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Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Review: Osprey Savu 5

 My long beloved Matador Beast 28 is slowly dying, with a rip slowly working its way around the waist belt. My big problem with the Matador Beast was always that the side pockets were nearly worthless, at most storing a Zojirushi thermal flask that's not very big. The camel's back broke when the thermal flask started falling out of the backpack while riding.

 I decided to try the Savu 5 lumbar pack when Osprey started selling them at $35. It has 2 water bottle holders, and one big central pouch. Actually riding with it, it works for commutes or even road rides of 16 miles or longer. But if you actually load up with two water bottles and tackle steep climbs with it you quickly feel lower back pain, so it's actually not so good for actual mountain biking --- I'd stick with water bottle cages.

What it proved to be surprisingly great at though is the commute --- I can squeeze in a backpacking towel, a change of clothes, badge, keys, and a cap for commuting. The side pockets can hold my headphones and the phone proper can go into a handlebar bag to keep myself from texting and riding. It's also great for day hikes, since the water bottle holders firmly accept almost any type of water bottles and hold it firmly. It won't carry quite enough for a day long hike with the family (you'll inevitably need to carry other people's lunches and jackets if you're a dad), but for short 2-4 mile hikes you'll easily have enough water for the family and a few snacks.

It's also generally good for taking kids to birthday parties and stuff like that --- the main pouch has enough room for a kindle paperwhite, so you can entertain yourself.

I thought about returning it, but Boen decided that he likes it more than his camelbak, so I'll be keeping it.

Monday, June 05, 2023

Review: No Excuses - Existentialism and the Meaning of Life

 I picked up No Excuses during an audible sale. Usually I enjoy the Great Courses series, but this one was a dud. The lecturer basically went over what the various existentialist authors wrote (including some biography), but didn't actually cover why they were all grouped into a movement. Even during the last lecture he didn't explain why you would group together religious people and atheists/humanists in a single movement. I came away from the series no more enlightened about the movement than I did before listening to it.

Thursday, June 01, 2023

Review: The Righteous Mind

 The Righteous Mind is divided into 3 parts. The first two are at the very least enlightening and gives you plenty to think about, and the last part unfortunately falls into the "bothsidesim" that has aged particularly badly since 2012, which was when the book is written.

The first part is pretty straightforward: humans aren't rational. Our rationality and reasoning abilities are frequently used for post-hoc analysis and self-justification as to why we did the things we were going to do anyway, whether it was reprehensible or moral behavior. This isn't particularly controversial, as anyone who has tried to get a kid to do the right thing will tell you --- the smarter the kid, the more reasons he will come up with as to why what he did was the right thing, irregardless of the actual rightness of the behavior. What's interesting is that what it takes to change people's minds isn't reason, but affection, admiration, and mutual respect:

When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight. The elephant leans away from the opponent, and the rider works frantically to rebut the opponent’s charges. But if there is affection, admiration, or a desire to please the other person, then the elephant leans toward that person and the rider tries to find the truth in the other person’s arguments. The elephant may not often change its direction in response to objections from its own rider, but it is easily steered by the mere presence of friendly elephants (that’s the social persuasion link in the social intuitionist model) or by good arguments given to it by the riders of those friendly elephants (that’s the reasoned persuasion link). (pg. 79)

The second part of the book is an exploration of humanity's good behavior. The author uses a phrase - we're 90% Chimp and 10% Bees. The idea here is that chimps don't normally cooperate with each other, and 90% of the time we behave like selfish primates. But then there are some triggers that get us to all bind together into a team or group or religion, and then humans are capable of cooperating to a high degree, like bees. There's a part of the book where Haidt explains the aggressive egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer societies:

It’s not that human nature suddenly changed and became egalitarian; men still tried to dominate others when they could get away with it. Rather, people armed with weapons and gossip created what Boehm calls “reverse dominance hierarchies” in which the rank and file band together to dominate and restrain would-be alpha males. (It’s uncannily similar to Marx’s dream of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”)34 The result is a fragile state of political egalitarianism achieved by cooperation among creatures who are innately predisposed to hierarchical arrangements. It’s a great example of how “innate” refers to the first draft of the mind. The final edition can look quite different, so it’s a mistake to look at today’s hunter-gatherers and say, “See, that’s what human nature really looks like!” (pg. 199)

 His theory therefore is that the egalitarian instinct evolved relatively recently. I'm not so sure I buy that. In any case, Haidt points out how you can deliberately trigger the "hive switch" on humans:

Increase similarity, not diversity. To make a human hive, you want to make everyone feel like a family. So don’t call attention to racial and ethnic differences; make them less relevant by ramping up similarity and celebrating the group’s shared values and common identity.49 A great deal of research in social psychology shows that people are warmer and more trusting toward people who look like them, dress like them, talk like them, or even just share their first name or birthday.50 There’s nothing special about race. You can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals, and mutual interdependencies. (pg. 277)

This explains, by the way, why corporate programs to increase diversity ironically also increases latent racism --- the training to make people aware of diversity ironically erodes the hive switch and therefore makes the company less cohesive. The reduction of cohesiveness not only makes the company less effective, it also creates a backlash because the people comprising of the company no longer view themselves as part of a whole. People who might otherwise have bought into the human hive now rail against wokeness instead.

Haidt points out then, that the role of religion isn't an accident. It binds communities together in ways that secular shared values do not:

It was things like giving up alcohol and tobacco, fasting for days at a time, conforming to a communal dress code or hairstyle, or cutting ties with outsiders. For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted. But Sosis was surprised to discover that demands for sacrifice did not help secular communes. Most of them failed within eight years, and there was no correlation between sacrifice and longevity.31 Why doesn’t sacrifice strengthen secular communes? Sosis argues that rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized. He quotes the anthropologist Roy Rappaport: “To invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity.”32 But when secular organizations demand sacrifice, every member has a right to ask for a cost-benefit analysis, and many refuse to do things that don’t make logical sense. In other words, the very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship. Irrational beliefs can sometimes help the group function more rationally, particularly when those beliefs rest upon the Sanctity foundation.33 (pg. 298)

This is an insightful and probably accurate view of society. You'll read this book nodding along to this part. The final part of the book (and really, the author couldn't help but insert it all over the book) is the note that liberals rely only on the caring portion of human morality, and ignore the other pillars (he calls them tastes) of society. This leads to the conclusion that liberals can't see what conservatives view as important, such as "traditional values" and the view of sacredness.

The problem with this criticism of liberalism is that it completely goes against the past few centuries of human history since the enlightenment in Europe! There was a time when human slavery was viewed as normal. In all traditional societies, women were frequently treated as property. Haidt mentions a time when he visited India and came back with a strong sense of what made Indian tradition strong and how he came away with respect for the traditional cultures and values of that society. He doesn't mention attending a funeral where widows were expected to burn themselves in the cremation pyre of their dead husbands. He doesn't mention the traditions of feet binding in Chinese society. Haidt protests against this by quoting Isaiah Berlin:

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrestled throughout his career with the problem of the world’s moral diversity and what to make of it. He firmly rejected moral relativism: I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps”—each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false (pg. 367)

But in vain. We all know that fascism is wrong, but it's also very clear that in recent years, that's what the "moral right" has adopted. It seems that after reading this book, I've come to agree with the New Atheists --- that religion is a blight on humanity and if we are to survive we must kill it dead. It's very clear even from the evidence in the real world that the enlightenment-dominant societies are the ones thriving, and the fundamentalist Christian societies (whether it's the Muslim countries in the middle east or the red states in the USA) are the ones doing the most poorly in terms of lifespan, happiness, or even pure economic productivity. It might be that the liberal politicians need to find ways to attract those voters, but if they don't, it's clear to me that if Haidt's theory of group selection was true, the liberal tribes are going to outperform the conservatives by a lot!

