level, with the same effort producing speeds faster than running --- it grants you a natural high.

But of course, the author Charles Montgomery, like many pundits, rants against vehicular cycling, as demanding skills and a level of personal courage that he considers heroic. He must not have observed, as I did, the Italian grandmother who got on her bike and then negotiated a traffic circle in crazy Italian traffic with more aplomb than many American league cycling instructors would have. I've personally observed many kids in Palo Alto ride their bicycles vehicular fashion with skill. What it takes isn't courage, but education, and Montgomery is steadfast in his insistence that painted lines or separated facilities are practicable in areas of lower density than Europe, where of course in many fabulous cycling areas there are no bike paths or bike lanes. He laughably claims that American vehicular cycling enthusiasts won the battle, when in reality, they've lost the battle every time, and barely recovered their losses only in courts, where they've had to sue for the rights to use the roads that would otherwise be denied them. Even today, the cycling advocacy groups hesitate to take on causes like roads that have "no cycling allowed" signs posted on them, preferring the easy path of advocating for bike lanes and bike paths, even in places where those same painted bike lanes create motorist driving errors.

Despite the obvious effort involved, self-propelled commuters report feeling that their trips are easier than the trips of people who sit still for most of the journey. They are the likeliest to say their trip was fun. Children overwhelmingly say they prefer finding their own way to school rather than being chauffeured. These are the sentiments of people in American and Canadian cities, which tend to be designed in ways that make walking and cycling unpleasant and dangerous. In the Netherlands, where road designers create safe spaces for bikes, cyclists report feeling more joy, less fear, less anger, less sadness than both drivers and transit users. Even in New York City, where the streets are loud, congested, aggressive, and dangerous, cyclists report enjoying their journeys more than anyone else...Even those who endure the most severe bicycle trips seem to take pleasure in them. They feel capable. They feel free. They feel and are healthier. The average convert to bike commuting loses thirteen pounds in the first year. They may not all attain Robert Judge’s level of transcendence, but cyclists report feeling connected to the world around them in a way that is simply not possible in the sealed environment of an automobile or a bus or a subway car. Their journeys are both sensual and kinesthetic. (pg. 181-184)

What redeems the book is that Mongomery doesn't just suggest bike paths everywhere, he also describes a radical solution, such as the once a year car-free day, where cars are banned completely. (Though good luck with that in any American city!) The book was obviously written before COVID pandemic, but maybe the pandemic experience with many streets closed and cafes/restaurants allowed to extend past the sidewalk will create more enthusiasm for better use of public space.

By 2001, almost twice as many people were cycling to work in the city, saving the average minimum-wage worker the equivalent of a month and a half’s salary that year. But here is the amazing thing: the happy city program, with its aggressive focus on creating a fairer city, did not only benefit the poor. It made life better for almost everyone. The TransMilenio moved so many people so efficiently that car drivers crossed the city faster as well: commuting times fell by a fifth. (pg. 248)

Here's the thing. It feels natural that car opponents like Montgomery appear to be good allies for cyclists. And I do enjoy those great walkable neighborhoods that I've lived in. But I get the feeling that despite everything he writes about cycling, people like him actually hate the enthusiastic cyclists who commute middle distances (4-12 miles) and enjoy riding in the suburbs much more than even the most cycling-friendly city. I wanted to be able to recommend this book, but can't do so because of how much latent cycling hatred there is in it. 

Monday, May 31, 2021

Review: The Code Breaker

 The Code Breaker is Isaacson's biography of Jennifer Doudna, who shared a Nobel prize for chemistry in 2020. Unlike his previous biographies, Doudna is still alive when the book was published, so rather than a pure biography, the book actually includes much of the context of her research, as well as the role she played early on during the COVID19 pandemic.

The book does a good job of also providing a summary of the discovery of DNA, but I really enjoyed the "behind-the-scenes" look at how the research is done, including the incredibly vicious competition between various teams that raced to be first to a break through, complete with patent lawsuits, witnessed lab notebooks, and various backstabbing.

