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Thursday, January 20, 2022

Review: Himawari House

 Himawari House showed up in one of the "best comics of the year" lists and while it was labelled an "indie comic", it sounded interesting, so I checked it out of the library. Indie usually means black and white, bad art, and is to interesting reading what "literary fiction" is to actually good fiction. (For instance, I could never get into Love and Rockets) But Harmony Becker's work was compelling, interesting, and very readable from the get-go: I finished it in a couple of days, and never felt like it was a slog.

Right from the start, the book introduced a new story technique that I'd never seen before, and can only be pulled off by a true multi-lingual artist/writer. The word balloons are in 3 languages (though never all 3 in the same balloon): English, Japanese, and Korean. That's because characters in the book speak a combination of those languages. The conceit is that when a native speaker in a non-English language speaks too fast, the English translation is blurred out, struck through, or deliberately obscured, giving you the same bewildered feeling you get when someone in Japan thinks you're Japanese, and opens up her language stream at you full bore. It is an innovative technique, and it conveys exactly what the author has in mind. Since I can read a smattering of Japanese, I spot-checked many of the word balloons and to the best of my ability, all her Japanese was accurate, and so I assume that her Korean is good as well.

The book revolves around 3 women, Nao (a Japanese American) who moves to Japan for a gap year to learn Japanese better. She ends up in the shared eponymous house, and meets Hyejung (from Korea) and Tina (from Singapore), and the 3 become friends as they go to language school together and spend a year in Japan, learning about each other, and puzzling the men that they share the house with. Becker depicts Singlish accurately, including the code-switching that happens when a Singaporean speaks with someone she knows wouldn't understand the colloquialisms inherent in that dialect of English. Each chapter features a certain slice of life drama, giving you the background behind one of the characters. One of the most endearing pages of the comic has the 3 women saying to themselves that they weren't very good Asians, so they couldn't stay in their home countries, yet picked one of the most xenophobic countries in Asia to move to:

I've never lived in Japan long term, and especially not as an Asian person (many white people have lived in Japan and loved it of course), so I can't speak to the veracity of Becker's depictions, but everything in the book rings true, and none of it is cliched, and none of the events feel like invented drama.

My criticisms of the book? Well, there's a bit of the cliched Asian American "I'm neither Japanese or American" vibe. But it's not written in a "woe-is-me" self-pitying fashion. The author-stand-in character is quite privileged (all the characters are) and the drama consists entirely of first-world problems. The plot: there's no plot. It's a series of slice of life vignettes, linked together by common characters and quite touching. That's not really a criticism. Many TV sitcoms do the same. But I do like a little bit more plot in my books so this is just my personal taste.

In case you can't figure it out, I loved this book. I think you should read it. Even if you don't like the usual Asian American genre, I think you'll like this one. It's not self-centered, and it's multi-cultural in a way that's unique and truthful. It's the best comic I've read in years. Highly recommended.


Monday, January 17, 2022

Review: World War C

 I approached World War C with very limited expectations. After all, we've all had almost 2 years of COVID at this point, and there's been no shortage of coverage of it in the news. What more could you expect? It turned out to be quite a bit. For instance, I didn't know that COVID19 was the 3rd leading cause of death for Americans over 40:

COVID became the third-leading cause of death for individuals forty years old and over in 2020, with an overall annual mortality rate of 325 deaths per 100,000 individuals, behind only cancer and heart disease. In addition, for individuals forty years old and over, the case fatality rate for COVID was greater than the case fatality rate for motor vehicle accidents. (Kindle Loc 3730)

Sanjay Gupta gave more credence to the "lab leak" theory of COVID19 than I would have expected:

 How did a novel bat coronavirus get to a major city in the dead of winter when most bats were hibernating, and turn a market where bats weren’t sold into the epicenter of an outbreak? Their resulting paper, which pointed to two local laboratories where research on bat coronaviruses took place, lived on the Internet for a blip in time before vanishing...The institute has become a world leader on bat coronaviruses and has established one of the largest strain collections, but this lab also has a history of lax safety standards. The world’s outbreak began right in its backyard. Its lab director, Dr. Shi Zhengli, published studies about manipulating bat coronaviruses in a way that could make them more infectious to humans.21 Also known as “Batwoman” for her long history of hunting for coronaviruses in bat caves to study, Zhengli and her colleague Jie Cui are the ones who discovered that the SARS coronavirus likely originated in a population of cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in the Yunnan province in southern China. In their 2017 paper that reported their findings, they warned that “another deadly outbreak of SARS could emerge at any time.”...In 2012, six miners working in a bat-infested copper mine in Yunnan province were infected with a bat coronavirus. All of them developed symptoms exactly like COVID. Three of them died. Number two: Viral samples from these miners were taken to the Wuhan Institute, the only level 4 biosecurity lab in China that was also studying bat coronaviruses. And number three: When COVID made its bona fide Wuhan appearance in late 2019, its closest known relative was the same virus sampled from the Yunnan mine where the miners had been infected. (kindle loc 1250-1278)

Even on the topic of the vaccines, there were little titbits that I didn't know:

 During the Pfizer vaccine trials, twenty-three women volunteers involved in the study became pregnant, and the only one who suffered a pregnancy loss had received not the actual vaccine but a placebo. (Kindle loc 1759)

Dr. Gupta is an inveterate optimist. He's very confident that society will bounce back from COVID.  Like many doctors and scientists, he didn't take the antiscience component very seriously until it stared him in the face:

what caused the failures in America’s COVID response were things that scientists aren’t typically taught to think about during our training: war, political collapse, urbanization, climate change, and, of course, an aggressive antiscience movement...antiscience is one of the biggest threats to humanity, on par with a nuclear weapon: “Antiscience is right up there with things that we build a lot of infrastructure to wall off, like nuclear proliferation, global terrorism, and cyberattacks. We need to do the same with antiscience. We have to treat it just as seriously, and do something about the anti-vaccine groups beyond just amplifying the (science-based) message.” (kindle loc 2157-2179)

There's a little bit of everything: history of pandemics with lessons from 1918, a discussion of how quarantine could have been a little more effective, and even an analysis of the more effective Canadian response. There's also very sobering analysis of how little money the CDC had:

Between 2002 and 2017, the CDC’s core emergency preparedness funding was cut by over 30 percent, or $273 million.11 Insufficient funding has also meant public health labs have been understaffed or shut down, which resulted in painful effects when COVID arrived...the cost to prepare for a pandemic would be a few dollars per citizen—about $30, or the cost of a couple movie tickets. We could have vaccine platforms ready to roll, virus hunters like Wolfe in the field, robust surveillance, and a strong public health infrastructure. None of that seemed important until it became the only thing that is important. (kindle loc 2302-2311)

What's even sadder (and which the very optimistic Dr Gupta doesn't mention) is that many of the public health tools that were available have been recently rolled back, with the net result that rather than providing a wake-up call to American society as to how unprepared we are for pandemics, the politicization of the pandemic has made things worse.

My biggest criticism of the book (which admittedly isn't very big), is that Gupta buys big into the "personal responsibility" piece of healthcare, telling the reader to set clear boundaries on work (ha!) and take time to exercise, eat well, and otherwise take care of yourself. The problem with those prescriptions is that as he himself noted, many of the obesity epidemics in the USA happen in food deserts, and happen to people who are in poverty or who are minorities living in food deserts, or all of the above!  But maybe people who fall into those categories aren't likely to be reading this book either.

The book was surprisingly good, and very readable. Recommended.


Thursday, January 13, 2022

Review: Crying in H Mart

 Crying in H Mart showed up in so many "best reads of the year" lists that I felt compelled to check it out of the library and read it. The book is the story of Michelle Zauner's childhood, her relationship with her mom, and the her mom's suffering from cancer. To some extent it's the Asian American whining about not being a part of either world. Much of it of course is attributed to where she lived growing up: in an exurb of Eugene. But the other part of it was that her mother chose to isolate herself from the community, not being Christian.

