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Saturday, July 30, 2022

Consolidated Cycle Touring Page

Piaw's Cycle Touring Adventures

I've done a little bit of bicycle touring over the years, and this is the place where I've decided to collect all those tours. Unfortunately, due to an inopportune dual disk failure, the 2004 Bicycle Tour of Colorado pictures have been lost.

Essays on Cycle Touring: Items without links are To Be Written/Documented. Newer tours will probably show up first on my blog.

I've written a book about bicycle touring called: Independent Cycle Touring. I think it's the best book on bicycle touring ever written. If you would like to have your own bicycle adventure, this book is a great resource.


Friday, July 29, 2022

June 18th: Nauders to Gomagoi

 The day started with a climb up to Resia pass from Nauders on the bike path. Peaceful in the morning, and granting beautiful views, we rode the gentle climb to the Italian border, where we stopped at kilometer zero of the bike path for a photo.


Despite the name Resia pass, the bike path continued to go uphill past the border, only relenting as we approached the lake, where I found the zip line playground that Bowen had played in 4 years ago while I desperately searched for lodging. The kids played there for a good half hour, and then we kept going on the bike path, which granted gorgeous views of the lakes.


Past Castello del Principe, the bike path started flashing warning signs of 20% grade. I got nervous, because I remembered from our trip 4 years ago that this section was unpaved, so I stopped a few cyclists going the other way and asked if the pavement disappeared. "Actually, it gets better. They built or rebuilt this section a couple of years back and it's brand new!" With that, I sighed a sigh of relief and took the bike path as quickly as I dared, stopping occasionally to check the brakes.
In Laatsch, the bike path joined up with the bike path from Santa Maria/Val Mustair, and I saw at the intersection two girls sharing one bike. 
We rolled past Glorenza. Xiaoqin remarked: "I can see why Bowen kept talking about this place. It's beautiful." "This isn't even the pretty part yet," I remarked. The pollen or cut grass int he air got into both Bowen and Boen's eyes, however, and they complained about itchiness. So as we pulled into Prato Allo Stelvio I was relieved to see that there was a pharmacy open, and pulled into it to buy them some allergy medication. They sold us both tablets and eye drops. We would later read up on the tablets that turned out to be some homeopathic medicine that was basically a placebo, but the eye drops would turn out to be effective though getting it into their eyes was such an effort that after this I never tried again!

In town, we bought food at the grocery shop while Xiaoqin opted for a local pizza place. We found the same zipline playground that Bowen had played in 4 years ago to console himself for not doing Stelvio, ate everything we bought, and then I planted all the panniers into Xiaoqin's ebike and proceeded to ride up to Gomagoi.

Going from the triplet to the ebike is like going from a pedal powered bicycle to a Ferrari. Just a little tap on the pedals and the bike would accelerate. I knew it was a 4 mile trip each way, and the battery was more than half full, so I turned the power all the way up and enjoyed an easy cruise up the valley to the hotel. The proprietress saw me, and assumed I was going to keep going up the mountain, but I said I was just leaving the bags here and am going back to fetch my wife and kids.
By the time I got back to the playground it was 1:00pm, and the afternoon had heated up in earnest. The 4.4 miles to the hotel from the playground was much easier on an unloaded triplet than it would have been while carrying luggage, but in the heat and at low speed it was still very hard. My cycling cap was soaked through at mile 2, and it was a testament to the quality of the Walz caps that while sweat was dripping off the brim, they never got into my eyes or made me uncomfortable.

Even Xiaoqin felt the heat, and the kids were definitely shocked by how hot it was. By the time we got to Gomagoi at 3pm we were all cooked and ready to call it a day. I was very glad that while planning the trip I couldn't get any lodging at the next town up, Trafoi. It might only have been an additional 2-3km, but it would have been killer in the afternoon heat.

