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Friday, September 30, 2022

Review: Amazon Basics Medium Point and Shoot Case

 The worst part of the Ricoh GR3 is how fragile it is. I've had to send it in for a repair nearly every year. One of the damage was caused by my rough handling of the camera when it was in the Black Widow Holster after a hike. I decided then that I needed a more protective case for the camera during the trip. While cycling you don't need a case, since the camera is either in the jersey pocket or in the handlebar bag. But when hiking, it's no big deal to have to unzip a case to get out the camera, so I opted for the cheapest I could find, which is the Amazon Basics Medium Point and Shoot case.

The case fits the GR3 snugly, with an extra pocket for any additional accessories you might need (spare battery, etc) which I didn't use. It's a tight fit, but getting the camera out quickly was never a problem, and putting away the camera doesn't take extra care. I expect to break the zipper sooner or later, but at $10 a case I've already gotten good use out of it.

Modern travelers will probably never go to the trouble of carrying a separate point and shoot camera. I find it's worth it to get good captures of places like the alps, so I'd recommend going to the trouble of getting something like the GR3 and a protective case for hiking around.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Review: A Brief History of Equality

 I really enjoyed Piketty's book on Capital in the 21st Century, so when I heard about his follow up, A Brief History of Equality, I had to check it out from the library and read it. Unlike that other book, this book is a lot shorter. Also, it has a different translator, someone much worse at turning academic prose into readable English, so unlike the former book, this book reads a lot more awkwardly, which is a pity, because the ideas in this book are well worth thinking about.

Piketty in his interview with Ezra Klein calls his book optimistic. I actually had to struggle to see what he meant. For instance, very early on, Piketty acknowledges that the inegalitarian nature of human society has historically only been changed by violent reprisals from the oppressed:

the most fundamental transformations seen in the history of inegalitarian regimes involve social conflicts and large-scale political crises. It was the peasant revolts of 1788–1789 and the events of the French Revolution that led to the abolition of the nobility’s privileges. Similarly, it was not muted discussions in Paris salons but the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue in 1791 that led to the beginning of the end of the Atlantic slavery system...The experiment of Soviet communism (1917–1991), a major event that runs through and to a certain extent defines the twentieth century, perfectly illustrates these two pitfalls. On the one hand, it was in fact power relationships and intense social struggles that allowed the Bolshevik revolutionaries to replace the czarist regime with the first “proletarian state” in history, a state that initially achieved considerable advances in education, public health, and industry, while at the same time making a major contribution to the victory over Nazism. Without the pressure of the Soviet Union and the international communist movement, it is not at all certain that the Western property-owning classes would have accepted Social Security and progressive income taxes, decolonization and civil rights. On the other hand, the sanctification of power relationships and the Bolsheviks’ certainty that they knew the ultimate truth concerning equitable institutions led to the totalitarian disaster we witnessed. The institutional arrangements put in place (a single political party, bureaucratic centralization, hegemonic state property, and a rejection of cooperative property, elections, labor unions, and so on) claimed to be more emancipatory than bourgeois or social-democratic institutions. They led to levels of oppression and imprisonment that completely discredited this regime and ultimately caused its fall, while at the same time contributing to the emergence of a new form of hypercapitalism. That is how, after being in the twentieth century the country that had entirely abolished private property, Russia became at the beginning of the twenty-first century the world capital of the oligarchs, financial opacity, and tax havens. (kindle loc 278)

This is indeed a view of history I'd never heard expressed before --- that the only reason the West actually has a welfare state and reduced inequality was the explicit competition with the communist system and ideas expressed by Russia, which promised a better life than those in the West who lived in a harsh capitalistic system. I will note that by the time FDR took office, capitalism had effectively failed the majority of people living under the system --- the great depression was neither self-correcting nor humane.

I learned many fascinating pieces of history in the book I'd never encountered anywhere else, not least because Piketty with his French background is much more versant with French colonialism than I ever was, and willing to criticize the European past:

According to a rather widespread fairy tale, legal equality has been definitively established in Western countries since the Enlightenment and the “Atlantic revolutions.” In this narrative, the French Revolution and the abolition of aristocratic privileges during the night of August 4, 1789, appear to be foundational events. The reality is obviously more complex. The republics of France and the United States were in essence slaveholding, colonial, and legally discriminatory until the 1960s. The same was true of the British and Dutch monarchies. Almost everywhere, the equality of rights proclaimed at the end of the eighteenth century is above all an equality of White men, and especially of property-owning White men. (kindle loc 1791)

And here, we come to the optimistic part of the book. He explains how Sweden came from a state of inequality to becoming one of the most egalitarian societies in the world:

On the eve of World War I, the concentration of property was just as extreme in Sweden as it was in France or the United Kingdom (see Figure 17), and Sweden was incontestably the European country that had gone furthest in the constitutional and electoral codification of its inequality.14 Then, during the interwar period, the Social Democrats took control of the Swedish government and put their country’s state power in the service of a completely different political project. Instead of using property registers and incomes to distribute the right to vote, they began to use them to make the richest people pay progressively heavier taxes, all in order to finance public services. These services allowed relatively egalitarian (here again, in comparison to other countries) access to health care and education for the whole of the population. This experiment shows how little anything is fixed. People sometimes imagine that there are cultures or civilizations that tend by nature toward equality or inequality: Sweden is supposed to have always been egalitarian, perhaps because of an ancient passion proceeding from the Vikings, whereas India and its castes are eternally inegalitarian, no doubt for reasons just as mystical that proceed from the Aryans. In truth, everything depends on the institutions and rules that each human community gives itself, contingent on power relationships, mobilizations, and social struggles, within unstable trajectories that would merit close examination. (kindle loc 1943)

He then goes on to show how easily we accepted certain premises about how, for instance, public companies are managed. For instance, the German model has workers/employees have an equal stake in the enterprise at the boardroom level. The fact that we only typically imagine the American/British model of shareholder supremacy means that we've had lack of exposure to alternative methods of management:

nothing guarantees that stockholders are more competent to manage an enterprise than a company’s employees, or that they are more invested in its success over the long term. Often, the opposite is true: an investment fund can put capital into an enterprise and withdraw it again in a short period of time, whereas employees generally invest a major part of their lives, their energy, and their skills. In many respects, employees constitute the company’s first long-term investors. If we look at the big picture, we can only be surprised by this persistence of plutocracy in economic matters.  (kindle loc 2034)

He counters the common conservative criticism of government intervention, that government is inefficient. We all too often forget that schools and elementary education was once a largely private affair:

Vast sectors of the economy, starting with education and health care, and to a considerable extent transportation and energy as well, have been organized outside commercial logic, with various systems of public employment, mutualist or nonprofit structures, subsidies and investments financed by tax revenues. Not only has this worked, but it has worked much more efficiently than in the private capitalist sector. Even if some lobbyists in the United States continue to claim the contrary (for obvious reasons, and unfortunately sometimes with a certain efficacy), everyone who cares about facts now knows that public health-care systems on the European model are both less expensive and more efficient, in terms of well-being and life expectancy, than the private companies in the United States.8 In the education sector, hardly anyone is proposing to replace elementary schools, secondary schools, or higher education with corporations governed by the logic of capitalism (kindle loc 2391)

Piketty goes on to dismantle the myth that nobody ever paid the 90% marginal tax rate introduced by FDR as part of the new deal:

 What were the real economic effects of fiscal progressivity? Here we must put an end to a widely accepted notion, that the highest tax rates were never applied to anyone and had no substantial effect. It is true that the 70 percent or 80 percent tax rates affected only a small minority, generally the richest 1 percent (or even 0.1 percent).16 But the fact is that at the beginning of the twentieth century, the distribution of incomes and especially of properties was extremely concentrated: the richest 1 percent held more than half the total wealth in France, and almost two-thirds in the United Kingdom. The richest .01 percent held more than a quarter of the wealth in France, and more than a third in the United Kingdom. If we exclude housing and focus on the ownership of the means of production, the concentration appears even greater. In other words, even if the 70 and 80 percent tax rates concerned only the top hundredth or thousandth, these very restricted groups had considerable weight in the inegalitarian regime that characterized the property-owning societies of the Belle Époque. (kindle loc 2497)