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Review: Ultimate High

 Arley Lewis recommended Ultimate High as the opposite of incompetence literature. It's an account of Goran Kropp's  trip to climb Everest, cycling from his home in Stockholm to Kathmandu with all the equipment he needed for the climb, summiting Everest (after 3 attempts) in 1995 during the same year where multiple mountaineering expeditions led by famous climbers had massive deaths as recounted by Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. I had read Into Thin Air before, and it mentioned Goran Kropp in passing but since Kropp didn't play a role in the tragedy on the mountain he had barely any mention.

Kropp accounts his biography, his climbing experience, and the tragedy of losing friends to the sport/hobby. He mentions meeting his girlfriend Renata Chlumska, but describes her as a model. Only mentioning (as an aside) at the end of the book that she turned out to be pretty tough, climbing Everest without Oxygen in 1999! (In the book, all she does is sit around at base camp wringing her hands over the dangers her boyfriend is experiencing)

It's quite clear the Kropp isn't a cyclist. The devotes maybe 20 pages of the book to the cycling adventures, doesn't mention any scenery, and mostly complains about hostile natives in the lands he rides through. A  lot of it, of course, is that compared to Anne Mustoe, he's a guy, so he was always going to get more hostile reactions. Once we get to the mountain we get detailed accounts of what he did, and boy, the kind of physical travails he has to overcome makes you wonder how anyone takes up the sport.

The book is compelling reading --- once it arrived in the mail I read it in 3 hours the same night. It's not incompetence literature (though once I was done with the book, I looked him up on Wikipedia and discovered he died mountaineering in 2002). The end of the book describes a proposed expedition where he would learn to sail (!!), sail to Antarctica and then traverse the continent on skis. That sounded pretty insane, but from his Wikipedia bio it's quite clear he never got around to it.

I enjoyed the book. It's worth reading, keeping me up late at night to finish it. Recommended.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Review: What We Owe The Future

 When I first heard about What We Owe The Future, I thought that longtermism would be easy to explain and the book wouldn't have much to offer. I was wrong. One of the earliest parts of the book talks about how unlikely our current present with by discussing the contingency of slavery abolition. It turns out that it was an unlikely sequence of events that created the abolition movement, and unlike the right-wing conservative view, the elimination of slavery was a true act of altruism, not driven by economics whatsoever:

at the time of abolition slavery was enormously profitable for the British. In the years leading up to abolition, British colonies produced more sugar than the rest of the world combined, and Britain consumed the most sugar of any country.85 When slavery was abolished, the shelf price of sugar increased by about 50 percent, costing the British public £21 million over seven years—about 5 percent of British expenditure at the time.86 Indeed, the slave trade was booming rather than declining: even though Britain had abolished its slave trade in 1807, more Africans were taken in the transatlantic slave trade between 1821 and 1830 than in any other decade except the 1780s.87 The British government paid off British slave owners in order to pass the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which gradually freed the enslaved across most of the British Empire.88 This cost the British government £20 million, amounting to 40 percent of the Treasury’s annual expenditure at the time.89 To finance the payments, the British government took out a £15 million loan, which was not fully paid back until 2015. The economic interpretation of abolition also struggles to explain the activist approach that Britain took to the slave trade after 1807...from 1807 to 1867, enforcing abolition cost Britain almost 2 percent of its annual national income, several times what Britain spends today on foreign aid; political scientists Robert Pape and Chaim Kaufman described this campaign as “the most expensive international moral effort in modern history.”91 If the economic interpretation were correct, such activity would have been unnecessary because the slave trade would have been on its way out anyway... “antislavery organizing was odd rather than inevitable, a peculiar institution rather than the inevitable outcome of moral and cultural progress.… In key respects the British antislavery movement was a historical accident, a contingent event that just as easily might never have occurred.”...If the United States had instead remained part of the British Empire, Britain might have been more reluctant to jeopardise its uneasy relationship with the United States by taking a divisive action like abolishing the slave trade.124 The plantation lobby would also have been bigger in a still-united empire. Finally, Brown notes that abolitionists in France struggled because they lacked the opportunities and status of those in England. Because abolitionist thought grew in France around the same time as the French and Haitian revolutions, abolitionist thought, Brown argues, became linked with violence and strife.123(kindle loc. 1088-1208)

To me, that understanding of the history behind the anti-slavery movement  by itself justified reading the book. The book is overall very optimistic --- it views the future of humanity as being very bright, and that nearly everything you can do to ensure that humanity survives and has a benevolent future is justified.

If the rest of the book was of this nature I think I would have no hesitation endorsing the thoughts behind the book. However, pretty soon after this discussion the book veers into ultra-right-wing libertarian thinking. For instance, the author asserts that it's a moral duty to have more children, despite the increased carbon emissions that having a child in a developed country generates. The theory is that one more somewhat happy person makes the world better off, even if it causes the immiseration of the rest of the world by creating carbon emissions (which the author happily admits will affect climate for hundreds of thousands of years). He delves into population ethics, and somehow comes to the conclusion that a world with say, 10,000 very happy people (call these the Koch brothers and the Elon Musks) and 10 billion somewhat unhappy people, is a better world than a world with 1 billion happy people, just because there are more people who would rather have been born than not to have lived. In other words, the philosophy behind the author's population ethics completely justifies slavery and the highly inequitable world we live in. To me, that's crazy talk!

There's a lot of concern about long term economic stagnation. Once again, the idea here is that the way out of that is to keep increasing the number of people in the world, since more minds being available to solve problems will create more innovative solutions. This approach completely ignores the fact that it doesn't matter how many minds are born --- if your societal approach eliminates the possibility of good education and the possibility of contributing to solutions rather than creating problems, then the increased population probably is more likely to cause the ultimate extinction of humanity than to contribute to the long term survival of civilization. The author even admits that pre-industrial hunter gatherer societies actually were better nourished and had more free time than agriculturists, and perhaps even lead more fulfilling lives than the average citizen of more modern societies working 40-80 hour weeks and having zero paid vacations.

Thankfully, I don't think I have to spend a lot of time debunking the effective altruism movement. Folks like Sam Bankman Fried have pretty much exposed that movement as full of people using questionable approaches in order to justify unethical behavior. This book veers into that and even though it's been published less than a year ago, has already shown that it doesn't age well.