Bowen drank tons of water at dinner, and nobody would hear of even doing a hike at 8pm when everything was cooler. I realized then that it would take too long to deliver the luggage the next day and waiting for the day to heat up would be fatal, and so suggested to Xiaoqin that she just ride the bike up with all the luggage. "It's so easy it should be doable, and the road isn't challenging on an ebike." She thought about it and agreed.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

June 17th: Scuol to Nauders

My 2018 tour with Bowen featured a fateful promise that I would come to regret: breakfast in Austria, lunch in Switzerland, and dinner in Italy. When I planned this year's tour, the trip from Scuol to Nauders looked to be short, and I looked for lodging on the Italian side, but couldn't find any! It turned out that I had made a mistake on booking.com --- rather than keeping everyone in one room, I should have looked for 2 rooms, which would have opened up lodging options. But I might not have tried very hard --- memories of that painful day in 2018 had left a deep impression on me, and in fact that morning when I set out from Scuol, I felt like I needed a rest after 2 hard days in the mountains without prior acclimatization.

The descent from Scuol down to Martina was fast, with some pedaling required here and there, but in the cool still air of the morning very pleasant, though once in the shade the kids complained about being cold and put on their down jackets.

Once down in Martina, we made a right turn onto the Nobertspass road, and proceeded up the numbered turns (which weren't too many). Cyclists marveled at seeing the triplet bike, and would ask us for photos. One cyclist from Germany said she was headed to Castelrotto that day. Castelrotto was famous but it looks very generic from the bike path, which is why I'd never thought to stop there.
Being relatively fresh and not exhausted by extreme efforts to make it to Martina, we made easy and short work of the pass and made it to Nauders at 11:00am. Upon arrival at the hotel, we were too early for them to give us our rooms, but said we could take the cable car up to the Mutzkopf, where a hike could take us to a couple of lakes.
We walked to the cable car to discover it was an open air chair-lift which took mountain bikes. In fact, the ticket agent was nonplussed when we showed up asking for lift tickets without bikes. It then dawned on me that we were still wearing bike clothes, but of course, our bikes were not suitable for extreme downhill and I hadn't thought to rent mountain bikes in town! I was surprised that there wasn't a mountain bike rental place right next to the lift!


We were positioned to sit on the chairs and then sat down. Of course I immediately committed a boo-boo, which was that I hadn't noticed the chair restraints which was a safety bar overhead that you had to pull down after the chair was in flight, and so sat on the entire ride thinking about how amazing it was that nobody had fallen off the lift while drunk and sued the entire outfit out of existence for having a lack of restraints!

The hike itself was pleasant enough, but nothing spectacular after we'd visited Scuol. I'm sure if we had more time, energy, or better hiking shoes we could have done something higher and more ambitious, but it was a warm day and there were many tree houses to distract the kids until we got to Schwazersee. We didn't feel the need to visit other lakes, and so started heading back.





One interesting feature of the European culture is the widespread acceptance of smoking. When we got back to the lift, the place was swamped with cyclists, but you could smell the tobacco smoke in the air. Whereas you'd almost never see a mountain biker light up in California, apparently mountain biking culture in Austria was such that it was more than acceptable to burn up your lungs prior to a ride. After all, you don't have to pedal uphill --- the chairlift is there to do the climbing for you!


 We returned to the hotel, and I discovered how rare GoPro dealers were in Europe. I expected to be able to find a bike mount for the GoPro at any bike shop, but none of the shops were dealers and hence didn't carry any accessories! The hotel did serve a half pension dinner, so I was once again able to eat my fill, especially from the salad buffett.

I had thought about how we were going to tackle the Stelvio, and at dinner I unveiled my plans: at Prato Allo Stelvio, I would use the e-bike to deliver luggage to the hotel first, and then come back and ride the triplet up the mountain without luggage. I could do that for all 3 days of the Stelvio climb if necessary, and this approach would raise the success of our attempt to climb the Stelvio dramatically! I went to bed much more confident that we would be able to execute this plan.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

June 16th: Davos to Scuol

 "Now it's raining really hard!" declared Bowen. "Yeah, I don't know if we're going to make it. Let's at least sprint for that cafe over there!" We parked the bike and ran indoors before sheets of water came down from the sky, along with lightning and sounds of thunder.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

June 15th: Pragg-Jenaz to Davos

 Boen had started coughing at night, dashing my hopes of making it to Austria or Italy before having to hunt down his medication. I spoke with our hostess, and after some misunderstanding, established that her doctor right down the street was her kids' primary care physician and they had Ventolin in stock. We were warned that we would have to pay cash since we were from out of the country, but anyone who's faced the US medical system will discover that European healthcare system with no surprise billings and an upfront declaration of cost is a tiny mosquito bite compared to the hummer-sized disaster that many doctor visits in the US can generate.