One interesting factor I enjoyed early on was when Doudna was trying to decide on her major in college:

She thought about changing her major to French. “I went to talk to my French teacher about that, and she asked what I was majoring in.” When Doudna replied that it was chemistry, the teacher told her to stick with it. “She was really insistent. She said ‘If you major in chemistry you’ll be able to do all sorts of things. If you major in French you will be able to be a French teacher.’ ” (kindle loc 519)

Far from being a linear career path as a researcher, we also saw various twists and turns Jennifer Doudna took, including a short stint at Genentech:

She returned to her Berkeley lab at the beginning of March, after only two months away. From this misstep, she became more aware of her passions and skills—and also her weaknesses. She liked being a research scientist in a lab. She was good at brainstorming with people she trusted. She was not good at navigating a corporate environment where the competition was for power and promotions rather than discoveries. “I didn’t have the right skill set or passions to work at a big company.” (kindle loc 1404) 

The last third of the book was clearly rushed, and to be honest, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine story, while depending on RNA (Doudna's major contribution), didn't directly depend or derive from her research, so there, the book feels a little more diffused. There's a major section on the ethics of germline genetic editing, but there I'm completely unmoved by Issacson's hand-wringing. To my mind, there is never any excuse to subject another human mind (especially one unformed and unable to choose) to the terrors and vagaries of mental illness, and eliminating genes for depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia is so much a no-brainer that I naturally despise anyone who would declaim, "What about Van Gogh or Edgar Allen Poe," as if the artists were creative because of their illness, not despite it! Who knows if a non-mentally version of Van Gogh could have been even better, and seriously, who are you to determine whether someone else should suffer so you could have good art?!!

And here's the thing. That kind of hand-wringing never happens for physical disabilities. You never get someone saying of an athlete who overcomes say, asthma, "Oh, what if we cured asthma and lose those great athletes!" For some reason, people feel the need to demean artists and writers as though the only reason they can be great is because of a mental illness that nobody would ever ask for. The last year has definitely (for me at least) destroyed the respectability of medical ethicists. The kind of people who wring their hands over curing mental illness were also the same people who decreed that having lots of vaccine in Fresno sitting in freezers is better than putting doses in arms in Santa Clara. As far as I'm concerned, those people have no business making important decisions affecting human lives --- hire an engineer to do that job instead.

That kinda soured me on the book, but I would still recommend it for its great insight into the various teams racing for significant scientific breakthroughs, as well as a good explanation for what CRISPR is.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Re-read: Range

 My reading of Anders Ericsson's Peak made be go back and revisit Range. Lazlo Polgar and his chess playing daughters make an appearance in both books, but obviously the two books go in completely opposite directions. I rarely re-read books, but this rereading highlighted 2 big items that I did not emphasize the first time around.

The first one is that you might think that bringing together a group of specialists in diverse subjects would get you most of the benefits of having a single generalist, but the book claims that that's not true --- he cites the comic book industry, where a single creator who's worked in multiple genres turns out to be more predictive of longer term success than the team that produced the book having come from multiple genres.

The other thing that came through this time is the need to get information from a diverse array of sources. This particularly comes through in executive management, where one leader told his organization:

there is a difference between the chain of command and the chain of communication, and that the difference represents a healthy cross-pressure. “I warned them, I’m going to communicate with all levels of the organization down to the shop floor, and you can’t feel suspicious or paranoid about that,” he said. “I told them I will not intercept your decisions that belong in your chain of command, but I will give and receive information anywhere in the organization, at any time. I just can’t get enough understanding of the organization from listening to the voices at the top.” (Kindle Loc 3943)

 Epstein calls people who bridge multiple disciplines integrators, and one point he brings up is that as information technology improves and it's easier to get access to specialized knowledge, the need for integrators increases:

“Do we really need to go through courses with very specialized knowledge that often provides a huge amount of stuff that is very detailed, very specialized, very arcane, and will be totally forgotten in a couple of weeks? Especially now, when all the information is on your phone. You have people walking around with all the knowledge of humanity on their phone, but they have no idea how to integrate it. We don’t train people in thinking or reasoning.” (Kindle Loc 4123)

 I came away from this re-read much more convinced than my previous reading of the book, and more cognizant of what the book is really saying. Recommended.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Review: Inno Square Bar Roof Rack and Yakima Front Loader Bike Rack

 We've been doing a mountain bike ride week after week, and my approach has been to remove the front wheel of both the kids bike, lay down a back seat, and then squish the kids together on the remaining seat. It's kinda uncomfortable, and has no room for child seats. We're thinking about doing further drives with the bikes, so it was time to consider what I didn't want to think about --- a roof rack.

Before doing that, I considered buying a 4 bike hitch mounted bike rack. The limit there is the tongue weight limit of a 1.25" hitch rack, which is 125 pounds. If your 4 bikes weigh 30 pounds each, that's 120 pounds and then you still have to account for a beefy bike rack. No way would this be safe and reliable. Keith Bontrager's been quoted to say that roof racks are the number one cause of bike death, and I agree, but short of spending $40,000 on a mini van, there was no way to avoid it.