Nevertheless, you should always read books that you disagree with just in case you're wrong. In this case, the book itself is well written and a good way for you to test yourself against its moral conclusions. Even if you disagree, it'll give you lots to think about.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Review: Politics is for Power

 Politics is for Power is an indictment of something I've been guilty of: treating politics the way sports fans treat sports, reading about it, sharing articles on social media, but not actually doing very much. It makes for a very uncomfortable read, but as the title of the book says, if you actually want to achieve political power you actually have to get off your ass and out of the house and do something:

The petitions with large numbers of signatures were primarily addressing legitimate policy concerns, but minor ones. Petition-gathering organizations such as MoveOn see the same phenomenon. Saving dolphins generates enthusiasm among petition signers. So does demanding funding for PBS and NPR. Aid to the poor? Not so much. Schaffner and I looked closer at the White House data. We obtained the zip code of every petition signer, which we linked to the income level of their neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, people in wealthy neighborhoods were more likely to sign online petitions than those in poor ones. More surprising is that those in wealthier neighborhoods were especially likely to sign petitions if the petition was about issues that were frivolous and narrow. Academics refer to this behavior as postmaterialist. For citizens whose material needs—food, shelter, health—are met, politics can be focused on frivolous and nonmaterial issues. Politics can be more of a game. (kindle loc 1016)

 When people quit Facebook, nobody likely calls them up or sends an email to convey concern or disappointment that they are no longer offering their political hot takes. The relationships are not serious enough that anyone would care to make such a call. That no one is relying on you is a great sign that the activity you are doing is a shallow hobby. (kindle loc 1711)

 Eitan Hersh's thesis is as follows: most people really don't care about politics --- all you have to listen to any interview with a typical voter to discover how incredibly uninformed they are, and how much the nuance or detail of public policy matters to them. Historically, political parties have gotten the loyalty of the electorate by doing things that matter to them --- getting them jobs, solving day to day problems in the community, and doing things like getting them healthcare. If you ever wonder why people in the middle east, for instance, support the terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Muslin Brotherhood, it's because their local organizations provide services:

Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood, all of which provide health and education services in addition to a political agenda. To ordinary people who don’t care much about politics, these groups say, “We care about you. We support you. When the time comes for a vote or a protest, be there for us.” In the story from Egypt and the Arab Spring, the leaderless resistance groups stood no chance in an election against the Muslim Brotherhood, which built a brand not just based on an ideology but on a commitment to community service. White nationalists are figuring this out, too. As I mentioned in the book’s introduction, the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina was out in 2018 offering assistance to opioid addicts.19 When your ideology is as noxious as the KKK’s, you won’t win many supporters on your policy views alone. But you may win supporters if you show people you care about them. And if you show voters empathy and take care of people and the mainstream parties aren’t doing the same, maybe you’ll get some converts to your cause. (kindle loc 3161)

The author covers the history of the decline of such machine politics in the USA, where the parties got hollowed out as the electorate got wealthier and needed less help, and the top level political leaders decided that the local chapters can embarrass them by holding beliefs that contradict the national platform:

Top-down leadership retains control so that no local can go rogue and embarrass the national organization. Top-down unions, according to labor scholar and activist Jane McAlevey, recruit leaders based on “likability and charisma … [the] ability to speak with the media and chair meetings,” characteristics that aren’t particularly meaningful to trust-building with workers. McAlevey argues that unions have collapsed in part because they’ve lost sight of local workers’ potential for grassroots leadership. (kindle loc 2908)

 If you've ever volunteered for a phone bank, you'll know that the experience is shallow and doesn't feel right --- you're given a script and a bunch of phone calls to make and after you're done you're given some more. You feel like a telemarketer after all is said and done and there's no linkage to your political goals. Hersh says this is by design. The donation-oriented approach encourages this, but doesn't retain an on-the-ground organization to carry you through unexciting elections. The way around this is to provide services or to do deep canvassing, which makes less dedicated people uncomfortable, since you have to actually listen to people:

The idea of approaching a citizen who is not knowledgeable or interested in politics and focusing on listening rather than talking, or focusing on serving the material needs of the voter, feels dirty, in part, because any side can do it. We saw that in the previous chapter: the most pernicious political organizations offer services in exchange for political support. It feels dirty because politics, to hobbyists, is about ideas more than it is about power. Even if hobbyists think their side has the best ideas and ought to be in power, the thought of approaching people who don’t know anything about politics and saying, “Vote for my party because we are going to take care of you in these concrete ways,” is exactly like the kind of dirty transactional politics that they want to avoid. To the retired social worker I failed to recruit, even offering voters an empathetic ear felt dirty and transactional. (kindle loc 3315)

 Hersh suggests that the antidote is to go out and organize your community and try to provide basic services. Even in rich wealthy communities:

Ture and Hamilton write, “One of the most disturbing things about almost all white supporters has been that they are reluctant to go into their own communities—which is where the racism exists—and work to get rid of it.” Fast-forward fifty years from that book, when I sit and read through public comments arguing against low-income housing development in well-to-do communities, saying that new developments will “change the character of the town,” and when I see little or no organized effort in privileged white communities to support lower-income housing, I know what Ture and Hamilton were talking about. (kindle loc 3232)

 At the top level, that means the wealthy donors funding the parties have to be willing to give up control instead of pouring money into largely ineffective campaign ads to make themselves feel good. This will be a tough thing to do but given the asymmetry in politics between the two party if the Democratic party wishes to succeed it's the only way to go:

For a political party or wealthy political benefactor to do what I am suggesting—shifting resources to goods and services and hiring local organizers—requires them to empower local people, which means they will not maintain tight centralized control. This is sometimes hard for them to stomach. Empowering local organizers comes with risk. Leaders who hire local organizers need to know how to find good people, how to train them, how to empower and monitor them. If done well, this can be much more effective than any top-down approach, as I have suggested in the stories of organizers in this book. But do not confuse my endorsement with a claim that it is easy to pull off. If donors and parties want to do something more effective than silly campaigns ads, which have, at best, tiny effects on politics, they need to take some risks and do harder things. (kindle loc 3436)

 Unlike Democratic donors, Republican donors typically support politicians whose policy priorities align with a wealthy person’s financial interests. The donors can view donations as an investment. When Schaffner and I asked max-out donors why they made their contribution, many more Republicans than Democrats said that a very or extremely important reason for their gift was that the politician could affect the donor’s own industry (37 percent of Republicans versus 22 percent of Democrats). This asymmetry puts Democrats at a disadvantage. Not motivated by their own bottom line, Democratic donors instead have to be motivated by ideology, issues, or even by the entertainment value that a donation provides. For entertainment value, state legislative races and other low-level offices don’t offer donors much. Maybe this is a reason that over the last decade, Republicans more than Democrats have invested in the offices that, however small and unexciting, are the key to congressional redistricting and consequential state policies. (kindle loc 1312)

This is by far the most important and uncomfortable book I've read this year about politics. If you're a typical college educated reader who cares about politics, the book will make you squirm in many places as you realize how much of your time was misspent when you could actually be doing something else more effective. It doesn't mince words and is brutally honest about what it would take to gain political power. If you really want your side to win, the amount of hard work required is daunting. But I agree with Hersh that it is the only way to gain enduring political power. The alternative is shallow movements that fail or create political vacuums that will invite the folks who're willing to do the hard work to win:

Consider the Arab Spring.8 The Arab Spring is the name of a series of revolutionary movements that started as antigovernment protests in 2010. The Arab Spring started in Tunisia and spread through Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain, and to a lesser extent in other countries. By all accounts, social media played an important role in coordinating the protests, telling activists where and when to gather, transmitting information about where and when to send medical supplies and food. The Arab Spring failed nearly everywhere. The aftermath has been called the Arab Winter, a wake of death, destruction, and capsized rickety boats that carried now-drowned refugee children. The Arab Spring was a tragedy...In Egypt, for instance, protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square spurred elections, which was a major victory—after a mere eighteen days of protest, the country’s leader of almost thirty years stepped down. But the secular movement in Tahrir Square had no leaders, no ability to organize, and no capacity to mobilize voters. The liberal energy that spurred change lost the elections to an organized party, the right-wing Muslim Brotherhood, which was eventually forced out of power by a military coup. Activists with an Internet connection could crumble a government but could not build one in its place.9 To do that, you need a hierarchy of leaders from low-level people willing to knock on thirty-five doors to middle-level organizers to higher-level leaders with a plan. In short, you need an organization. In Egypt, the protesters never had that. (kindle loc 2509-2516)

This book is a call to action and an indictment of most of us in the (upper) middle class. I highly recommend it.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Review: Lovers Quarrel

 Lovers Quarrel is an Astro City story arc focused on Quarrel and Crackerjack. Earlier volumes have established Crackerjack as a blowhard, but Quarrel was in the honor guard, the equivalent of the Justice League. The overall story asks a question few comic books ever ask, with their unaging characters --- what do aging non-superpowered heroes do when they get old? We get Quarrel's origin story, along with the answer to that question.

