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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.