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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.

Recommended.

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.