I thought the story was good, but not as chock full of originality as I've come to expect from Astro City. That's because whenever the spotlight focuses on the super-powered characters, the series reads much more like a conventional comic book super hero story rather than the slice-of-life-in-an-alternate-world that it otherwise portrays. Nevertheless, with Astro City, the story never stays on a single character long enough to get sick of it, which means I'll keep reading future volumes.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Review: The Language of Power

 The Language of Power is the most recent novel in Rosemary Kirstein's series about a medieval society set in a science fiction world. If there's anything I can complain about the story it's that Kirstein seems to be parceling out her reveals in tiny steps. This part of the series starts unraveling the mysteries of who the wizards are, and what they represent --- we see references to a separation between the common people and the "krue" (an obvious language transition of "crew"). We see the existence of a technological society where the technologically enabled use the technology to hold positions of power in society.

Nevertheless, the holes in the story start to come apart. An obviously technological society relies on precision manufacturing, refinement of ore, and clean rooms to make computer chips. Without scale, those technologies are prohibitively expensive and resource intensive and impossible to hide without massive amounts of automation, which is hard to hide in even a medieval society.

Nonetheless, the writing is good, and maybe Kirstein will produce in the final two volumes of the work and a compelling narrative that makes her world believable to a skeptical me.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Rivendell Roadini 1000 mile review

 1000 miles should be enough to review a bicycle, even one as flexible and multi-use as the Rivendell Roadini. I started with it configured with 30mm tires, then decided I didn't like how tall they were and tried them with 25mm tires, and the bike rode great that way. I got fed up with the seatpost slipping and replaced the Kalloy with a Thomson Elite, which no longer slips, but had less of an offset. Then I put on Continental Terraspeed 40mm tires and treated it like a gravel bike, which is the mode it seems to be permanently settled on, so much so that I swapped out the PD-ES600 for the M520s since in gravel mode, I treat it pretty much like a 1990s mountain bike!

Here's the thing, with 700x38mm tires, I stop feeling like I need to drive to the trailhead, but then just ride the bike out my door to the trailhead. If there's 2000' of climbing, I ensure that I pump up the tire to about 44psi, and then when I get to the trailhead I get out my pressure gauge and let it down to about 28psi. If I'm not going that far, I pump it up to about 33psi and then ride it on and off road, taking the hit on the pavement and going slower than I would go with a modern mountain bike down gravel roads. The steel frame flexes like a leaf spring, and I'm no doubt voiding all the warranties associated with the bike, but I buy bicycles to ride them not to baby them.

In road mode, the bike rode as well as I expect a touring bike to ride --- it's a fun, fast, neutral ride. With the Terraspeed tires on it it's not nearly as fun --- you can definitely feel the knobs robbing 1-2mph of speed from you. On a descent, that's a good thing --- I doubt my collision with a deer would have had a good outcome if I'd been going 5mph faster. On a climb, 1-2mph from my already slow 6mph is 4mph. 30% of my speed is robbed from me by the tires, but it's still better than driving! On descents, I can't go as fast as on a bike with suspension forks on dirt, but the bike really behaves well --- far better than a mountain bike does --- there's a direct feedback and a feeling of grace you never get from a mountain bike which wants to just plow through all obstacles --- the Roadini expects and wants you to ride with finesse, picking good lines and going just a tad slower. I did mention that I collided with a deer on the Roadini and survived to ride home with no damage to the bike and only a sore lower leg for about 3 days --- the bike handles so well that while I was convinced I would crash I never did --- despite my vision bouncing up and down and sideways during the 1-2s the collision and immediate aftermath lasted.

Other cyclists who see me riding on a bike with downtube shifters and drop bars and sidepull caliper brakes always do a double-take when I'm off pavement. It's such an odd contraption that people assume (correctly) that I built the bike myself. On wet trails the tires sink in just a little bit before I get traction --- looking at the sidewalls it looks like the tires submerge to the point where the side knobs start to assist with the traction, so there's a little feeling of spinning the tires before everything digs in and you get traction. It's a slightly disconcerting feeling but you get used to it.

If I had to have only one bike to ride in my garage I'd pick the Roadini --- it's got the clearance to treat like a mountain bike, it handles fine with touring tires and light wheels, and short of doing expedition style touring there's nothing it can't do. The only change I'd make is to make the BB lower (maybe 80mm drop --- same as my Strong frame), and if I ever had another custom bike built that'll be exactly what I do. It gets rid of the toe clip overlap (which doesn't bother me but now that I know how to solve it without making a bike handle badly I think I like Grant Petersen's solution), and it doesn't have chainstays so long that i'll be difficult to pack the bike into a bike box when you need to fly with it to a touring destination. I think the Roadini is by far the most versatile bike in the Rivendell lineup (the A Home Hilsen has ultra-long chainstays and requires 135mm wheels --- which are stronger but would render the bike incompatible with my collection of 130mm axle wheels), and doesn't feel overbuilt for a lightweight 140 pound cyclist. Now that they're in stock, I can recommend them to anyone who can fit them.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Review: Astro City - Private Lives

 Private Lives returns to the formula that I love about Astro City --- instead of focusing on superheroes, the stories revolves around the side characters in their lives. The book opens with a delightful story about the executive assistant for Astro City's Dr. Strange analog, who juggles mundane tasks in between dealing with magical catastrophes. Another sequence of the book focuses its narrative on a victim of one of the super-villains in the world, and her super power turns out to be forgiveness. It's a stunning take on an all too frequent trope, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

You can't go wrong with any of the graphic novels in the Astro City line up, but I felt this was a particularly strong showing. Recommended.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Review: The Lost Steersman

 The Lost Steersman is the 3rd book in Rosemary Kirstein's fantasy series in a medieval world that's really a far future science fiction novel. This third book detours from the previous two in that it's not just an uncovering of the nature of the world the series is set in, but ventures into a first contact novel as well! The setup is well done, especially since it was set up in the first couple of books, and we get the interesting effect of what seems to be monsters (possibly controlled by the wizards in the world) turning out to  be an alien, sentient life form.

