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Monday, March 29, 2021

Review: Optix 55 AntiFog

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

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

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

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Review: Yubico FIDO Security NFC

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 22, 2021

Review: Galileo and the Science Deniers

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

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

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

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Review: Ultimate Spider-man Vol 1 & 2

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

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

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

Monday, March 15, 2021

Review: The Hype Machine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Thursday, March 11, 2021

Review: Breath-taking

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Review: Biking Buddy MTB Tow Rope

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Review: Invincible Compendium Vol 1

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 01, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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