 He notes also that there is no evidence that innovation or productivity is hurt by highly progressive tax rates:

 the rise in power of strongly progressive taxation seems in no way to have discouraged innovation or productivity. In the United States, the national income per inhabitant rose at a rate of 1.8 percent per annum between 1870 and 1910 without an income tax, and then at 2.1 percent between 1910 and 1950 after its introduction, and at a rate of 2.2 percent between 1950 and 1990, when the top tax rate reached, on average, 72 percent. The top rate was then cut in half, with the announced objective of boosting growth. But in fact, growth fell by half, reaching 1.1 percent per annum between 1990 and 2020 (see Figure 23). Beyond a certain level of inequality, repeatedly increasing differences in income and wealth has clearly had no positive effect on economic dynamism. (kindle loc 2560)

He further points out that the increased disparity in how much private companies with excess profits can pay versus what government can pay also makes it harder to attract people to government:

If capitalist enterprises in the information technology sector pay extravagant remunerations in order to poach almost all the most expert computer scientists on the market, that can seriously complicate the task of the public agencies entrusted with regulating them (unless they choose to encourage the race toward ever greater differences in pay). The same holds true in finance or law. The fact that salaries have been reduced to a scale of one to five and no longer one to twenty, or even one to a hundred, is not only a matter of distributive justice. It is also a matter of efficiency for public regulation, and it contributes to the construction of alternative modes of economic organization. (kindle loc 2937)

All this is to say that a strongly progressive tax rate is a big deal, and helps much more than it can hurt. The last part of the book proposes many ideas, some of which are very radical but interesting to contemplate. For instance, you could tax wealth estates to redistribute the wealth more equally:

 With the parameters used here, those who currently inherit nothing (approximately, the poorest 50 percent) would receive 120,000 euros, while those who inherit a million euros (which corresponds to the average inheritance received by the richest 10 percent, with enormous disparities) would receive 600,000 euros after taxes and endowment. We see that we are still very far from equality of opportunity, a principle often defended at an abstract and theoretical level, but one which the privileged classes fear like the plague as soon as any concrete application is envisaged. In theory, it would be completely possible (and in my opinion, desirable) to increase much further the redistribution of inherited wealth. It will be noted that the proposed system of financing is based on tax scales similar to those that were already used during the twentieth century, with rates ranging from a few percentage points for assets and income lower than average to 80–90 percent for the highest assets and income. (kindle loc 3030)

The book points out that the current state of the world excessively benefits capital and investment, rather than people who cannot as easily flow across borders untaxed. The results are that people do not trust globalization: 

The heart of the new rules is the free circulation of capital, without any compensation in the form of regulation or common taxation. In sum, states have instituted a legal system in which economic actors have won a quasi-sacred right to enrich themselves by using a country’s public infrastructures and social institutions (such as the educational and health-care systems), and then, with the stroke of a pen or the click of a mouse, to move their assets to another jurisdiction, without any arrangement to follow the wealth in question and to tax it in a way that is fair and coherent with the rest of the tax system. This is, de facto, a new form of censitary power, in the sense that the states that have signed such treaties can, from the moment that they refuse to reconsider the commitments made by earlier governments, wind up explaining in all sincerity to their people that it is strictly impossible to tax the first beneficiaries of international integration (billionaires, multinationals, those with high incomes), and that consequently they must turn once again to taxpayers in the lower and middle classes who have had the good taste to remain quietly where they were. The logic claims to be unanswerable. The reaction of the classes that don’t move their assets around is just as unanswerable: all this leads to a feeling of abandonment and a hatred of globalization (kindle loc 3137)

The scope of the book is incredible. He covers education as well, attacking legacy admissions, and asking the question of why private universities that benefit from being tax-advantaged then have the luxury of hiding their admissions policy behind vague assertions, and allowing legacy admissions, to the point where faculty and academics in those institutions see nothing wrong with the approach:

Although these universities have benefited from multiple sources of governmental financing, they have succeeded in convincing powerful political figures that it is normal to let them do as they please with their admissions algorithms, including giving priority for admission to “legacy students” (that is, the children of alumni or rich donors). In other words, not only do fabulously high tuition fees put the best universities out of reach for the least well-off students (unless they have exceptional grades granting them access to scholarships), but the richest parents can pay a kind of supplement to make up for their offspring’s insufficient grades. Universities explain that the rate of legacy admissions is minimal, even as they deny access to this information and to the formulas used to assess grades and donations...It is striking to see the number of academics in the United States who have become used to this reality: after all, if it provides supplementary funds from generous billionaires who want to have their offspring admitted, why not? It would be simpler, however, to make them pay the same amount in the form of taxes intended to finance education for all, and principally those most disadvantaged (and not the contrary). In any event, these delicate questions should be decided democratically, after transparent discussion of the pros and cons, and not in the smoke-filled rooms of governing boards dominated by donors. (kindle loc 3337-3350)

Ultimately, Piketty expresses hope that because all these deficiencies and inequitable outcomes are a result of human systems and history, he thinks that they can change. In particular, he believes that the West in response to a new competing political system in the form of China, will have to change to become more equitable just as competition with Russia led to the modern welfare state. This is the part of the book I don't buy, since as he stated early in the book, it usually takes violent revolution to get the rich to agree to part with even a tiny bit of their wealth in order to preserve their heads. The result after all that might be a more equitable and moral society (and maybe one capable of tackling climate change --- though there is no guarantee --- Piketty himself provides many examples of historical instances where the result of a violent revolution was an even more corrupt and inequitable set of institutions), but having to live through that period of history can't possibly be comfortable.

In any case, the quality of the ideas in the book make it well worth wading through the frequently turgid prose that the translator failed to alleviate. You should read this book. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Review: Granite Gear Tyre Levers

 I picked up Granite Talon Tyre Levers because 11 speed chains are so tight fitting that I can no longer just undo the chain master links with my hands. These are the cheapest I can find, and much cheaper than the Wolf-Tooth 8-Bit Pack Pliers, which look really cool but I cannot justify a $70 tool. The Pack Pliers by wolf-tooth are $33, more than twice the price!

I never used the tyre levers as tyre levers because I also carried my favorite VAR tyre levers during the tour. However, when I discovered that TSA had lost one of my derailleur cables I used the chain pliers to remove the chain so I could remove the front derailleur, and that worked great, both for taknig off the chain and putting it back on. The tool also cleverly has a place to store a spare set of master-links, which is handy.

The tool works great, and I think it's definitely well worth the extra weight. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Review: GoPro Hero 8

 Xiaoqin wanted a GoPro Hero 8 for the tour in the hopes of capturing good video. The GoPro Hero 8 had good reviews and was somewhat reasonably priced, and the bike mount for it was also easy to get and use. What was astonishing to me, however, was how easy it is to lose the little pieces associated with the GoPro. For instance, the screw on the bike mount got lost early on during the trip, and we couldn't find a replacement anywhere until I had the idea to buy it from and ship it to a hotel we had reservations for.

Similarly, we lost the battery cover for the GoPro pretty early on, and it's nearly impossible to get a replacement! All the replacements we found on Amazon were not waterproof, leaving a port open for the USB-C charging port. I guess the main reason people lost the cover was because you have to remove it to charge, and hence the standard replacement eliminates the need to remove the cover for charging. Fortunately, if you want to swim or dive with the GoPro, you simply would buy a cheap waterproof case for it.

In practice, the video captured is very good, as are the sounds captured. However, the biggest problem with video is that you have no idea what's going to be good coming up, so the best bet is to just turn it on and keep it running. Here, the GoPro has several issues. The worst of it is that there's no indication as to whether the unit is recording. When you start it, there's a period of time when it would show the video being captured, but after a while the screen turns off and it's very easy to forget whether or not you have it on. It would be nice if there was a blinking LED to indicate on or off. Similarly, the Hero would bounce and get jerked around and I'll discover after we got home lots of footage of the front wheel spinning against the ground.

Finally, to my mind the biggest issue with capturing video is the amount of effort to be spent editing it. Editing video is mind-numbingly boring, and I could not bring myself to do much of it.

All in all, I think that photos are worth the effort, but you'd have to be a more better videographer than I am to produce good video after something like the tour of the alps. The footage when it is good is good, but there's too much of it for me to be happy to spend time editing. I think bike tours just aren't made for this sort of stuff.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Review: Walkable City

 Walkable City is a book written by a city planner about how to make a city walkable. He has laudable goals but hides an anti-cycling agenda amongst his many platitudes which destroyed his credibility for me. I wanted to like the book. It points out the many penalties of the American lifestyle, where you sit in a car to go anywhere, and end up paying more for cars, paying in increased obesity, increased traffic fatalities, and time spent sitting in traffic. He points out (rightly) that electric cars don't solve the problem --- they might be environmentally less destructive, but you're still stuck sitting in a car.