It started raining, so we started bundling the kids up in rainjackets, making them take off the pants they had already put on. In the ensuing confusion, we left Bowen's hiking pants behind. We also somehow managed to lose the pin that was on Xiaoqin's GoPro bike mount, rendering her GoPro useless until we got to Bolzano.

At the doctor's office, we showed them photos of our US medication, and they immediately sold us Ventolin and Seretide, the Swiss equivalents of Ventolin and QVAR, without a doctor visit or consultation. My guess was since it was a doctor's office they didn't have to jump through the hoops that a pharmacy would have had to do. The nice thing about being in a small village is that the doctor's office will also stock all the medication you need, so there's no need to run from the doctor's office to a pharmacy.

From prior research on the internet, I'd read that past Kublis, the bike path degenerates and becomes a disaster for traditional trekking bikes, which meant bad news for the triplet. Despite this, we took a wrong turn and ended up on a nasty dirt bike path that I could barely ride up with the kids dismounted. Of course, that Daddy gets to ride and kids have to walk made the kids determined to stop using the bike path and ride the steep pavement up to the main road, which actually had a reasonable grade!
The road eventually met up with what looked like a limited access (no bikes allowed) road! We puzzled over it by the side of the road for a while, until a kind motorist stopped, got out of her car, and told us that if we went down the other fork of the roundabout, there was a bike path which was signed that would take us to Kloster. Sure enough, that bike path sign was there, but we were glad she stopped and told us to look for it because we might not have seen it otherwise. I was learning that bike path signage is just not a priority, even in Switzerland which otherwise has no issue spending money on infrastructure.

The bike path took a detour and showed us a gorgeous waterfall in the shade before we rode more uphill into Kloster where after a few wrong turns we ended up at Kloster-Platz at the supermarket right next to the train station for lunch. After lunch, Xiaoqin and Boen decided to take the train to Davos, while Bowen and I would attempt the ride over Wolfgang pass, which I'd never done before.

The ride over Wolfgang pass has a deceptive quality to it, which is that at the decision point where you have to decide between the dirt road and the official highway, most of the traffic on the road had been drained over to use the tunnel under Fluela pass. So at that point, you would be fooled into thinking that since traffic was light, it was ok to take the road. But soon after that, the traffic from the tunnel now joins the main highway, and you are completely committed to riding the road at that point, since your hard earned ascent would have to be undone! So Bowen and I fell into this fatal trap. To rub salt into the wound, there was road construction in the final kilometers of the climb, so we had to put up with dust, dirt, and rough roads!

The descent from Wolfgang pass over to Davos was short --- only 100m, though we got a nice view of Davos Lake, and a diversion down to the lake as part of the bike path to get us out of the heavy traffic. We made it down to the serviced apartments just as Xiaoqin and Boen had gotten the keys, so we got everyone settled in --- the apartment manager had given us 2 rooms in 2 different buildings, parked the bikes, took showers, used the washing machine (the last time we would get a chance to do so on the trip), and then upon learning that there was a Fondue restaurant, the kids demanded that we go there.

The ride to the Fondue restaurant was beautiful, reminding me how even the most mundane ride in Switzerland is gorgeous, taking us past streams and fields. The dinner was OK --- we did finish most of the Fondue, and bought breakfast for the next morning from the supermarket next door before returning. The forecast was for rain the next day, but with increasing possibility of sunshine during the day. I got the laundry out and dried, and slept decently, waking up once again at 2am but no longer distressed and sleep deprived.


Monday, July 25, 2022

Review: Continental GP5000 700x25

 I've avoided Continental tires on my bicycles for years and years, since every sidewall blowout I saw at the bike club were from Continental tires. I ran Gatorskins for a couple of tours on my tandem, and they were hard wearing tires (I never wore one out before the sidewalls began to look nasty), but Michelin Pro tires were cheaper and didn't have sidewall blowouts.