Once again, the protagonist seems too good to be true --- she's calm, curious, and able to think things true. But I'm quite forgiving of that --- in the old days of science fiction, the men in the novels were also too good to be true and I see nothing wrong with an author making a woman protagonist that way as well. I enjoyed this book and will be picking up the last novel in the series.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Review: Life is Strange - True Colors

 I kept intending to play Life is Strange: True Colors, but what tipped me over was seeing it at the library and checking it out. It took me 2 renewals to finish it, but it was a good story. Here's the thing about the Life is Strange series - it's not a video game so much as it is a short form TV show. Each episode is about 2 hours or so, and while you get a few choices here and there, the narrative is mostly linear --- you don't actually have any effect on major outcomes. The hallmarks of the series are the story, the characters, and the music.

What's exciting about this particular instantiation is that it features a female Asian protagonist. Even better, Alex Chen doesn't come from the depiction of the model minority background --- her family was broken up when she was young, and she's been through a series of orphanages and foster care with a history of fighting and anger. She starts the story having been through that phase of her life and arriving at the mountain town of Haven on invitation from her brother, whom she hasn't seen for years. The fresh start ends in tragedy and the story launches.

Unlike the original Life is Strange, True Colors eschews any real puzzles. Alex Chen does have a super power --- and I love it that her super power is empathy --- she can use it to understand how others are thinking and seeing the world, or relive moments trapped in objects. Each episode revolves around a single event, and as each episode proceeds she has chances to help other people or bypass them. It's not necessarily clear for each decision what the outcome will be, and in some ways I was surprised by the support or lack of support from various characters in the climax --- which is a good thing! The final episode was by far the weakest --- the ending is inevitable no matter what you choose, but that's to be expected.

Overall, the writing is good --- the characters ring true, and your choices are fun. It's not as good as the original Life is Strange game, but it's still worth your time.

Monday, May 08, 2023

Review: The Outskirter's Secret

 After reading The Steerswoman, I immediately bought The Outskirter's Secret to continue the story. The story proceeds slowly, with slow reveals necessitated by the pace of introducing the reader from the faux-medieval society of the first book to the second book's setting, which is the outskirts or the uncivilized parts of the world.

What I really appreciate is how logical the protagonist-scientist is, and how good she is at inferring theories from the provided facts. As a heroine, she's kinda improbable, since scholars were rarely master swordspersons, but the plot necessitated in one particular juncture that not only can she understand how somebody's swordfighting style was evolved, but to be able to also duplicate it to demonstrate and prove the theory to herself. I suspended my belief for that one and just accepted it.

When the final reveal happens I was just as surprised as if I'd never read the book before, even though I must have done so in the past. Nevertheless, it's a great reveal, and I was impressed by how everything came together --- the ecology, the clues, and the pace of the reveals. Needless to say, I'e bought the 3rd book in the series and will keep reading!

Thursday, May 04, 2023

Review: The Phantom Tollbooth

 I got bored with reading The Sword in the Stone to Boen, so midway through I checked out The Phantom Tollbooth from the library and started reading it to him instead. I probably never actually read it as a kid, as my memories of it was watching a video in school.

The book is silly fun, full of wordplay and non-sequiturs. The plot, the logic of it is like a dream --- all the scenes are connected by the flimsiest of excuses or narratives, and one just leads to another. The protagonist never actually makes decisions or does anything, events  just happen to him one at a time. Having said that, the language is great, and the wordplay is fun. Boen seemed to enjoy it, though I will admit he too fell asleep to this one more than once.

Hey, when you pick books to read to kids at night, one thing that the book has to be is not boring for the adult reading it to the kid. For me, that means it has to be something that I like a lot or something that I've never read before. This one's decent.

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Review: Witch Hat Atelier 1-10

 I picked up Witch Hat Atelier while browsing the kindle unlimited store. As usual, only issue #1 is available, hoping to entice you to buy the remainder of the series. In this particular, it worked --- I liked the series sufficiently to check out the remainder of it from the library.

The first thing you notice is that the art for the series is gorgeous. As with most manga, it's almost entirely in black and white, with only the covers of the book colored in. But the line detail, the intricacies are breath-taking. The writer/artist clearly has the chops to draw. Most manga in Japan is serialized in weekly/monthly magazines, so not only is Shirahama good, he's also fast, able to churn out a chapter a week.

The plot revolves around witches, magic users in the world Coco lives in. At the start of the series the protagonist, Coco, is told that they are born with the power to manipulate magic. However, Coco was given a primer as a child, and one day circumstances cause her to get out the pen and ink and trace the primer she saw, which has dire consequences. It turns out that witchers aren't born with any extra-ordinary power, but indeed create magic by drawing seals, patterns that correspond to a programming language and are activated when the circle around the seal is completed. What witches do to cast spells is to pre-draw the seals, leaving a circle open, and then close the circle when they wish to activate. The conceit of the series is that only special ink can create magic, and witches conceal their drawings from the mundanes in order to maintain the illusion that magic is innate, not learned.

The primer Coco was given turned out to be a tome of forbidden magic, and in her tracing she causes a tragedy. The usual action in these circumstances is to wipe Coco's memory, but instead the witch on location feels sorry for Coco and adopts her into his atelier, or school of magic. Coco is thus inducted into the world of magic along with her new fellow students.

As the series proceeds, we get introduced to the society of witches, the tests they take to certify progression, the world of shops, supplies, and the magic police that keeps everyone honest, as well as the ethics of magic. The world building piece of the story is probably the weakest part --- it strains disbelief that such a large organization wouldn't leak a simple secret as a matter of course. The evil-doers that gave Coco the primer of forbidden magic are also slowly introduced to the reader, and various subplots surrounding each of Coco's fellow students (all of whom are women for some reason) are introduced and partially resolved.

I enjoyed reading each book, mostly because of the art, and will keep picking up new installments as they appear. It's inevitable that a series this pretty will be turned into an animated TV show or movie, though I suspect without the outstanding art that sets it apart it's unlikely that the weak world-building would make a deep impression on modern audiences. 

Monday, May 01, 2023

Review: The Sword in the Stone

 I thought I'd read The Sword in the Stone before as a kid, so when Boen wanted bed time reading I started reading it to him.  It turns out I must have read an abridged version, because the book was nothing like what I remembered. Yes, there were a lot of amusing anachronisms, and lots of places where Wart got turned into animals. But all of these were actually kinda boring. As bed time reading is concerned, boring is not bad --- the book literally put Boen to sleep multiple times!

But there's no sense of continuity (I'd forgotten that TH White put King Arthur together with Robin Hood and his merry men), and the finale is kinda anti-climatic. You never get the sense that after all of Merlyn's lessons, Wart had become ready to be King.

Some books are best not re-read as adults, I guess.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Review: The Steerswoman

 After reading Ra, I remembered that another fantasy to science fiction series of novel started with The Steerswoman. I discovered that in between when I last read it and the present day, I'd forgotten all the details and to my delight nearly everything about the series is new. The author has recovered all the rights from her publisher and is now self-publishing, which means that by buying her books you are directly supporting the author. You should do so!

The pace of the story is slow --- there's a setup, and I think more modern writers would spend less time depicting the slow realization of the protagonist about how parabolas and orbital mechanics would work. But the world setup is intriguing and at the time the books were published having strong female protagonists were rare. I finished this first book and immediately bought the next book in the series.

I've noted that the series isn't complete, and Kirstein is still working on the last 2 books in the series --- she's old enough that not finishing is a risk, but if you're OK with that, this book will be a lot of fun for you!