He even confirms one of my favorite swear phrases, "DLTE" (Dummy Lamb Traffic Engineer), providing lots of ammunition:

While all traffic engineers can be trouble, state engineers are the toughest because they have no obligation to listen to a local mayor or citizens. They answer to a higher authority, which is ultimately the god Traffic Flow. They will typically claim a concern for walkability and “context-sensitive design,” but everything is still viewed through the lens of “level of service,” and level of service means smooth flow. Incidentally, state DOTs are also a huge source of work for planning consultants, which is a big reason why few planners are willing to stand up to them...It seems a bit unfair to blame the city engineer for this situation. Because most of the public complaints one hears in cities are about traffic, it stands to reason that any good public servant would work to reduce traffic congestion. This would be acceptable if efforts to reduce traffic congestion didn’t wreck cities and perhaps also if they worked. But they don’t work, because of induced demand. Most city engineers don’t understand induced demand. They might say that they do, but, if so, they don’t act upon that understanding. I say this because it would seem that almost no traffic engineers in America possess the necessary combination of insight and political will that would allow them to take the induced demand discussion to its logical conclusion, which is this: Stop doing traffic studies. Stop trying to improve flow. Stop spending people’s tax dollars giving them false hope that you can cure congestion, while mutilating their cities in the process. I understand that it might be difficult to tell the public that you can’t satisfy their biggest complaint. (pg 88-89)

For all that, he claims to be realistic, that most American cities don't have sufficient population density to support more than a couple of blocks of walkable downtown. Compound that with city zoning codes that require parking to be built and we end up with the shape of modern American cities today. He also points out that the familiar story of conspiracies of businesses tearing out street cars in order to switch to buses and private car had a very willing accomplice --- the American public:

In 1902, every U.S. city with a population of ten thousand or more had its own streetcar system.5 At midcentury, Los Angeles was served by more than a thousand electric trolleys a day.6 These were torn out in a vast criminal conspiracy that is as well documented● as it was inevitable. It’s easy to get mad at General Motors and forget that, at the time, most cities and citizens delighted over the change from old-fashioned streetcars to streamlined buses. The real transition, of course, was from dependence on a public system to liberation via the private automobile, albeit subsidized formidably with public dollars. We trashed our trains because we wanted to and nobody said we couldn’t. (pg. 141)

 So if you can't achieve the kind of density you routinely see in European cities, why not encourage cycling? Here, Speck buys completely into what John Forester calls the cycling inferiority complex. He claims that cycling in traffic is too difficult and challenging for normal humans to master. So cyclists must be protected by bike paths and bike lanes (bike lanes are insane --- paint can't protect you!). But he gives the "Naked Streets" movement a pass:

Naked streets refers to the concept of stripping a roadway of its signage—all of it, including stop signs, signals, and even stripes. Far from creating mayhem, this approach appears to have lowered crash rates wherever it has been tried. Following Monderman’s advice, the Danish town of Christiansfeld removed all signs and signals from its main intersection, and watched the number of serious accidents each year fall from three to zero. (pg. 176)

So somehow naked streets are great for walking, but not for cycling?!! Worse, his claim that cyclists can't be educated to interact with traffic properly doesn't jibe with what anyone with eyes can observe for himself/herself in European cities. I've watched Italian grandmothers get on their bike and ride into a busy traffic circle at rush hour, in traffic that would make many League of American Bicyclist cycling instructors cower. But somehow the author visited many European cities and never saw the same thing.

I learned many things, such as why zoning was invented (it's not completely evil --- it's to make sure that factories and pollution spewing power plants can't be built next to residential areas). I learned many things about how to make even parking structures work alongside a walking-friendly city. I learned how if you build a house, it's far better to have a sitting-height wall than a full size wall:

 When we built our house, I put a sitting-height wall on both sides, and a prominent sidewalk-hugging bench by the front door. You would be surprised how often someone sits there. Never mind that on occasion that person is a homeless crack-smoking schizophrenic … it was the right thing to do. (pg. 241)

Good luck convincing anyone to do that now that he's admitted that crack-smoking schizophrenics would camp out on your front door.

When I was in my 20s I thought I hated cities. Now that I'm better travelled, I've realized that I don't hate cities. I hate American cities. This book articulates many of the reasons why and many of the culprits. But its amazing hostility towards vehicular cycling and unwillingness to embrace cycling as even a potential solution to problems facing the American city made me frown with discuss over many of the treatment in this book. The book was written before ebikes. With ebikes in the picture even his objections are pretty dumb. Read this book if you must. But keep in mind that it's a non-cyclist prescribing how cyclists should behave, which is suspicious and patronizing.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Review: Walz Technical Cycling Cap

 Cycling caps are under-rated for cycling. Most people don't know the difference between a cycling cap and a baseball cap, because they look so similar. Cycling caps are made of much lighter material, and the bill is specifically designed to be used in two positions: flipped up, so you can get a better view, and flipped down, so that rain doesn't get into your eyes or glasses, or to shade your eyes. On long climbs in Europe, I don't wear a helmet, I wear a cycling cap. The cap wicks sweat out into the bill, and on a hot climb when you're sweating heavily, the sweat drips off the brim of the cap instead of running into your eyes.

There are people who wear cycling caps under their helmets, but I never did so... until I found the Walz technical cycling cap. Unlike the traditional cycling cap which is typically cotton, these are made out of the same technical material that makes up cycling jerseys. This means that they dry even faster than the traditional cycling cap, and are lighter as well.  They also fit better than the cotton ones, because the elastic doesn't need to be as strong because compensating for technical fabric is easier than compensating for the stretch cotton eventually gets with time. They wash easily, and because the material is lighter, fits well enough under a helmet that for the first time, I did a tour without carrying sweatbands, relying on my cap to wick sweat away.

They're comfortable, lightweight, and keep the rain out as well. Their only drawback is that they're costly. But I bought two.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Review: The Economics of Discontent

 I don't remember how The Economics of Discontent made its way into my Kindle, but given that it's currently free on Amazon as of this writing, I'm guessing I picked it up as some sort of freebie.

I started reading it and discovered that it makes a lot of sense, and explains much of today's political landscapes:

Electoral successes kept coming, each one making these majorities seem less foolish, or at least less lonely. It has become harder to isolate the populist parties. Time and time again these electoral gains have been dutifully explained away as flukes, the results of unique circumstance. But if all the boats are rising at once, it must be that the tide is coming in. The dissenters voting for these parties are the losers of globalization: younger, poorer, less educated. Blue-collar voters indeed tend to vote either for strong redistribution – the far left – or for suppression of immigration – the far right. (loc 387)

It's one thing to report on what's obviously been happening in the last few elections, but Jean-Michel Paul has cogent and relative explanations, tying together quantitative easing to  how disinvestment in education, increasing unskilled immigration, and reduced investment in societal infrastructure in Western countries led directly to the current state of political affairs. Even better, Jean-Michel Paul has an international perspective, teaching me that it's not just the US that have faced these problems in recent years:

The same phenomena can be observed even in Sweden, where the portion of GDP going to wages is now the same or lower, depending on whether or not one accounts for capital amortization, than it was in the ’70s. Not surprisingly, the drop is more pronounced in manufacturing, which is more susceptible to competition from lower wage countries’ imports than local services. In Sweden, the share of wages going to high-skill workers is growing, leaving less for their low- and medium-skill counterparts (Sanandaji, 2013). (kindle loc 644)

 Paul makes the good point that when extreme inequality happens, property rights and private property can suddenly be taken away through revolution or even more or less peaceful change. He tells a very personal story:

My family worked in the Belgian Congo in the ’50s and ’60s. It genuinely thought, and indeed most probably did, help develop the country. It worked hard and generated some savings that it invested in a magnificent local property in Kinshasa. But somewhere in the process, along with all the other colonists, it lost track of the fact that the wealth generated was not sufficiently shared, that it may have been partly the product of their hard work but also of the country and its population at large, that a new local elite was not progressively trained and handed power to as it should have been. Popular resentment among the local population understandably grew in face of the lack of progress and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a privileged caste with little desire for change*. When this beautiful country finally became independent, it was ill-prepared, and events took a drastic turn. My family’s property was nationalized and their life savings lost. Along with so many other formerly privileged, they returned to Europe with nothing to show for their years of toil, unable to comprehend what had gone so badly wrong. History is full of similar short-sighted ruling classes that failed to understand the social contract that guaranteed their property. (kindle loc 899)