The good Michelins weren't available in 700x32, so when the GP5000s became available in 700x32 size I mounted them on the triplet before a tour and road them. One tire died from a sidewall blowout, but the other wore through normally. Then Michelin raised the prices on its road tires to a nose-bleed $55/tire from my usual sources (and believe me, as a cheap skate I buy them from far and wide to avoid paying consumer prices), while Continental tires could be had for around $40 each if you shopped carefully.

I ended up with the GP5000 700x25s, and ran one long enough to wear out a tire. First of all these run narrower than the equivalently sized Michelins (which don't matter much except that the Michelins top out at 25mm). Despite abuse, their sidewalls don't seem to be more fragile than the Michelins --- the high end GP5000s are made in Germany, rather than somewhere in Asia, which means that they're constructed differently than the Gatorskin or lower end tires.


I finally wore one out after 4350 miles, 2105 on the front and 2245 on the rear. By comparison, my last Michelin went for 3921 miles (don't know the exact mix of front and rear), so approximately 11% more tire life for a 34% reduction in cost, which makes the GP5000s a much better deal than the equivalent Michelins.

After I run out of 700x25s, I expect to switch to the 700x28s on the Continentals to get wider tires on my single. I would expect increased tire life, except that the tread depth on the 28s appear to be thinner! The 25mm GP5000 have 0.2mm more tread rubber than the 28mm, which explains why the 28mm tires are only 14g heavier than the 25mm tires. By contrast, the 32mm tires are only 0.1mm less thick than the 25mm. Looking at the chart, it looks like the GP5000 25mm tires actually  measure 26mm, so I guess what that means is that the Michelin 25s actually are more like 27mm.

Regardless, the numbers don't lie. The Continental GP5000s are a better deal and at least equivalent quality to the Michelins. I expect to be running these for the foreseeable future. Eventually I might decide that the 45g difference between the 28s and the 32s to be not worth the bother and just run 32mm tires on all the bikes, but I fear is that if the tread lasts too long I'll once again run into the dreaded sidewall blowout.

In any case, I think these will be my standard tires for the foreseeable future. Recommended.


Saturday, July 23, 2022

Tour of the Alps 2022

 From June 13th to July 2nd, we executed a Tour of the Swiss, Austrian, and Italian Alps and Dolomites. The ride encompassed 437 miles, and 25,994' of climbing. We had 2 flat tires, 3 train transfers, 1 bus transfer, and 1 private taxi transfer (which we turned into a hiking day). We had one day of riding in the rain, and 3 days of lost riding to food poisoning. We also took a voluntary zero day, which was spent swimming at Lago di Fie. After the trip, for an extended epilogue, we visited my favorite hotel in the alps, Hotel Rosenlaui (the first for Bowen since he was a baby, and the first for Boen ever), where we did a couple of days of hiking and site-seeing, with Savitha tagging along. This was both Boen and Xiaoqin's first bicycle tour in the alps proper.

This is the index page for the day by day trip report, as well the consolidated picture album and equipment reviews.

Pictures

Day by Day Trip Reports
Equipment Reviews
  • Moosetreks Feedbag
  • GoPro Hero 8
  • Ortleib Backroller Pro Plus Panniers
  • Gorewear C5 Shakedry 1985 jacket
  • LowePro GearUp Wrap/LowePro GearUp Mini Pouch
  • Granite Talon Tyre Levers with Master Link Pliers
  • Amazon Basics Medium Point and Shoot Camera Case
  • USB C to Micro USB Adapters
  • Walz Cap

Friday, July 22, 2022

June 14th - Weesen to Pragg-Jenaz

 I was still jet-lagged, waking up at 1am, which wasn't actually that bad, since I could go downstairs, take all the laundry up, and hang it up so everything was dry by 8am! I then took another melatonin pill, but still had trouble sleeping for another couple of hours. The supermarket was closed by the time we were done with dinner the night before, so we didn't have anything available for breakfast except for the leftover snacks, clif bars, and Gatorade chews brought with us from California. I ate some of the leftover snacks and bread, and the kids would claim they weren't hungry, but by the end of the day I would discover that nearly all of our cycling food was gone, meaning that they had made use of their feedbags and were chomping away all through our ride.

Xiaoqin had neglected to bring a second pair of bike shorts and decided to borrow mine instead. (Fortunately, my shorts from the previous night had dried enough that I could wear it) I guess being married means that you need to share bike shorts as well, in sickness and in health!