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Review: Bea Wolf

 I ran across a review of Bea Wolf somewhere on the internet, saw that it was easily available from the library, and checked it out. It disappointingly did not download to my Kindle Scribe, but I could read it on any of our Fire tablets.

I've never read Beowolf, so this retelling was completely fresh to me. The language is that of high epic, but the panels, art, and words are those of a modern day kids, with foam toys, candy, video games, and of course, teenagers. Grendel is rendered as a middle aged man who ages kids into teenage years or (gasp) into adulthood, definitely a fate worse than death.

I read the book at night, and the next morning immediately read 15 pages of it to Boen. That very evening, Boen finished the book by himself without asking me to read it aloud to him, and then asked if there were more books, which indicates that the book is kid-approved, readable, and enjoyable.


Monday, April 24, 2023

Review: Astro City - Victory

 Victory is a very different graphic novel from its predecessors. While previous Astro-City pieces focus on sideline characters in the universe rather than the superheroes, Victory is an actual superhero story --- in fact, it takes the form of the well-known hero crossover story, with the Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman standins meeting and working together for the first time.

Well, not exactly, since unlike regular superhero comics, things happen a lot in between issues and the reader is left to infer the events in between. But even then, I didn't find it nearly as compelling as the previous stories.

The last part of the graphic novel is a visitor's guide to Astro City, showing what a travel brochure to the city of heroes in that universe is like. That was very well done and a lot of fun. Even bad Astro City is still one of the best comics around. Recommended!

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Review: Superfreakonomics

 I guess I never read Superfreakonomics before because it had acquired a bad reputation for its attempt to minimize the impact of global warming. Written by the same folks who brought you Freakonomics, it's an attempt to impose economic analysis on a whole host of phenomenon. The style is easy to read and a lot of fun, with lots of little factoids like the following:

the schoolteacher corps began to experience a brain drain. In 1960, about 40 percent of female teachers scored in the top quintile of IQ and other aptitude tests, with only 8 percent in the bottom. Twenty years later, fewer than half as many were in the top quintile, with more than twice as many in the bottom. It hardly helped that teachers’ wages were falling significantly in relation to those of other jobs. “The quality of teachers has been declining for decades,” the chancellor of New York City’s public schools declared in 2000, “and no one wants to talk about it.” (pg. 62)

There's a well known section about doctors not washing their hands, and another interesting factoid that complemented the above, about the inverse of what happened to the school teachers:

 An excellent doctor is disproportionately likely to have attended a top-ranked medical school and served a residency at a prestigious hospital. More experience is also valuable: an extra ten years on the job yields the same benefit as having served a residency at a top hospital. And oh yes: you also want your ER doctor to be a woman. It may have been bad for America’s schoolchildren when so many smart women passed up teaching jobs to go to medical school, but it’s good to know that, in our analysis at least, such women are slightly better than their male counterparts at keeping people alive. (pg. 115)

The big one is the section about global warming and its dismissive attitude towards it. That hasn't aged well. What did age well is the geoengineering solutions such as throwing sulfur into the stratosphere to reduce solar heating. That's been explored by science fiction novels in recent years, but not in convincing fashion. For instance, nobody has explored the impact of doing that on solar panel efficiency, and one thing that this book didn't forecast was how quickly the prices of solar panels and wind turbines dropped. So the book comes across as superficial and glibe.

The book was a lot of fun to read, but I guess non-fiction of this sort doesn't age well.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Review: Astro City - Shining Stars

 Astro City - Shining Stars explores various themes. I especially loved its exploration of Samaritan with one of his arch-enemies. One thing to note is that this series doesn't explore super heroes in a direct, straight on fashion. You never see any of their past encounters directly narrated --- it's all inferred by references and asides. Brilliantly done.  The exploration of other lesser known heroes in the universe Busiek has created are also very good, though I wasn't a big fan of the time-traveling tales of Silver Agent.

One nice thing about having missed the return of Astro-City for many years is that I get to spend my time catching up on at least 10 volumes of their work. This is a great series and well worth reading.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Review: Song of the Cell

 I read Song of the Cell hoping for more from the same author of The Emperor of All Maladies. The book was written during the pandemic, and it shows. The book hops from place to place, from the history of cells to an explanation of gestation, as well as an exploration of stem cells as well as immunology.

Taken on its own terms, the book is quite good as far as an introduction goes, and its theme that most modern medicine is actually cell engineering, from producing insulin to antibiotics to vaccination. Maybe I've just read too many immunology books during the pandemic, but the rest of the book doesn't seem to be as thorough or introduce too many new insights.

I wouldn't say the book was bad or a waste of time, but maybe there's been a flurry of books about immune systems and their interaction with viruses and so forth in recent years, so this book isn't as outstanding as it would be without that context. In addition, the fact that the book goes back and forth in time throughout its various parts doesn't do it any favors. It always feels like just as you're getting into cutting edge research, the book pulls you back in the past again!

Thursday, April 06, 2023

Review: Astro City - Through Open Doors

 It was many years ago when I first picked up Astro City, but for a while they stopped publishing collections, so I put it out of my mind. Then at a library sale I found Through Open Doors and realized that Astro City was back!

The best thing about Astro City is when they focus on the non-superhero humans who have to live in a world where gods can effectively battle it out and destroy lives. In this collection, the story I found most effective is the one where a woman applies for a job at a call center and ends up working at the dispatch center for the superhero team honor guard. It's an awesome story and well worth reading.

I guess that means I'm just going to be picking up the rest of the series! Recommended.

Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Review: Amazon Kindle Scribe

 Eva was telling me that she really liked her Remarkable tablet. The price for that one was $400, but I saw that Amazon had a competitor, the Kindle Scribe. The thing about Amazon is that they have a great trade-in program, so I traded-in an ancient Kindle for $5 credit and a 20% off coupon in anticipation of an Amazon sale.

Sure enough, 2 weeks after I got my credit, the Kindle Scribe 64GB Essentials bundle went on sale for $326. Together with the trade-in, the entire bill of goods came out to $285 after tax. The bundle comes with a leather folio cover and an OEM charger.

When the scribe arrived, I was delighted to discover that it also came with the premium pen and a bundle of replacement tips for the pen. I'm not terribly impressed by the folio cover: it attaches to the kindle purely with magnets instead of a physical snap-fit, which means that it's possible to push the kindle out of the case with finger pressure or mishandling.  Nevertheless, the folding feature makes it possible to read the book easily by tilting the screen with respect to the horizontal, perfect for breakfast.

Typically, I wait to live with a product for a while before reviewing it, but within a couple of days of using the Kindle Scribe I knew I was going to keep it. I never owned the previous large size Kindle DX, but a large screen kindle is so nice that I was going to keep it even without the note-taking feature. First, it makes each kindle page turn correspond (at my preferred font size) to a page in a typical book. That's awesome! Secondly, the book is perfect for Japanese Manga. Kindle Unlimited had several volumes of Attack on Titan, and it's so great to be able to read manga directly without zooming in. The only way this would be better for comics was if the Scribe had color e-ink.

Third, the Kindle Scribe is appreciably faster on download and page turns! I didn't think it would make a big different but it does. As such, when I'm at home, I find myself using it instead of my paperwhite.

The note-taking feature works. I can create notes and write them and it syncs to the cloud. The kids use it more than I do! The writing works as well as paper does, but there are not advanced features --- no handwriting recognition, OCR, shape correction. If I was an artist or mathematician this would be great for note-taking, but alas, I probably won't use this feature much.

