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Thursday, February 25, 2021

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 22, 2021

Review: The Hustler

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

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

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

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Review: The Queen's Gambit

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

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

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

Monday, February 15, 2021

Review: Bone Silence

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Review: The Last Lion, 1940-1965

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 08, 2021

Post-COVID home and office design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Review: Rockbros Cycling Shoe Toe Covers

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


Thursday, February 04, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I found myself highlighting huge swaths of the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 01, 2021

Review: Neil Gaiman Library vol 1

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

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

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