 Paul does not do what many neo-liberal or liberal commentators do, which is to dismiss the concerns of the working class over lower-skilled immigrants:

Migrants accounted for 47 percent and 70 percent of workforce growth in the U.S. and Europe, respectively, over the last 10 years. But, in Europe, only 14 percent of the increase in the high-skilled workforce came from immigration. That is, while the high-skilled have benefited, the low- and medium-skilled population has had its earnings ability capped, or even lowered, because of greater external and internal competition (Elias Naumann) (OECD). The locally established low skill population rightly recognizes the new entrants as competitors. Their economic prospects will be negatively affected on the one hand, while on the other, resources dispensed through the state from which they benefit will have to be shared among more people. Indeed, a majority of those opposed to immigration are in fact in favor of high skill immigration. This makes sense as the new high skill immigrants are expected to be net contributors and thus not an economic drag or competitor for the lower skill native population (Gallup) (PEW)...Western societies have to make a painful moral choice. They can continue to provide an internal safety net for all inhabitants by rejecting low skill migrants and enforcing deportation. Or they can accept there will be two classes of citizens that will be treated very differently and fundamentally renounce the universality of social protection and basic public services. This is a choice that states should have made clear to their electorates long ago but have preferred to ignore as elites have racked up the short-term gains of an unsustainable status quo. Ignorance cannot remain bliss forever, and the choice is only becoming harder the longer it is deferred. GLOBAL TRADE Globalization and trade liberalization were supposed to make us all better off through the mechanism of trickle-down economics. (kindle loc 1583-1639)

He also points out that the global economy and globalization (outsourcing) is a political decision, driven by tarriffs, rather than a result of improved technology reducing transport costs:

Western societies have to make a painful moral choice. They can continue to provide an internal safety net for all inhabitants by rejecting low skill migrants and enforcing deportation. Or they can accept there will be two classes of citizens that will be treated very differently and fundamentally renounce the universality of social protection and basic public services. This is a choice that states should have made clear to their electorates long ago but have preferred to ignore as elites have racked up the short-term gains of an unsustainable status quo. Ignorance cannot remain bliss forever, and the choice is only becoming harder the longer it is deferred. GLOBAL TRADE Globalization and trade liberalization were supposed to make us all better off through the mechanism of trickle-down economics...The authors found strong correlations across U.S. regions between increased exposure to Chinese imports and lower employment, labor participation, and wages. They estimated that a sustained increase of $1,000 in imports per worker resulted in a $500 reduction in effective annual wages per working age adult and an increase in government benefit spending of over $50 (kindle loc 1666-1689)

He gives a cogent argument about how the EU and Euro zone is actually much worse positioned to absorb this kind of shock than the USA, where the blue states seem happy to subsidize red states by huge amounts of transfers through the federal government almost indefinitely. 

The solutions that Paul proposes are fairly straightforward, but unfortunately probably impossible to adopt:

Illegal immigrants should be treated with basic human decency. At the same time, Western majorities have rendered their judgment on illegal migration at the ballot box: They need to be forcibly repatriated to either their last point of embarkation, or their country of origin if it can be determined...A system that legitimizes and gives access to illegal immigrants is fundamentally unfair to legal immigrants and to the most vulnerable members of Western countries, who will face unfair wage competition, reduced public service access, and a smaller slice of the social spending pie. It is ultimately unsustainable...Western leaders are paying the price for ignoring how globalization imposed costs on the middle class and pain on those with lower skill levels. The answer isn’t trade isolationism but smarter policies to correct these imbalances. In particular, preference should be given to free trade with countries that have similar income levels and do not run systematic current account surpluses. (kindle loc 4019-4098)

He also has similar proposals regarding houses that are bought and then left empty, as happens in a lot of places like Vancouver and San Francisco, as well as increasing investment in education and public infrastructure. But he proposes no plan for any established parties to adopt such a movement. 

The book is full of data, references, and cogently thought out arguments. It was very much worth my time. I recommend reading it. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Reflections on my 2022 Tour

 Things that went well:

  • This time, I pre-booked lodging way in advance, from Weesen all the way to Hotel Franzenshohe. Many of the reservations allowed for free cancellation, but it would have been a major hassle. In this case I was pretty glad we did so. Not only were the prices lower, but the one time we wanted to make a change and couldn't (when we arrived at Bolzano early) it wasn't that big a deal and we found alternatives with no problems. That the lodging was near a train station was very helpful.
  • Touring the Alps was actually less stressful than the Tour Across Bavaria. Being able to pick the elevation we wanted to be at meant we could stay out of the heat. Even on days when it was unavoidable we were in a big city and could take the bus out of the city. There was several days in Bavaria when there was no way to escape the heat. Clearly, in the summer you need to be out of the mountains.
  • Renting using a long term rental was a great idea. It was cheaper, and the bike was just as good. Using the ebike to haul luggage was a great alternative to having a follow van. It's quite a game changer.
  • Visiting Rosenlaui was a great success with the kids.
  • Buying a half tax card for Xiaoqin meant that the kids were free on the trains. This meant that the trip to Rosenlaui generated enough savings that would more than pay for the half tax card. The rest of the trip we didn't use the half tax card much.
Things that didn't go well:
  • Wolfgang pass sucked. It's quite clear that Albula would have been a nicer pass, though it would have meant taking the train to Chur on the first day instead of being able to ride all the way there.
  • Going for the bike day probably wasn't worth the additional cost. On the other hand, the Dolomites were new to Xiaoqin, Bowen, and Boen, and nobody regretted doing that hike with Lukas.
  • Skipping Misurina was in retrospect a bad idea. It would have been better to stay in Toblach and then used the train to get to Sterzing to start riding over the Brenner pass instead.
  • Eating at Castle Amblas was a terrible idea. Next time, buy a sandwich and bring it to major tourist attractions instead of eating in a touristy place. There's no need to risk food poisoning.
Things to consider for next time:
  • Rent a kid's ebike for Bowen. This would require starting from Munich and renting from Garmisch-Partenkirchen instead of flying into Zurich. This might be a major logistical hassle but could be very nice.
  • Book a long stay in Bormio so we can explore Motirolo, Gavia, Livigno, etc. This would have required skipping the Dolomites.
  • Consider doing multiple fixed-based tours. This is a lot cheaper for lodging, but would require renting a car. It would have been prohibitive to rent a car out of Zurich this time around, but apparently Munich had cheap car rentals. I didn't consider that and probably should have. Train rides are considerably cheaper in Germany as well, but ebike rentals in Munich proper are not a thing, and I had to go considerably afield (Garmisch) before finding a shop that would rent an ebike as cheaply as Zurich.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Review: JMOX USB C to Micro USB adapters

 For this trip, I stopped carrying micro USB cables, and just brought along a bunch of USB cables along with the JMOX USB C to Micro USB adapters, the USB C to Garmin charging adapters, and the JMOX USB C to Mini adapters. This saved a bunch of weight, as well as removing confusion as to which cables should be plugged in when, at the expense of possibly losing the adapters, which was why the zippered smart parts pouches I reviewed earlier were so important.

All of these worked, though during the flight at the end of the trip, Boen managed to bend one of the micro USB adapters hard enough that I couldn't pull it out. He had to manage the rest of the trip with his tablet being unchargeable. When I got home, I used a pair of pliers and pulled out the adapter, destroying it in the process but the tablet was not managed.

These products saved quite a bit of cable management. Recommended.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Review: Dying of Whiteness

 Dying of Whiteness is a difficult book to read. At a deep level, it's about the recent reversal of life expectancy  in the white working class population in the United States in recent years, which is an unprecedented in the developed world. But it's clearly also a particularly political book because of the author's dedication to pursuing root causes down to the deep level.

The book's primary point is that by blocking progressive reforms, the white population in the US doesn't just hurt those minorities, but end up hurting the white population. Because the white population outnumbers the minorities (still) by large amounts those same  policies end up hurting more white people in aggregate than the minorities that are much hated by those who voted for those policies.