The local car rack shop quoted $1,200 (including installation) on a roof rack and recommended the Yakima High Road. Cursory amounts of googling made me realize that the High Road would not accomodate Bowen or Boen's bikes, which had 20" and 24" wheels respectively, so not only was the local guy the most expensive option, there was no way it would have worked for the kids bike.

I visited etrailer and discovered that the 2012 Scion xB would accomodate an Inno Square Crossbar bike roof rack. I viewed the installation video and convinced myself that this did not seem like a difficult job at all! I was about to just buy it, and then decided to visit Amazon. It turned out that a lot of people are even less mechanically inclined than I am, and I ended up buying the base bars, refurb'd versions of the IN_SUIT Stay Rack, and brand new K300 Fit Hooks for about 40% off the etrailer prices. The Yakima Front Loader would accomodate Bowen and Boen's bikes, and those are impossible to find on discount, but the all-in price was more than $500 off what the local guy was quoting me.

The installation was dead simple: fit the bars in the stays, fit the hooks to the stays, and then tighten with the included through until the tool clicks indicating correct torque. The forward stays do move if the roof is wet (with condensation, for instance), but what I do notice is that the slop is only towards the front of the car. Once the stays are pushed to the rear most position they can't move back any further, and of course with bikes on the roof that's the only force they're subject to, so they're safe. Mounting the bikes onto the roof suck --- I use a step stool for this purpose, and now keep one in the car permanently. The most precarious part about mounting or unmounting bicycles is when I'm on the step stool alongside Skyline Blvd and pulling the bike on or off while traffic is whizzing by me at high speed. It's disconcerting and I try to time my mounting/dismounting for when there's no traffic. The Front Loader appears to be pretty secure, with a screw that you pretty much tighten all the way to lock the front wheel down and a rear ziptie style lock that prevents the bike from exerting any amount of force on the rack.

The bikes are secure either on the freeway or on Highway 9 and Page Mill Road, and I only have to remember that the car is now much taller than it used to be and never to drive it into a garage anywhere.

With the bike racks off the roof rack makes no noise that I can discern, so as far as I can tell there's no reason to go with the "aero" version of the rack vs the square version. But with the bike racks on there's an annoying sound that starts up around 55mph and gets louder. It's quieter than Boen's screaming so I'll put up with it but for a long trip without the need for a bike rack you probably want to remove it, which isn't a big deal.

I still think the ideal bike carrier is a mini van or full size van, but you can't buy an electric one today so I'm just going to drive the Scion until the market for electric cars expands to include those of us who are avid cyclists.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Review: Ultimate Spider-Man 8, 9, 10

 Bowen kept asking for more Spiderman, so I checked out Cats & Kings, Ultimate Six, and Hollywood from the library to read to him. I'm astonished by how repetitive these books are. Doctor Octopus, for instance, escapes from confinement no less than 3-4 times (I lost count), and kills lots of people doing so. Nick Fury comes across as a total idiot for not putting a final end to the entire madness after the second time. Worse, the villain's masterplan seem idiotic and unlikely to achieve their goals --- it's one thing for the good guys to be dumb (after all, Spider-man is a teenager), but it's another for adult villains who're supposedly geniuses to make bone-headed mistakes and plans that have nothing to do with their motivations.

My respect for Brian Michael Bendis dropped dramatically after these 3 books, and even Boen seemed to get bored and uninterested and didn't ask for more after volume 10. Not recommended.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Review: Source Wxp 3L Storm Valve Hydration Reservoir

 Ever since the 2019 trip to Bavaria, I've been jealous of Boen's hydration reservoir, mostly because of its cap. The cap means that when I take off the hydration pack and drop it on the floor, nothing gets dirty. The easy fill slide-off closure was also very appealing. I noticed that Source had 3L hydration bladders available, so I bought one.

To my surprise, the adult bladder is actually better. First of all, it has both a slide-off closure and a cap, and I found myself using to cap so I didn't have to remove the bladder from the backpack. The click-off and click-on valve also made removing the bladder a cinch. The cap is also improved --- the internal drink-valve is a water bottle style nozzle, which mean that you didn't have to twist it or bite it in order to get water --- you could pull it open with your teeth and if there was sufficient water pressure in the bladder water would come out siphon-fashion. You do have to watch out because if you don't close the nozzle when done, it will continuously leak your water away. But this also means that if you need to, you can produce a stream of water by squeezing the backpack.

My cheapness meant that I held off on this upgrade for far too long. Should have done it as soon as I started mountain biking and having to carry a backpack. Recommended.

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.