Much of the memoir surrounds food, which Zauner is amply descriptive of:

I remember these things clearly because that was how my mother loved you, not through white lies and constant verbal affirmation, but in subtle observations of what brought you joy, pocketed away to make you feel comforted and cared for without even realizing it. She remembered if you liked your stews with extra broth, if you were sensitive to spice, if you hated tomatoes, if you didn’t eat seafood, if you had a large appetite. She remembered which banchan side dish you emptied first so the next time you were over it’d be set with a heaping double portion, served alongside the various other preferences that made you, you. (kindle loc 209)

 And then there's the very Asian approach to motherly love:

every time I got hurt, my mom would start screaming. Not for me, but at me. I couldn’t understand it. When my friends got hurt, their mothers scooped them up and told them it was going to be okay, or they went straight to the doctor. White people were always going to the doctor. But when I got hurt, my mom was livid, as if I had maliciously damaged her property...Hers was tougher than tough love. It was brutal, industrial-strength. A sinewy love that never gave way to an inch of weakness. It was a love that saw what was best for you ten steps ahead, and didn’t care if it hurt like hell in the meantime. When I got hurt, she felt it so deeply, it was as though it were her own affliction. She was guilty only of caring too much. I realize this now, only in retrospect. No one in this world would ever love me as much as my mother, and she would never let me forget it. “Stop crying! Save your tears for when your mother dies.” (kindle loc 250-263)

That last line would be repeated over and over throughout the book.  Then there's the unique fights between mothers and daughters:

He attempted to console my mother, convince her it was a normal phase, something most teenagers ache in and out of, but she refused to accept it. I had always done well in school, and this shift coincided all too conveniently with the time to start applying to colleges. She saw my malaise as a luxury they’d paid for. My parents had given me too much and now I was full of self-pity. She doubled down, morphing into a towering obelisk that shadowed my every move. She needled me over my weight, the width of my eyeliner, the state of my breakouts, and my lack of commitment to the toners and exfoliants she’d ordered for me from QVC. Everything I wore was an argument. I wasn’t allowed to shut my bedroom door. After school, when my friends would head to one another’s houses for weekday sleepovers, I was whisked away to extracurriculars, then stuck in the woods, left to grumble alone in my room with the door left open. (kindle loc 725)

 The book's prose is vivid, well written, and evocative. Her description of Korean culture rings true, as her rapid marriage to her boyfriend under the impending literal deadline of her mother's mortality. The book does have a happy ending, as Zauner found career success in the wake of her mother's death, and she clearly turned her experience as a caretaker into literary success. Despite the book being a little bit too repetitive and boldly self-congratulatory to me at times, I found myself reading it all in under a week. Recommended.


Monday, January 10, 2022

Review: Zero

 Zero: A Biography of a Dangerous Idea is the rare non-fiction book about mathematics. It doesn't just cover the origin of the concept of zero, but also why zero was soundly rejected by the Western civilizations prior to the start of the renaissance, and why Aristotle's ideas were so dominant during the dark ages.

Once it gets past that early history, the book dives into stuff that you probably already know, such as zero, one, or infinity, complex numbers, quadratic equations, and of course, Zeno's paradox as well as the concepts behind calculus.  The focus on history also shows through in this context and was great, since the concept of taking limits is frequently poorly explained in high school textbooks, and someone like me could use a refresher once in a while.

Once the calculus is explained the book shifts gears again to talk about physics: from quantum mechanics to relativity's black  holes, the book does a good job of explaining how singularities happen and imply real world effects, but this is the part of the book that's probably about stuff you already know if you're a science aficionado.

All in all, I enjoyed the book. It provided a much needed refresher for certain topics while providing the history behind certain concepts that I never knew. Recommended.


Thursday, January 06, 2022

Review: Termination Shock

 Termination Shock is Neal Stephenson's novel about geo-engineering to cool down the atmosphere. It is a massive novel, clocking in at 716 pages, and contains many classic Neal Stephenson shticks, including massive detours into a character's completely irrelevant past history (one of the main character was a feral pig hunter in Texas), and a plot setup that's wooden and doesn't stand up to any kind of critical thinking.

The book's proposed solution to climate change is to pump sulphur into the stratosphere. The Termination Shock described in the title refers to a backlash effect should the continual stream of sulfur injection stops. Strangely enough, that's not actually covered in the book at all, and the Termination Shock refers to the global implications causing foreign actors to move on the sulfur injection facilities. The actual details behind how sulfur injection would work to reduce climate changes are only alluded to, rather than described, which is rather uncharacteristic of Stephenson's work. There's an implication that this action while providing cooling still would be incomplete: ocean acidification would be unsolved, but Stephenson never follows up on any of this.