It had been 12 years since I'd last been in the area, but my memories of the surprisingly non-flat ride along Walensee were born out. There was even a climb when we had to get off the bike and walk, while Xiaoqin's e-bike had no problem managing the climb. After that, the ride along the lake was beautiful, though the water not as calm as I'd hoped, with a breeze blowing through creating ripples.

In downtown Walenstadt, I found an open bike shop just across the street from the water fountain where I was filling up my water bottle, and walked into it hoping to get help. The mechanic spoke even before I opened my mouth, "I'm so excited about your bike even before you walked in!" he declared. With that, when I showed him my front derailleur and explained what happened with TSA, he clucked and declared, "You should be so mad --- this is not OK. I hope I have a long enough cable to fix this." When I showed him the DaVinci cable splitters, he immediately figured out how they worked, and had me moved the bike to his shop so he could do an installation. I asked Xiaoqin to take this moment to buy herself a new pair of bike shorts. "Couldn't I just keep using yours? They fit so nicely!" "But on a rainy day they won't dry in time and both of us will be stuck with wet shorts!" The one time I'm authorizing my wife to pay expensive swiss prices for clothing is the one time she's reluctant to do it, but she eventually agreed that she needed a second pair of shorts.

After that, it was a flat ride up the valley towards the Rhine River, where we would follow the Rhine to Bad Ragaz and Landquart before starting the climb over to Jenaz. There's an alternate route that would take you over to Maienfeld, but I noted that it introduced additional climbing on a day when we didn't need any. In fact, upon leaving Walenstadt we immediately faced a climb which exercise our newly installed front derailleur, which worked to perfection!
In Landquart, I got hungry and we stopped by a migros to buy snacks, cherry tomatoes, ice cream, chocolate, and (disappointing to Xiaoqin), hazelnuts that turned out not to be roasted and therefore weren't very yummy. Coming out of Landquart, the bike path turns into dirt, but it was only for a couple of kilometers before dumping us out onto a frontage road along the river. This was a common place for kids to ride --- we saw a group of school age children riding along the same route, and the triplet got plenty of stares.

The climbs were occasional, coming in between towns, but then flattening out in a series of stair steps. Riding into Pragg, I noted that the Hotel Sommerfeld looked like it was closed, which explained why I couldn't get reservations there instead of having to book an apartment. I wasn't too sorry about that --- the apartment had a washing machine, and I liked the prospect of not having to do laundry for the first 3 nights of the tour.

We got to the apartment and had a hard time communicating with the apartment owners, but it turned out that they'd left the keys for us, so after that phone call we managed to get ourselves installed and get all the equipment charging. The owner told us that none of the restaurants in town were open, so I had to head down the hill with Xiaoqin's e-bike to buy groceries.

There wasn't really much to do other than that, so after using the washing machine and hanging everything up we just went to bed!


Thursday, July 21, 2022

Review: Doctors - The History of Scientific Medicine

 I listened to Doctors - The History of Scientific Medicine on a travel trip while flying between continents. It was a great listen, covering early medicine (who was Hippocrates, who was Galen, and how did Galen set back medicine for 1200 year) to the various folks who invented antibiotics, anesthesia, and surgery. For each person selected, you get a biography, context about how he or she performed the discoveries, and the impact of the procedure, concepts, etc. Some of the descriptions can become graphic, so be warned, but it's well worth getting over the squeamishness to get into how the modern medical world became the way it was. I listened to it all in one go because it was so good! 

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

June 13th - Opfikon to Weesen

 

"I am very sorry," the hotel receptionist said, "But we cannot allow you to leave your bike cases here for so long --- luggage service is only meant for a day, not for 20 days!" "But I sent messages confirming that you will let me store luggage here?!" "We have no room."