When I began to sift through the statistics for gun injury and death in Missouri, I quickly realized that the primary victims of gun mortality were not criminals or inner-city gang members, as the NRA and some politicians implied. Rather, as gun laws were liberalized, gun deaths spiked… among white people. This was because white Missourians dominated injuries and deaths via gun-related suicides, partner violence, and accidental shootings—and in ways that outpaced African American gun deaths from homicides. (page 12)

When politics demands that people resist available health care, amass arsenals, cut funding for schools that their own kids attend, or make other decisions that might feel emotionally correct but are biologically perilous, these politics are literally asking people to die for their whiteness. Living in a state or a county or a nation dominated by a politics of racial resentment then becomes a diagnosable, quantifiable, and increasingly mortal preexisting condition  (pg. 18)

The book then goes on to provide chapter after chapter of statistics, information, and cross-state comparisons between various red states with different policies as well as comparing red states with blue states.  The numbers are compelling and irrefutable. The book also contains many interviews with the very same people who've lost loved ones to gun suicides for instance, but nevertheless because of their social context, cannot bring themselves to vote for more gun regulation or gun control. The same would go for healthcare.

Here were men who depended on assistance for stents, antibiotics, operations, or oxygen tanks decrying the very networks that potentially provided lifesaving help. Their expressions of whiteness and white anxiety seemed in so many ways to work against their own self-interests; to live free and die sooner. Importantly, though, these lower-income men were not the only groups I led that linked a rejection of the price of health care expansion with ideological concerns about losing racial privilege or having to pay for racial or national others. To a degree, similar concerns arose in every single group of white men. (pg. 152)

 What's amazing to me is that those same people completely lack self-awareness, voting for policies that deprived not just them, but their children of reasonable care:

we’ve been lifelong Kansas Republicans. My great-grandfather on down. Didn’t matter how qualified the Democrat was, we could not vote for a Democrat, just wouldn’t do it. But then working in the schools has changed what I think. I’ve been to public school board meetings and seen a parent who was actually on oxygen screaming out against Medicaid expansion or money to the schools. One very wealthy family really believed that there should be no public education, that each child ought to receive what the state is going to apply toward education, and then the free market will take care of it. At the same time, they had a significant high-needs child that we were educating that no one else in that type of model would have ever educated, and they were really upset because that child aged out, was going to turn twenty-two, and no longer receive any of the services provided by our school, and they just couldn’t understand why we would not continue, (pg. 230)

The book tries its best to end on an optimistic note, but it fails. While Kansas did pull back from completely defunding public education, and human beings are notoriously bad at weighing long term benefits vs short term costs:

 Were the causes of the subsequent health effects anything but politically induced, they would have been the subject of any number of public health campaigns. Beware Budget Cuts: The Silent Killer. But because austerity tied to political ideologies, its pernicious effects were far harder to discern for people on the ground. All the while, the amount of money people saved on their taxes was rendered moot by all kinds of hidden costs. Tax cuts provided moderately lower bills at the end of the year, but at the expense of underfunding key elements of the state’s infrastructure—and at the expense of long-term well-being (pg. 258)

This was a depressingly hard book to read, but explains a lot of political behavior. The cold comfort is that the population voting this way is killing themselves slowly, but that's not good news for those of us who may end up living in the Republic of Gilead. 

Friday, September 16, 2022

Review: Lowepro GearUp Mini and Lowepro GearUp Wrap

 We had a GoPro, 3 phones, 1 kindle, 1 headlight, 1 radar, 1 HRM, 2 bike computers to charge during the trip, and for additional backup power also brought along a 3000mAh battery. Along with the Epicka charger, and a backup adapter (which we lost near the end of the trip), that's a lot of cables and adapters to keep organized and store during the trip.

Just before the trip, BestBuy had a sale on both the LowePro GearUp Mini pouch and the GearUp Wrap. I bought both figuring that I would return one of them, but ended up bringing both on the trip so we could split up the chargers and adapters between the bikes for additional redundancy.

The weight as described for both items is accurate, and to my surprise the Wrap is actually the better organizer of the two, despite the Pouch being bigger. That's because the wrap has a zippered compartment while the pouch doesn't. Sure, when you pack the wrap with everything you need you'll end up with it bulging, and to be honest you couldn't really stuff a Google 18W charger into the wrap without it looking ridiculous, but when the wrap is in the pannier anyway you don't really care, just that when you pull it out everything that's supposed to be in it is still securely there as opposed to being spilled out all over the place.

The Pouch is great for carrying a 18W charger, a couple of cables and the spare battery. The transparent window lets you know what's in it.

All in all, we used both during the trip and they were both useful without adding weight. I foresee myself using them on future trips. Recommended.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Review: A Brief History of Earth - 4 Billion Years in Eight Chapters

 A Brief History of Earth is a book about earth science/geology. I discovered while auditing a series of Great Courses lectures that I loved the topic and decided to see what a book could give me. I wasn't disappointed, because I discovered that Andrew Knoll in particular articulated the carbon cycle and its relationship to Earth's ice ages in great detail that was enjoyable.

One attractive hypothesis for Snowball onset points to a massive outpouring of volcanic rocks across low-latitude continents. Volcanic rocks consume a great deal of CO2 as they weather, and the warm temperatures found near the equator would ensure rapid weathering and erosion. Thus, tectonic events may have reduced the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to low levels, cooling the planet and so initiating glaciation. In 1969, the Russian climatologist Mikhail Budyko postulated that as ice spreads from the poles toward the equator, it will reflect more of the sun’s incoming radiation back into space, cooling the planet and, hence, facilitating further expansion of ice sheets (and still more reflection of sunlight back into space). In time, runaway glaciation should envelop the Earth...Evidence from the rocks shows that after millions of years, the ice disappeared quickly, as glaciers retreated to the poles and mountaintops, and then disappeared. What precipitated the collapse of these great ice sheets? Once again, we turn to the carbon cycle. As ice spread across the planet, processes that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—mainly continental weathering and photosynthesis—slowed to a trickle, but processes that add CO2 to air—mostly volcanism—continued apace. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere built up through time, eventually reaching the critical level at which greenhouse warming set off catastrophic melting. Out with the ice age, in with the Ediacaran Period. (pg. 121-122)

There's great detail about the interaction between flora, fauna, and earth's climates, as well as the catastrophic events that spur massive extinctions, from meteorite impacts to (surprising and new to me, at least), super-volcano eruptions that spew carbon dioxide and lava.

 Spurred by focused heat from the mantle, large volumes of lava have erupted across the landscape or seafloor eleven times in the past 300 million years, providing a mechanism to explain at least one other mass extinction and several smaller events. In the wake of end-Permian extinction, marine life diversified again during the Triassic Period (252–201 million years ago), giving rise to new and distinct ecosystems over an interval of several million years. But the Triassic Period ended as it began, as massive amounts of lava erupted along an arc that extends from Fingal’s Cave off the west coast of Scotland and the Palisades of New York to black cliffs in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains and extensive flows now buried by Amazon rain forest. And again, biological diversity plummeted. The selectivity of end-Triassic extinction and survival in the oceans mirrors that of the Permian, with reefs hit particularly hard. An estimated 40 percent of all genera and up to 70 percent of species disappeared from the oceans, well below the numbers for end-Permian extinction, but still dramatic. (page 187)

 This stuff is dramatic and told well. I have friends who'll point to this stuff as reasons for not worrying about climate change, since earth and earth life has survived so much catastrophe before. But that's cold comfort for humans --- since humanity's existence isn't any more necessary for life on earth (in general) than having an oxygen rich atmosphere!

The author's very careful to note how during human lifetimes, ecosystems such as fisheries are also fragile, and can take a long time to recover:

Cod populations that yielded more than 800,000 tons of catch in 1958 were declared commercially extinct in 1992, altering the very cultural fabric of adjacent Newfoundland. Commercial fishing was banned, but nearly three decades later, the cod have yet to recover. (pg. 215)

The book is short, tells its story well, and provides lots of lessons and interesting pieces of knowledge. Recommended.


Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Review: Gorewear C5 Shakedry 1985 jacket

The Gorewear C5 Shakedry 1985 Jacket is the best waterproof cycling jacket I've ever owned. It is light at 126g, which is a huge weight improvement over my Columbia Outdry jacket, which weighed 345g. It truly ventilates, unlike that jacket, so I never start sweating inside the jacket. On that rainy day in Bolzano (and when it rained in Rosenlaui), the jacket would bead up with water instead of the water soaking into the fabric like my wife's jacket. It stuffs into its own pocket, and the only flaw I can find is that after stuffing it, the zipper for closure is not well designed and frequently gets caught.