The other bad thing about this is that the Scribe is not waterproof. And it being so thin, it feels a bit fragile --- I'm not sure I would travel with it, even though traveling is precisely when I would want to have it around for note-taking. It certainly wouldn't fit well in a saddlebag on a bike tour, and on a sailing trip you would worry about water.

Nevertheless, at the price I paid, the entire package is a good value and it could be that over time, it might save a lot of paper the kids might otherwise waste!

Monday, April 03, 2023

Review: Ra

 Ra is a novel which dramatically changes its nature 3/4 of the way through the book. Since I don't really wish to spoil the book, I'll write about the surface details and the writing, and hope that intrigues you enough to read the book.

The protagonists of the book are a pair of sisters, Natalie and Laura Fenro, who live in a world in which magic was discovered in 1972. This magic is reproducible and repeatable, to the point where the pioneers in the field could write equations, make computations, and by the time the novel starts, there are even ISO standards for magic circles. The two women are traumatized by an event in their childhood, wherein they watched a space shuttle launch turn into a disaster, whereupon their mom says goodbye to them, and goes on to perform magic which is beyond the state of the art at the time, yet fail to rescue the shuttle and its crew.

Both daughters proceed in their own fashions to pursue magic in order to solve the mystery of what they saw that day, and we are drawn into a plot to understand the nature of magic in their world. When the reveal comes, the author isn't hesitant to point out all the issues with the existence of magic, and the explanation is both audacious and challenging. Ideas practically ooze out of the book in every new chapter, which makes the book fun in a way that I haven't seen since Charlie Stross's short story Palimpsest or his novel Glasshouse.

It's clear that the novelist (who goes under the pseudonym qnmt) is a computer scientist/software engineer --- the thinking behind each of the ideas is solid, but the characters are all rather one dimensional. But the ideas are cool, the action is cool, and the concepts will blow your mind. Well worth the time to read (and the $4 kindle price --- since the book is self published, you won't find it in the library).

If you don't want to take the risk, try reading the short story Lena by the same author. It's free and gives you an idea of what kind of fiction qntm writes.


Here's a quote from the book to intrigue you:

Another fun fact: in 1978, a long but startlingly elegant theorem by Shilmani proved that the language of magic had a name. That is, that the language of magic contained within itself a name for the language of magic. The proof was not constructive; it was only in 1980 that Shilmani went on to prove that the name of the language of magic was, in fact, the empty string.  (pg. 293)

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Review: Deep Secret

 Deep Secret is Diana Wynne Jones' multiverse novel. The narrator, Rupert Venables is a Magid, a wizard who oversees multiple worlds but is based on Earth. His mentor dies and as junior Magid, it's his job to find a new junior Magid. Strangely enough, he's given a list of people who're all on Earth, rather than any of the other worlds he oversees. The explanation in universe is that because Earth is so non-magical, the strongest magical users come from there.

This is all tied in with another empire in a different world that's collapsing, and the way Rupert chooses to interview all his potentials is to gather them all in a science fiction convention. Along the way, his neighbor, and one of the potential's relatives get involved. The whole thing then becomes a send up of science fiction convention fans, the trite panelist answers about writing, and Rupert being in over his head.

None of the characters are particularly sympathetic, and the romance between two of the characters doesn't even make sense --- they're just told that they're going to be married, while the inner narration by each individual character doesn't say anything.

I'm coming to the conclusion that I'm just not a fan of Diana Wynne Jones. I couldn't get into anything she wrote other than The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Review: Epic Engineering Failures and the Lessons They Teach

 I checked out Epic Engineering Failures and the Lessons They Teach from the library on a lark, started watching the first episode and was immediately hooked. The series is a bunch of civil engineering case studies, with a view to understanding the various phases of engineering a structure and looking at where each phase can fail, with dire consequences.

What is so great about this video series is that Professor Stephen Ressler builds small, simplified models of the structures he's talking about and then directly demonstrates the failure modes. This makes everything visual and impactful, resulting in a directly intuitive approach to understanding the mechanism of failure without having to do math or go into esoteric analysis.

This would be wasted if the disasters he chose to cover were not meaningful or interesting, but he's picked excellent case studies. Even better, in some of these cases, such as the Tacoma Narrows bridge, everything you learned in school about it was probably wrong, and he carefully debunks the incorrect explanation and shows you what happened.

By far the most impressive disasters depicted in the series are the recent ones such as the Florida International University pedestrian bridge. That's because while you can tell yourself that in the old days we didn't have adequate tools, models or experience building these types of structures, there's no such excuse for more recent structures, and you learn that anything new you do (such as a new method of construction) comes with significant risks. The cost over-runs resulting in mistakes run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and there's frequently loss of life involved as well.

I love the section that get into management. For instance, the Challenger Disaster is frequently touted as an example where engineers disagree with management, and management just refused to listen. Professor Ressler points out that everyone in the chain of command was trained as an engineer as well! I enjoyed every lecture and now understand why cantilever bridges were common in the 1930s-1960s but were not as frequently used in recent years --- it turns out that they were easier to analyze with limited computational power, and with modern computer systems we're able to make more highly optimized structures because we have the compute power available.

I highly recommend this series. If you're an engineer, or work managing engineers, this series contains important material for you. Well worth the time!

Monday, March 27, 2023

Review: How to Raise an Adult

 How to Raise an Adult is a book about over-parenting. It's written by Julie Lythcott-Haims, who was Stanford's freshman dean, who has first hand experience of what over-parented young adults look like in the most selective school in the national (Stanford accepts 5% of applicants).

The first part of the book deals with the consequences of over-parenting, including excessive specialization on sports, piano/violin (it's always piano and violin!), academic stress, and how everything that's not associated with college application is under-valued or dismissed as unimportant. There's not much controversial about this.

The second part of the book proposes a ton of personal actions you can take as a parent, including taking care of yourself so you aren't so stressed all the time, emphasizing smaller, lesser known schools that might provide a better education, and just letting your kids have a childhood. This part is a lot like telling you to meditate like a Buddhist so you can handle corporate stress better. It might help you in the short run, but in the long run it's probably unsustainable. That's because ultimately, the top tier University still ends up admitting all those piano players and stress-tolerant kids who end up being the kind of people who don't know how to operate a laundry machine.

The final part of the book finally addresses the social issues and how maybe if enough parents got together and agreed not to become tiger parents we wouldn't end up with such dysfunctional situations. Collective action is the only way to solve these problems, but again, I'm not sure there's much incentive there either.

Ultimately, the situation this book (and other books like it) describes reminds me of the situation I was in when I was a TA at school --- the kids who most needed the lectures were the least likely to show up, while the kids who would have done all the reading, homework and exercises even without the lectures were the ones diligently showing up. I don't think this book will be read by any of the tiger moms I've met, nor do I think Universities or Employers are really going to punish the kids produced by that system.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Review: A half-Built Garden

 A Half-Built Garden is science fiction, but in the rarest sub-genre, political science fiction. It's also a first contact story. It's also an optimistic vision of the future, where the world (or at least, the United States) is governed not by political entities or by corporations with lots of money, but by watershed communities that govern by AI-assisted consensus, where the social network has been organized to help communities make decisions and achieve consensus rather than to stir up fear and sell advertising.