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

June 12th - Prologue (Zurich)

 I was frantic - there was only one middle piece derailleur cable. I checked both Trico Ironcase boxes, and then I checked the checked baggage. There was no cable. I was sunk. I cursed myself for not stowing the middle piece cables properly. I cursed the powers that be at TSA that routinely opened bike boxes without taking care that all the pieces in the bike box stayed inside the bike box. But it was Sunday, and none of the bike shops were open. I was distraught.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Review: Upheaval

 Upheaval is Jared Diamond's history book about how nations respond to crisis and constraints. It's an unusual book for an academic, since it's written entirely from a personal perspective, rather than an academic treatise. It covers seven countries: Finland, Japan, Chile, USA, Germany, Australia, and Indonesia, which are all related only by Diamond's personal connections, history, and other relationships. What's even stranger is that the framework Diamond uses is that of an individual facing a personal crisis, be it externally imposed (the Cocoanut Grove fire) or personal identity/mid-life crisis, such as Diamond's own crisis in graduate school, where he almost abandoned his PhD to attempt to become a translator for the UN.

Having said that, I really enjoyed the book precisely because of this personal perspective. For instance, in his section on Finland, he not only describes Finland's winter war with Russia, he also describes his own faux-pas, expressing his incredulity that Finland felt the need to appease Russia to the point of self-censorship in the press, when he felt certain that the US wouldn't allow Russia to invade. The fact was that during the Winter War, Finland got zero help from allies and were left to fend for themselves with massive proportional casualties for its population. Without understanding of this, it's nearly impossible to understand Finnish culture.

The entire book consists of insights like this, covering the Meiji revolution, Pinochet's dictatorship of Chile (and how surprising it was to both the CIA and the Chileans themselves). Similarly,  his description of  Australian history covered its slow realization that it had interests separate from Britain, and his coverage of Germany described how Germany (unlike Japan) faced up to its role in 2 world wars and actively apologized with sincerity about its actions.

The direct relevance of this book is pretty obvious from Diamond's telling. The US is in denial about it's flaw and relative decline, choosing to blame other countries or external factors for its problems:

the major democracy with the greatest inequality is the U.S. That’s been true for a long time, and that inequality of ours is still increasing. Some of those measures of rising American economic inequality have now become frequently quoted and widely familiar. For instance, the share of unadjusted national income earned by the richest 1% of Americans rose from less than 10% in the 1970’s to over 25% today. Inequality is rising even within the ranks of rich Americans themselves: the richest 1% of Americans have increased their incomes proportionately much more than the richest 5%; the richest 0.1% have done proportionately better than the richest 1%; and the three richest Americans (currently Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett) have combined net worths currently equal to the combined net worths of the 130 million poorest Americans. The percentage of billionaires in our population is double that of the major democracies with the next highest percentage of billionaires (Canada and Germany), and seven times that of most other major democracies. The average income of an American CEO, which was already 40 times the income of the average worker in the same company in 1980, is now several hundred times that of the company’s average worker. Conversely, while the economic status of rich Americans exceeds that in other major democracies, the economic status of poor Americans is lower than that in other major democracies... Within the foreseeable future, the U.S. will experience urban riots in which plastic strips of police tape won’t suffice to deter rioters from venting their frustration on affluent Americans. At that point, many affluent Americans will receive their own personal answer to the question, “Does it cause any harm to rich Americans that they live surrounded by poor Americans?” One answer is: yes, it causes personal insecurity... Despite our growing population, state funding of higher education has grown at only 1/25th of the rate of state funding for prisons, to the point where a dozen U.S. states now spend more on their prison systems than they do on their systems of higher education...All schoolteachers in South Korea, Singapore, and Finland come from the top third of their school classes, but nearly half of American teachers come from the bottom third of their classes. In all my 53 years of teaching at the University of California (Los Angeles), a university that attracts good students, I have had only one student who told me that he wanted to become a schoolteacher. (kindle loc 4962-5088)

 As the history of the various other countries describes, the denial of problems and blaming of external factors does not have a good outcome. He also observes something that I observed as well in American society, not only with regards to itself, but many American corporations also have it: 

belief in American exceptionalism translates into the widespread belief that the U.S. has nothing to learn from Canada and Western European democracies: not even from their solutions to issues that arise for every country, such as health care, education, immigration, prisons, and security in old age—issues about which most Americans are dissatisfied with our American solutions but still refuse to learn from Canadian or Western European solutions. (kindle loc 5885)

I remember as an engineer asking a Google VP during a Q&A as to whether Google felt that it had anything to learn from other companies that had grown quickly. The answer that came back was an assertion that Google had such scale that no other companies had anything to teach it. I would read later on a description by a Microsoft PM that Microsoft had such scale that a reduction in the size of the postcards it sent materially affected revenue significantly because of postage. It's pretty clear that the lack of humility seems to be prevalent throughout American society amongst its powerful and high status folks.