It provides adequate warmth, and I did the tour expecting to at some point wear both my jackets (the other one was a Pearl Izumi ultra-thin windshell) and still be hypothermic, but that never happened. To be honest that could be because we had a heat wave at the same time. It could very well be that we will never have cool summers again.

The jacket is stupid expensive ($300 MSRP), but for the first time in my life I don't feel like I overpaid for it. For a tour when I'm shaving every ounce in an effort to avoid walking up the mountains (and did not entirely succeed), it was worth it. If it came in a women's version I'd have bought one for my wife. If you do any sort of outdoor activity that requires rainwear and vigorous exercise at the same time this is the one to get.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Review: Ortlieb Backroller Pro Plus Panniers

 I'd been using my Robert Beckman panniers since 1995, when Eric House told me those were the ones to get. The elastic holding the straps to the hook had long been dead, and I'd repaired holes in the panniers using superglue, as recommended by Robert Beckman himself. I probably could have kept using them, but the compartments were getting annoying, and with the kids growing, those panniers were simply too small. I found a pair of Ortlieb Back-Roller Pro Plus panniers on sale, and every review I found online said that those were too big for a typical bicycle tourist. But I'm not a typical bicycle tourist --- I ride a triplet with 2 kids, and for this tour, I needed plenty of volume though I knew I was going to shave every ounce off the bike that I could.

The panniers came in a tiny box, flattened down, and when I took them out they weighed 1920g for the pair without the straps, which was lighter than my Robert Beckmans weighed which was 2640g, a 720g savings! The straps would bring the panniers up to about 2000g for the pair, and was worth it as I shall describe later.

Unlike any other panniers in Ortlieb's line, these panniers have an external mesh pocket, which is perfect for stowing stuff you need access to in a hurry, or clothing that didn't dry overnight. This organizing feature was very helpful and I was very grateful for it. The mounting system is a pair of hooks on the top rail which are adjustable without tools, and a bottom retaining clasp that is also adjustable without tools. The top hooks have a strap attached to them that serve to unlatch the panniers from the bike, but when the panniers are laden those straps will not hold the weight of the panniers, which is what the external shoulder straps are for! I've had a few incidents where the strap would somehow wrap themselves inside the pannier hooks while placing the panniers and prevent latching, or where the hooks themselves would come off the rails if the pannier was too heavily laden. None of that ever happened while riding, but it convinced me that bringing the shoulder straps (which have a dedicated stowage hooks embedded in the bottom of the panniers) was a good idea and I learned to use them whenever possible.

Ortliebs are famous for being waterproof, and these live up to that reputation. On the Fluela pass ride, we had so much water that there were puddles on the top flat section of the panniers when we came out of the cafe to start riding again. We flapped the panniers so the water came off and everything inside the panniers stayed dry. I expect these to stay dry through anything the original PVC ones would, including river crossings.

The straps that come with the panniers are great. You tuck them into special loops at the bottom of the panniers (two each), so they don't flap around and get caught while riding, and when you're done for the day you lift the handle straps to release the panniers and use these shoulder straps to carry the panniers. They won't make the panniers as easy to carry as a backpack but they work well. They're well worth the additional 40g each.

As far as organization goes, the one compartment panniers are much more efficient than the multi-compartment ones. They're not as good for being able to get at stuff in the middle of the day, but there are actually 2 side pockets inside where you can put tools, medicine, or something else, in addition to the outside mesh pockets, so I never felt as though I spent lots of time digging through the panniers for stuff. What I ended up doing was thinking ahead a little, and if there was likely to be rain, I'd layer the rain gear on top. If there was likely to be a need for swimming, I'd layer the swim wear on top. When we had shoes, we'd put the shoes on top since it was the most likely thing you wanted to change into at the end of the day.

These panniers worked great in conjunction with the Arkels on the ebike. The ebike had a spring loaded centerpiece on the rack. I would first adjust the Ortliebs to fit on the ebike's rack (thankfully, the tubing diameters were compatible with the Bruce Gordons on the triplet), then I would mount the Ortliebs. Xiaoqin had come up with a way to use the velcro attachment system on the Arkels so they could be gripped by the centerpiece spring loaded flap. So I would use that for the Arkels, layering the Arkels on top of the Ortliebs. This worked much better than having 2 sets of Ortliebs, though I suspect with how flexible the Ortliebs were I could have made that work as well.

Panniers are kind of an old fashioned item nowadays, since most people use bike-packing style systems, which are more aerodynamic. On the other hand, with 3 people on the bike there was no way to fit in all our gear otherwise. These are easier to use, more waterproof, and lighter for more volume than my much more expensive Beckmans, and are an upgrade in every way. I highly recommend them.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Review: Prodigal Child

 I've been reading Dave Moulton's blog for a while, and intrigued by many of his musings --- the man can clearly write, and his thoughts and experiences of cycling in the 1950s, and as an independent framebuilder in the 1980s and 1990s before he gave it all up are very much worth your time to read. So when he mentioned that he had a novel called Prodigal Child that was somewhat autobiographical, I sent a sample to my kindle and read it.

The sample was more than good enough for me to pay the kindle price and read the entire thing --- at 265 pages, it's not a doorstop. Note that if you want a signed hardcover copy you can pay him $6 for one. The protagonist is Eddie Comer, a kid who grows up in a working class neighborhood in England during the second world war. His father is abusive and his older brother died during the war. This abusive upbringing, along with the ways schools treated him, led him to do a lot of fighting despite his doing well in choir at school.

I won't spoil the rest of the story, but I can tell you why the book's not super successful --- the writing style (which I like) is very much in the male competence vernacular, which is not a popular style. The hardships that Eddie Comer endured (which in the hands of modern "incompetence literature" vernacular would have been blown up and dramatized) are treated in a matter-of-fact fashion. There's not a lot of flourishes in the writing, or detailed descriptions, or even a single sex scene. This is not a book for people who can't use their brains or want "literature." This is a working class novel written by a man who's built with his hands and an approach to life that while not being super introspective, also has the virtue that it isn't full of self-pity like the kind of incompetence literature that's so popular nowadays.

Obviously I enjoyed the book --- I read it over 2 days and didn't ever want to stop reading it. It grants insight into the blue collar background and adds color to how someone like that might think, as well as giving you insights into a justice system that's very much prejudiced against people coming from that background. It's not high literature by any means, but I think if you enjoy the kind of writing you find in Dave Moulton's blog you won't regret paying the $5 he's asking for the novel.

Review: Inhibitor Phase

 Inhibitor Phase is Alastair Reynolds' latest Revelation Space novel. If you've read any of his other books in that series, it means that you'll immediately stop reading this review, and run to the libnrary to grab a copy of this book. After his last couple of "pirates in space" books, I was afraid that Reynolds had lost his touch. No way. He's back in form, with new characters as well as reprising new roles for older characters in this series.

This is classic Reynolds. We get a protagonist who's in denial about who he really is, a mysterious woman who calls him back to duty, encounters with the pattern jugglers, and a mind blowing ending that resolves everything. Like all other Reynolds books, you end up finishing the book wishing there was more. I finished this book on a long plane ride, and it made the plane ride go by so quickly I barely had time to watch any movies!

Highly recommended.

One of us had to remain, to coordinate the stones as they readjusted to the intervention. We… debated, Clavain. Traded scenarios. Formed a duelling adversarial network. Each tried to convince the other we were right.” Glass shook her head in wonder. “But she triumphed over me. (pg. 293)

Friday, September 09, 2022

July 5-6: Epilogue - Luzern

 It was still drizzling in the morning when we woke up, so we ate breakfast, and took a brief walk to say goodbye before the bus came. Reversing the route we'd taken on Sunday, we took the bus to Meiringen, then to Luzern where the weather got progressively better and better until it was sunny in Luzern. Savitha would take the next train to Zurich, but it was pointless going back too early anyway, since the hotel wouldn't let us checkin until 3:00pm, so we bought a lunch at the train station and ate it next to a fountain upon the lake, then saw the famous covered bridges of Luzern.

The other famous sight in Luzern was the wounded lion, a symbol of all the Swiss who were paid to fight for other countries, in many cases dying for a foreign cross.

