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.

Recommended.

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.

Recommended.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, April 12, 2021

Review: Ultimate Spider-Man 3, 4, 5

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Reread: Cosmos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended


Monday, April 05, 2021

Review: Invincible Compendium 2

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

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

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

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


Thursday, April 01, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Well worth the time. Recommended.