For this insight and many others, I consider this book well worth your time. I learned much about Indonesia, Australia, Finland and Chile that I wouldn't have, and I never would have had the time to separate research so many different countries. Recommended.

 

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Review: Rationality - What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

 Rationality is Steven Pinker's book about living in a post-truth era. He starts by giving an overview of logic and syllogisms, a rigorous, mathematical approach to determining the truth of statements. This is all well and good, and then notes that humans aren't really built to actually use those tools:

Another cause for gloom is that for all the talk of a replicability crisis, the myside bias is only too replicable. In The Bias That Divides Us, the psychologist Keith Stanovich finds it in every race, gender, cognitive style, education level, and IQ quantile, even among people who are too clever to fall for other cognitive biases like base-rate neglect and the gambler’s fallacy.31 The myside bias is not an across-the-board personality trait, but presses on whichever trigger or hot button is connected to the reasoner’s identity. Stanovich relates it to our political moment. We are not, he suggests, living in a “post-truth” society. The problem is that we are living in a myside society. The sides are the left and the right, and both sides believe in the truth but have incommensurable ideas of what the truth is. The bias has invaded more and more of our deliberations. (Kindle loc 4421)

He notes that in fact, as far as identity-signaling:

 the best identity-signaling beliefs are often the most outlandish ones. Any fair-weather friend can say the world is round, but only a blood brother would say the world is flat, willingly incurring ridicule by outsiders.38 Unfortunately, what’s rational for each of us seeking acceptance in a clique is not so rational for all of us in a democracy seeking the best understanding of the world. Our problem is that we are trapped in a Tragedy of the Rationality Commons. (Kindle loc 4465)

There's an indictment of how science is taught in schools and museums:

 Science is often presented in schools and museums as just another form of occult magic, with exotic creatures and colorful chemicals and eye-popping illusions. Foundational principles, such as that the universe has no goals related to human concerns, that all physical interactions are governed by a few fundamental forces, that living bodies are intricate molecular machines, and that the mind is the information-processing activity of the brain, are never articulated, perhaps because they would seem to insult religious and moral sensibilities. We should not be surprised that what people take away from science education is a syncretic mishmash, where gravity and electromagnetism coexist with psi, qi, karma, and crystal healing. (kindle loc 4589)

He points out that the kind of conspiracy theories that are popular are actually fairly accurate when it comes to the workplace:

The anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon writes that the Amazonian Yanomamö have the word nomohori, “dastardly trick,” for acts of treachery such as inviting neighbors to a feast and then massacring them on cue. Plots by enemy coalitions are unlike other hazards such as predators and lightning bolts because they deploy their ingenuity to penetrate the targets’ defenses and cover their own tracks. The only safeguard against this cloak-and-dagger subterfuge is to outthink them preemptively, which can lead to convoluted trains of conjecture and a refusal to take obvious facts at face value. In signal detection terms, the cost of missing a real conspiracy is higher than that of false-alarming to a suspected one. This calls for setting our bias toward the trigger-happy rather than the gun-shy end of the scale, adapting us to try to get wind of possible conspiracies even on tenuous evidence.57 Even today, conspiracies small and large really do exist. A group of employees may meet behind the back of an unpopular colleague to recommend that he be let go; a government or insurgency may plan a clandestine coup or invasion or sabotage. Conspiracy theories, like urban legends and fake news, find their way into rumors, and rumors are the stuff of conversation. Studies of rumors show that they tend to convey threats and dangers, and that they confer an aura of expertise on the spreader. And perhaps surprisingly, when they circulate among people with a vested interest in their content, such as within workplaces, they are usually correct.58 (kindle loc 4618)

What causes those same conspiracy theories to metasize is when they spread through networks of uninvolved people:

 The problem is that social and mass media allow rumors to spread through networks of people who have no stake in their truth. They consume the rumors for entertainment and affirmation rather than self-protection, and they lack the interest and means to follow them up. For the same reasons, originators and spreaders suffer no reputational damage for being wrong. Without these veracity checks, social media rumors, unlike workplace rumors, are incorrect more often than correct. Mercier suggests that the best way to inhibit the spread of dubious news is to pressure the spreaders to act on it: to call the police, rather than leaving a one-star review. (kindle loc 4632)

 This ought to send you into a deep depression, but Pinker is still optimistic, noting that this sort of irrationality has been with the human race since the dawn of time, but nevertheless we've managed to reduce infant mortality by getting rid of incorrect previous theories about infection and managed to eliminate slavery, grant women the right to vote, etc. Clearly, the book was written before the January 6th insurrection, but hey, Pinker's always been a Pollyanna, talking about how good life is today. In many ways he's right, but obviously I have little faith given how low our vaccine uptake is. Still, the book's well worth reading for the many insights and little pieces of data here and there in it.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Review: The Particle at the End of the Universe

 I listened to The Particle at the End of the Universe as an audiobook. I thought it was a fun listen, as it covers not just what the Higgs Boson is, and why the Higgs Field matters, but also the history of the ideas behind it, the construction of the Superconducting Super Collider and its failure of funding, and how the physics community pivoted around the Large Hadron Collider instead. So it's science history, plus all out geeking out on colliders and accelerators as well. I learned a bit about "big science" and where all that money goes, and of course, how much CERN contributed to big data and computer science. An easy and light read.


Thursday, July 07, 2022

Review: The World Atlas of Coffee

 The World Atlas of Coffee was available for $1.99 as a kindle book, but I realized that it was actually a coffee table book and checked it out from the library instead. I expected it to be a catalog of beans and coffee and where it's grown and how to taste the difference between them, and from that point of view it actually worked. But I learned much more than that! For instance, I learned that I'd been using the aeropress wrong --- as soon as you finish stirring you should insert the aeropress plunger into the coffee tube and not push it in. This maintains a partial vacumn and prevents the coffee from dripping through into the cup below before it's had a chance of doing extraction!

Another example of how useful it is: I learned that everyone who taught me to use a french press is also doing it wrong. You're not supposed to push down on the plunger before pouring. The idea is that the plunger acts as a filter for you to pour out the coffee, and plunging it in before pouring could force fine coffee particles to leak into your liquid coffee.

Just for these two pieces of information alone you should read this book. Recommended!


Monday, July 04, 2022

Review: Now

 Now is Richard Muller's physics speculation about the nature of time. Richard Muller's an experimental physicist, so his opinion carries quite a bit more weight than the typical man in the street. Also, most other books about such speculations are written by theoretical physicists, so his is quite a different view, especially since he covers much of the experimental work that other books don't.

Since it's partly a speculative work, Muller doesn't abstain from providing discussions about what is or isn't physics and his quotes are frequently quite pithy:

Physics is arguably that tiny subset of reality that is susceptible to mathematics. No wonder physics yields to math; if an aspect of existence doesn’t so yield, we give it a different name: history, political science, ethics, philosophy, poetry. (kindle loc 3559)

He also points out several interesting things about say, the nature of black holes:

 Recall the calculation showing that it takes infinite time to fall into a black hole. A similar calculation shows that it takes infinite time to form a black hole, measured in our time coordinate. All that material has to fall, effectively, an infinite distance. So unless the black holes already existed at the moment the universe was created, unless they were primordial black holes, they haven’t yet reached true black-hole status; there hasn’t been enough time (from our outside proper frame) for the matter to fall the infinite distance that characterizes a true black hole. And there is no reason to think that any of the objects are primordial (although some people speculate that one or more might be). (kindle loc 1229)

Muller also doesn't hesitate to talk about how he's willing to consider things that are not provable by physical laws true. Ultimately, he provides his own speculation, that time is created by the expansion of the universe, similar to the expansion of space. He proposes experiments that might falsify his explanation one way or another, but doesn't discuss whether or not we're coming close to a conclusion. He dismisses many other approaches to the consideration of time, such as using the second law of thermodynamics, considering them not even wrong, since the use of such mechanism doesn't lead to any useful predictions.

All in all, I enjoyed the book and considered it well worth the time spent reading it. At the very least it's got an unusual, experimentalist bent that will be different from other works written by theorists.