When we were done with all that, we caught the next train to Zurich, where there was a slide in the family car of the train! Bowen showed no interest, but Boen had to try it for it was so exotic. It wasn't a very satisfactory slide, but it was better than nothing.
We went back to the hotel and checked in right at 2:50pm, taking the luggage we were going to repack out of storage. We had time, so we headed back downtown to Sprungli, where by coincidence one of Xiaoqin's friends had just flown into Zurich the night before, so they joined us, after which we went to a Thai restaurant in a part of town I'd never been to before, on the Zurich version of a bike boulevard. The Thai restaurant was actually quite authentic.

After that, we went back to the hotel where I discovered that the shuttle I'd booked for the airport hadn't actually been booked, so I rebooked it. For some reason that didn't take, since the next morning I had to rebook it again! While the tram would take any passengers directly to the airport, with 3 large pieces of luggage it was better to take a dedicated bus.

Once at the airport it was a major scramble to find the obscure United Airlines checkin counter. This time, the gate agent didn't even weigh the bike boxes or try to charge us, and we were waved straight to the gate. The big drama was that the airplane had arrived with half the toilets on board broken. The airline tried to fix it, but it's not the sort of thing you can fix in 2 hours. They eventually decided, 90 minutes in, to fly with the toilets broken. I had guessed that that was a likely outcome, since European regulations would have meant paying out 300 Euros per passenger if the plane was more than 2 hours late, and it was a very full flight, with no other direct flights to San Francisco that weren't fully booked for at least the next week!

Arriving back in San Francisco our wait for the baggage and exit from customs was shorter than our wait for the same airport shuttle to take us home. I had one final mishap which was leaving my precious hydroflask trail series water bottle was left behind on the plane.

Our trip was over.

Thursday, September 08, 2022

Review: Stolen Focus

 I started reading Stolen Focus expecting a self-help guide to our "hyperactive hive mind" economy and personal lives. To my surprise, the book's much deeper than that. It would be so easy for Johann Hari to write about tips and tricks to focus yourself (and the book starts out this way --- the author detoxed himself by going to Provincetown without his smartphone, tablet, and laptop for multiple months without an internet connection), but at every point, Hari instead of going for the cheap, individual, easy fix, ties it to society and possible changes we can make in order to get back our focus.

The people in Silicon Valley did not want to design gadgets and websites that would dissolve people’s attention spans. They’re not the Joker, trying to sow chaos and make us dumb. They spend a lot of their own time meditating and doing yoga. They often ban their own kids from using the sites and gadgets they design, and send them instead to tech-free Montessori schools. But their business model can only succeed if they take steps to dominate the attention spans of the wider society. It’s not their goal, any more than ExxonMobil deliberately wants to melt the Arctic. But it’s an inescapable effect of their current business model. (kindle loc 1825)

An opinion that I've long held is that the mental health movement, including "mindfulness", is a hack to get you to deal with your stress better so that companies can pile on more stress on you. Hari has a name for this: "Cruel Optimism":

 He introduced me to an idea I hadn’t heard before—a concept named “cruel optimism.” This is when you take a really big problem with deep causes in our culture—like obesity, or depression, or addiction—and you offer people, in upbeat language, a simplistic individual solution. It sounds optimistic, because you are telling them that the problem can be solved, and soon—but it is, in fact, cruel, because the solution you are offering is so limited, and so blind to the deeper causes, that for most people, it will fail...Ronald talked to me about a bestselling book by a New York Times reporter that tells its readers: “Stress isn’t something imposed on us. It’s something we impose on ourselves.” Stress is a feeling. Stress is a series of thoughts. If you just learn how to think differently—to quiet down your rattling thoughts—your stress will melt away. So you just need to learn to meditate. Your stress comes from a failure to be mindful. This message sings off the page with optimistic promise—but Ronald points out that in the real world, the top causes of stress in the U.S. have been identified by scientists at Stanford Graduate School of Business in a major study. They are “a lack of health insurance, the constant threat of lay-offs, lack of discretion and autonomy in decision-making, long working hours, low levels of organizational justice, and unrealistic demands.” If you don’t have health insurance and you have diabetes and you can’t afford insulin, or if you are forced to work sixty hours a week by a bullying boss, or if you are watching your colleagues get laid off one by one and you suspect with a sickening feeling that you will be next, your stress is not “something we impose on ourselves.” It is something imposed on you...The people who say stress is just a matter of changing your thoughts are, he says, talking “from a privileged position. It’s easy for them to say that.” He gave me the example of a company that was cutting back on providing healthcare to some people—and was, at the same time, congratulated by the same New York Times writer for providing meditation classes to its employees. You can see clearly how this is cruel. You tell somebody there’s a solution to their problem—just think differently about your stress and you’ll be fine!—and then leave them in a waking nightmare. We won’t give workers insulin, but we’ll give them classes on how to change their thinking. (Kindle loc 2328-2346)

 The author points out that both YouTube and Facebook's business models depend on triggering people to feel rage and other negative emotions, and the easiest way to do that is to distribute misinformation:

YouTube had recommended videos by Alex Jones and his website Infowars 15 billion times. Jones is a vicious conspiracy theorist who has claimed that the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre was faked, and that the grieving parents are liars whose children never even existed. As a result, some of those parents have been inundated with death threats and have had to flee their homes. This is just one of many insane claims he has made. Tristan has said: “Let’s compare that—what is the aggregate traffic of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian? All that together is not close to fifteen billion views.” (kindle loc 2120)

So once again, this isn't something you as an individual can do something about --- it's something that society needs to regulate and change. Hari's proposals are pretty radical --- treating Facebook/Youtube as something like the BBC probably won't fly in American culture, but he points out that mass movements have succeeded in the past, despite extreme odds.

Hari describes the use of Ritalin and other stimulants in treating ADHD. He points out that once again, the pills are an easy individual solution that helps paper over deeper problems:

 In Norway, I went to interview the politician Inga Marte Thorkildsen, who started to investigate these questions—and wrote a book about it—after she was shaken by the case of one of her constituents. He was an eight-year-old boy whose teachers identified him as showing all the signs of hypervigilance. He wouldn’t sit still; he was running around all the time; he refused to do what he was told. So he was diagnosed with ADHD, and given stimulants. Not long afterward he was found dead, with a seventeen-centimeter gap in his skull. He had been murdered by his father, who, it emerged, had been violently abusing him all along. When I sat with her in Oslo, Inge told me: “Nobody did anything because they just said, ‘Wow, he has problems with attention,’ blah blah. They didn’t even talk to him during [the period when he was being given] medication.” (kindle loc 2751)

But wait, he dives in even deeper, pointing out that children today are being denied the most basic of human rights that adults had when they were kids, which is the ability go play outside without adult supervision. He discusses the free range kids movement, and discusses the Sudbury Valley school approach to learning, and how successful the Finnish people are about their schooling:

 The country that is often judged by international league tables to have the most successful schools in the world, Finland, is closer to these progressive models than anything we would recognize. Their children don’t go to school at all until they are seven years old—before then, they just play. Between the ages of seven and sixteen, kids arrive at school at 9 a.m. and leave at 2 p.m. They are given almost no homework, and they take almost no tests until they graduate from high school. Free play is at the beating heart of Finnish kids’ lives: by law, teachers have to give kids fifteen minutes of free play for every forty-five minutes of instruction. What’s the outcome? Only 0.1 percent of their kids are diagnosed with attention problems, and Finns are among the most literate, numerate, and happy people in the world. (kindle loc 4080)

Hari ends the book with a discussion of why humanity losing its focus is so important today:

 About three weeks or so into the fires, I was on the phone to a friend in Sydney when I heard a loud shrieking sound. It was the fire alarm in his apartment. All over the city, in offices and homes, these alarms had started to sound. This was because there was so much smoke in the air traveling in from the wildfires that the smoke alarms believed each individual building was on fire. This meant that one by one, many people in Sydney turned off their smoke alarms, and they sat in the silence and the smoke. I only realized why I found this so disturbing when I talked it over with my friend Bruno Giussani, a Swiss writer. He said to me that we were turning off the warning systems in our homes that are designed to protect us, because the bigger warning systems that are meant to protect us all—our society’s ability to focus on what scientists are telling us, and act on what they say—are not working. (kindle loc 4385)

The argument is compelling. In a complex, inter-related world with wicked hairy problems constantly staring us in the face, we have to regain our ability to focus and work on problems with optimism. The odds are long, and the systemic issues mean that no individual solution can work. But we have to try.