Stephenson's vehicle of choice for geo-engineering isn't government or activist action, but of course, that favorite troupe of science fiction, the billionaire entrepreneur who calculates that a reduction in temperature in Texas would benefit his real-estate holdings by much more than the cost of sulphur injection. In classic fashion, he doesn't bother consulting with anyone, but just implements it, only inviting the Queen of the Netherlands to take part in the initial launch. What follows is a split-thread involving a Gatka fighter and various Chinese actors. Those side threads, unfortunately don't involve anything more than cliches.

As with other Stephenson novels, the prose is eminently readable, and once in a while you have a real gem, such as:

One part of her was incredulous that people would live here. Could anything less sustainable be imagined? She was drinking water from a bottle made of petrochemicals. At three in the morning the temperature was still so high that humans could not sleep unless they ran air conditioners powered by generators that burned more petroleum. The generators and the air conditioners alike dumped more heat into the air. Over dinner, Rufus—speaking in an understated, deadpan, almost scholarly way—had told the story about the fire ants and the relays in the air conditioners. Over dessert, Beau talked about meth gators in a much more exuberant style. It made Texas sound about as hospitable as the surface of Venus. But Saskia was conscious of the fact that she and her people had been living in an unsustainable country for so long that it was the only thing they knew. If the pumps that held back the North Sea were shut off, the country would be flooded in three days. There was no place they could retreat to. If anything, Texas was more sustainable than the Netherlands. It was mostly above sea level, it produced its own oil, and when that ran out, the Texans could have all the wind and solar energy they felt like collecting. (kindle loc 1697)

and, in reflection about the choice to live in places like Indonesia:

 He could have moved, of course, and lived out the rest of his life in a part of the world characterized by greater political stability. But having seen shit you wouldn’t believe in Indonesia, he had arrived at the conclusion that political stability anywhere was an illusion that only a simpleton would believe in. That (invoking, here, a version of the anthropic principle) such simpletons only believed they were right when and if they just happened to live in places that were temporarily stable. And that it was better to live somewhere obviously dangerous, because it kept you on your toes. Willem had thought all this daft until Trump and QAnon. (kindle loc 9372)

The book kept me reading, but when it finished made me think of all the plot-holes involved, and the complete misdirection (one of the major POV characters effectively does nothing), and I decided that other Stephenson novels such as Seveneves  are much better reads and not as obviously full of plot-holes.


Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Review: Wacool Snorkeling Set for Kids

 On a snorkeling trip you need good masks and snorkels. I've long maintained that even if you're not planning to snorkel, the mask/snorkel is the best way to teach your kids how to swim. The Wacool Set has a high quality tempered glass mask, and a decent snorkel. The snorkel mouthpiece is too big for Boen, so we had to substitue the one from a previous purchase for when Bowen was smaller.

We've spent  lots of money on various swimming equipment for kids over the years, but these pay for themselves on one sailing trip, and I can recommend them.

Monday, January 03, 2022

Review: Matador Freerain 32

 I was so impressed  by the Matador Beast that when I saw the Freerain 32 on sale at REI I snapped it up and bought it, guaranteeing that California will be in the drought for at least the next 10 years. I did travel to Antigua over Thanksgiving, so that gave me a chance to use the backpack in anger.

The backpack rolls up and stuffs into the provided stuff sack nicely, and is very compact. The distinguishing feature is that the hydration pocket is a separate, waterproof compartment, which means that a hydration pack failure won't create problems if it leaked. The external mesh pocket is much more useful than the one on the Matador Beast, and the backpack's main compartment and hydration pockets (which is also waterproof'd with a zipper) can both fit a Macbook Pro 16.

The backpack form factor is much better than the typical drybag form factor. That's because you can wear it and have both hands free for manipulating dinghies, lines, and recalcitrant kids. I discovered this one day when we had to manhandle the dinghy. In retrospect, on that day I should have taken the extra time to put the cameras and phones into the backpack and freed up an extra pair of hands to help with the dinghy! In any case, I got thoroughly wet, and all the contents in the backpack stayed dry.

Matador has stopped producing the Freerain 32, chosing to replace it with 2 smaller models, but you can buy this one from Moosejaw on closeout. The backpack itself is recommended.