I started reading this book a skeptic and got steadily more impressed with each page turn. I can highly recommend this book as tying together many threads in a coherent, well thought-out way.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

July 4th: Reichenbach Falls, Aare Schlutz, and Rosenlaui Schlutz


Indeed, the day started with rain in the morning, which stopped after breakfast, but we didn't trust the weather, so changed our plans to see the Reichenbach Falls, Aareschlutz, and the Rosenlaui Schlutz. The Schlutz and the falls would be in full roaring glory in a rain storm, while getting caught out in the rain might not make anybody's mood better, and First is easily accessible by cable car from Grindelwald anyway.

The falls did not disappoint, and were huge. In fact, they were a bit too big, since when we got to the hiking path that would take us down to the valley it was closed, directing us to take the funicular down. Once we were down, we went to see Aare Schlutz, though Boen threw a temper tantrum at the extra walking involved, an indication that he was probably worn out from the day before. I would have been OK skipping the Aare Schlutz to humor him, but Savitha had never seen it, and Xiaoqin did not remember seeing it.

The schlutz was a walkway through a gorge with waterfalls, explanatory diagrams about how the river had carved out the geological features, and various signage. After we were done, we took the bus back to Meiringen where we took out the packed lunch Rosenlaui had provided for us while waiting for the bus back up. Bowen threw up on one of the cookies, and after checking the package we realized it had hazelnuts in it.

After lunch, we got onto the bus and went to one stop before Rosenlaui, for what's normally a gorgeous hike to the gorge, but of course it chose to rain there and then, with sounds of thunder coming at us though it was safe because we couldn't actually see any lightning, so it must have been quite far away. Boen again threw a temper tantrum and had to be coaxed into walking to the Rosenlaui Schlutz. The reason I didn't think the Aare Schlutz was worth doing was because the Rosenlaui Schlutz is far wilder and absolutely amazing in a storm. The waterfall inside was a cacophony of sound and fury, leaving us feeling quite deaf by the time we got to the exit.
After that we went to the hotel and got some ice cream. The weather looked like it might clear up, so Savitha and I took the bus to the top but it was foggy there. On the descent, however, the view from the bus was incredible. Wispy clouds floated over the mountains.
After that, dinner was even better. Bowen really liked the soup this time (a sweet potato soup) and he like the tomato bruschetta as well. We definitely ate well, and with rain pattering on the walls (Xiaoqin said she would see and hear thunder and lightning from her room), we slept a good sleep.

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Review: Mountainsmith Upland 6 Tent

 I bought the Mountain Smith Upland 6 as a car camping tent, hoping to replace the Eureka 4 person tent I'd bought way back in 1993 to take my parents backpacking. That tent had several holes in it which had been patched, and had fiberglass poles which had seen better days, so I thought it was time for an upgrade. The Mountainsmith was discounted from its usual $300 price, and I applied an REI coupon and dividend to bring the price down below $200. Mountainsmith had a good reputation so I thought it would be fine.

Well, the day came for our camping trip and I couldn't go because I'd came down with something the week before and was still on antibiotics and was still feeling weak. I loaned it to a friend who went instead, and he experienced rain which seemed through the tent at the door seam and at the door zippers, which were not protected by a rain flap!

To REI's credit, they took it back with no questions asked immediately. Kudos to REI customer service, and wow, it's been a while since I had outdoor equipment that was DOA!

Friday, September 02, 2022

July 3rd: Rosenlaui - The Romantikweg

 We woke up at 5:00am, got all of our bags, and then walked out to the tram station, where we followed the schedule provided by the SBB app. The app radically changes how you travel by train in Switzerland --- you can even buy tickets after you've boarded the train, or even turn on a mode where it automatically buys train tickets for you (which I didn't dare try!) based on your location.

We met Savitha at the Zurich train going to Luzern, and once in Luzern got onto the scenic panaromic-window equipped train to Meiringen. I'd been to Rosenlaui multiple times, but this was only Xiaoqin's 3rd time, and the first time Bowen was returning since the last time he was there he was a baby. I was curious to see if Rosenlaui lived up to what I had told Bowen and Boen.

Getting off at the Rosenlaui bus stop (we didn't have to pay for the ticket since a Rosenlaui reservation entitles you to a free bus ride), I ran into Christine and she had me leave all the bags and hurriedly gave me a bus pass. We had plenty of time, so I elected to walk up to the Schwarzwaldalp bus stop where we'd agreed to meet Savitha in time for the next train. I'd told the kids the story of how when hiking near Rosenlaui with Bowen in the baby backpack, I had shown him a dandelion, blown it in front of him, and then handed him another one to see if he would do it, and he'd put it into his mouth and eaten it instead! Now, they wanted to see where Bowen had eaten his dandelion. Xiaoqin after walking a few steps decided she didn't want to wear herself out since there was another hike coming, and decided to wait for the bus.

The road signs said it would take 35 minutes to walk, but it ended up taking us closer to 45 minutes --- no matter, we had plenty of time before the bus would arrive, but when the bus arrived, Xiaoqin wasn't on board. One of the passengers told me she'd gotten off at the previous stop! We walked back to find her, and she said the sign on the bus didn't say there were any more stops. I needed to be explicit that she should have stayed on the bus until the end, because what happens is that the bus stops in Schwarzwaldalp but you have to take the next bus to go all the way to the top of Grosse Scheidegg. Thankfully, we were early enough in the day that the next bus was only an hour or so of wait. Any later, and the bus would take a lunch break, which would heavily disrupt our plan. The bus stop was next to a restaurant, but it was too early for lunch so everyone else had ice cream and I had a meringue instead.

The next bus came, and we took it to the top where we had lunch before starting on the Romantikweg (yes, that means the romantic path) down to Rosenlaui in the easy direction. While the uphill direction was easier than the knees, it would take a lot longer and if you missed the last bus at the top you were stuck walking all the way back down and risking missing dinner!

The last time I had hiked the Romantikweg was in 2008 with Phil, as part of a much more ambitious loop that included Hornseeli. I was happy to see that the trail had lost none of its beauty and ability to impress. The upper part of the trail from the Grosse Scheidegg bus stop had wide open vistas and gentle trails but was exposed. That wasn't a bad thing, since that high up, it was relatively cool and the views were worth it.

At the Hornseeli intersection, nobody wanted to go up what looked like a wall, though the sign said the additional delta (20 minutes) was not much time. I had no particular need to do it, since I'd done it before and was curious to see what the regular version of the Romantikweg looked like. After a short leadout, the trail started descending and now the trailside was covered with flowers. The change was dramatic.

At this point, Bowen's food poisoning caught up with him, and he started having to use the toilet paper I'd cleverly stuffed into his pockets last night. 2 goes at it and he used it all up but fortunately, that was all he needed. The trail descended down into the valley into a wide fire road, and at this point Xiaoqin's feet started acting up. Bowen had also slowed down a lot.
There was one last bus leaving the Schwarzwaldalp at 5:15pm, so they could make it. Savitha kindly agreed to stay with them to walk them to the bus stop despite her hostel being right there in front of her. I decided to walk ahead to prep the room and move the luggage. It didn't take long to walk down, but what I noticed was that I never passed the bus stop! Savitha would tell me the next day that I'd missed the uphill turn you had to take to get to the bus stop.

Arriving at Rosenlaui, Christine gave me the key, and gave me new bus passes since she noticed that we might take separate hikes. "There are new rules," she said to me, "No phones or cameras in the dining room, and no phones in the public areas of the hotel. We don't have too many children visiting the hotel so we can make it stick, but the adult guests find that it's really nice not to have people around them scrolling on Facebook or posting on social media." So unlike in the past, we do not have food photos from Rosenlaui.

The rest of the family got back on the last bus, and then it was the usual frenzy of showers, laundry, and getting everyone settled. Bowen looked at the tourist room and refused to stay in it, but I was happy to share the tourist room with Boen. Bowen was excited to test the Rosenlaui dinner, and he didn't enjoy the fennel soup but the salad dish blew him away. He also enjoyed the ice cream but not the main course.

After dinner, we took our usual walk outside the hotel, and noticed that one of the buildings looked new. Peeking inside, it was a notice that Rosenlaui had its 250 year anniversary the year before, in 2021. Christine would tell me that because of COVID, the hotel was closed and they had no way to celebrate it, but at least the building (which apparently wasn't new) was now a museum and a notice of the UNESCO certification of the park.

The forecast called for rain the next day, but we made plans since the morning was supposed to be better to go up to Grosse Scheidegg and hike over to First. We'd all had a long day and sleep came easily.