The first contact is with two alien species which have already achieved unity and symbiosis, and by luck, the protagonist (Judy Wallach-Stevens) and her wife (Carol) show up with their baby when the first contact happens. Luck, because it turns out that the alien species expects people to bring children to negotiations as a form of mutual hostage taking.

What follows gets incredibly political as the governments and corporations want to get involved as well, and of course, the corporations do the evil thing and try to sabotage the social networks the watersheds use for consensus making. How our protagonist and her society achieve their goals and avoid getting gaslit by the corporations involved forms a large part of the story.

This is not a great novel --- some of the plot gets resolved through deus ex machinas. When the other factions on the aliens' side gets involved, we never get a great understanding of how their society works. It seems a bit too pat that there's great biosophere compatibility between all the species involved. Free-market enthusiasts will likely complain about the book being too "woke," with obsessions about pronouns and the author introducing yet more pronouns for various nuances of corporate presentations.

Nevertheless, it's an unusual read and chock full of ideas. That makes it very much worth your time. And yes, that it's an optimistic view of the future doesn't hurt it at all. Recommended.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Review: Pixel Buds Pro

 My 3 year old Jabra Elite 65t active were finally getting to the point where I would run out of battery during a normal workday. I thought for sure that I would be able to get a pair of Jabra Elite 7s, but then came along a set of Pixel Superfan coupons that netted $100 off the Pixel Buds Pro and so I tried them.

The Pixel Buds Pro in the case are about 10g heavier than the Jabra Elite 65t. The fast pair feature works great. Open the case and push the button on the back and pairing mode goes in. A pixel phone will automatically pick it up, though all other devices require you to visit the bluetooth menu. The touch controls mostly work, though are a bit finicky. I've had a few times when it would interpret a "volume up" swipe as a touch instead and vice versa, and once in a while a single touch would be turned into a double tap. Those times are in convenient but on the other hand it's super nice to be able to control volume, transparency mode, etc. while riding!

Sound quality is on par with the Jabra Elite 65t, and the transparency and noise cancellation modes both work. Both modes will cause degraded battery life, however, and battery life is the single best reason to get the Pixel Buds Pro. Google rates these for 11 hours with noise cancellation off, and I have yet to drain them on a full day's worth of work calls. Even better, the buds work with either ear or both years, which means if you're in the habit of using just one bud and it runs low or out of battery you can switch to the other one, effectively doubling the 11 hour battery life! Obviously, that's not going to work for noise cancellation on a plane, but for day to day work use that's exactly the right behavior.

The other feature that I found myself surprisingly enamored with is wireless charging. You plonk them down on the same Pixel Stand 2 that you use for fast charging a Pixel phone and it starts charging. It doesn't charge fast, but it's convenient and easy to use, and I never find myself surprised that the case is drained.

To my surprise, multi-point works! I've paired it with both a work Chromebook and a Fire tablet, and media, etc. work seamlessly between those devices and the Pixel 6. I've tried multi-point on other headsets and have invariably been disappointed. These are the first that haven't been disappointing. There's a slight increase in latency when pairing after multi-point was enabled but nothing that bothers me.

I don't think these are worth $199, but for the $100 price they're definitely a worthy upgrade. Recommended.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Review: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

 Of course I went on a Gabrielle Zevin binge, despite not really liking Young Jane Young. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry reminds me a lot of A Man Called Ove. You've got a single man, an ornery widowed owner of a bookstore on a fictional island on the East Coast of Massachusetts, mean to everyone (even the cute publisher sales rep who visits a couple of times a year to go over his selection of books to stock), and one day an abandoned child mysteriously appears in his bookstore overnight with a mournful note attached. The mother appears washed up dead on shore a couple of days later, but Fikry decides for some unknown reason to adopt the child and raise her (Maya) as his own.

Of course, the child changes him from being an unlikeable person to becoming the life of the town. He finds love, and the rest of the plot unfolds --- we get answers as to why Maya's mother killed herself. There's a tear-jerker ending that feels like it was written for a made-for-tv movie --- the plot is that predictable. Even the romance seems both unlikely and moves characters together for the sake of the kind of story the author wants to tell.

Having said that, it's the little touches in this book that make it different from other made for tv movie plot books --- Fikry writes little cards on books that explain why he recommends a certain book, and those feel authentic.

I'll admit this: no way would I have read this book or continued past the first few pages if not for how good Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow was. It in no way can hold a candle up to those books. The prose is transparent and easy to read, but I can see why the folks who made the movie out of the book did put their heart into it (Rotten Tomatoes of 38%). When I started this review I had put a recommended label on it but by the time I finished I had to take it out.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Review: Dispel Illusion

 Dispel Illusion showed up as part of the Kindle Unlimited Library, so I picked it up, despite my misgivings about book 2, Limited Wish. In fact, it seems that my assessment of the second book was accurate, as in Dispel Illusion, Mark Lawrence pretty much ignores book 2, and resets the plot so that only book 1 matters!

This dramatically improves the logical flow of the story, and now everything that happens makes sense, including the D&D game that's part of the story-within-a-story. At this point, all the time paradoxes that are about to happen, and Nick's previous encounters with a future version of himself now align. Now, it aligns with a pretty cheap trick, but at least it didn't leave me feeling that I'd wasted my money.

This isn't the greatest book in the world, but Lawrence's prose style here is readable and the juxtapositions make sense. A reasonable airplane novel, though it'd have to be a pretty short airplane ride if that was the only book you had.

Review: The Beginning of Infinity

 My wife bought a copy of The Beginning of Infinity, so it popped right onto my kindle and I just read it as a matter of course. I started the book expecting something about physics, but it turned out to be a philosophy book! Let me see if I can summarize it. Basically, the central thesis of the book is that there is no observation/empirical evidence without a theory. The world is full of so much data and evidence that unless you have an underlying theory to explain it, you won't even know what to look for.

But what is a theory? The idea then is that a theory is an explanation of the underlying mechanism for the observations you see. That explanation is what enables prediction, which is what allows an experiment to be made that allows you to have more confidence in your explanation, or which proves that your explanation is wrong. From this, David Deutsch generalizes his philosophy to encompass governments, culture, the arts, and the approach to the future.

Using knowledge to cause automated physical transformations is, in itself, not unique to humans. It is the basic method by which all organisms keep themselves alive: every cell is a chemical factory. The difference between humans and other species is in what kind of knowledge they can use (explanatory instead of rule-of-thumb) and in how they create it (conjecture and criticism of ideas, rather than the variation and selection of genes). It is precisely those two differences that explain why every other organism can function only in a certain range of environments that are hospitable to it, while humans transform inhospitable environments like the biosphere into support systems for themselves. And, while every other organism is a factory for converting resources of a fixed type into more such organisms, human bodies (including their brains) are factories for transforming anything into anything that the laws of nature allow.  (pg. 58)

What's great about human beings, then, is that we're universal explainers and constructors, able to comprehend and construct theories  about the universe we find ourselves in. He then draws attention to the length of human history, and wonders why it took so long for humans to construct modern society and achieve the enlightenment. He points to memes as an explanation --- human society constructs and propagates memes, and long lived memes (i.e., religion) constructs a static society where new ideas or improvements on existing ideas are viewed with excessive suspicion, and so despite certain societies being particularly enlightened, such enlightened societies are short-lived:

long-lived religions typically cause fear of specific supernatural entities, but they do not cause general fearfulness or gullibility, because that would both harm the holders in general and make them more susceptible to rival memes. So the evolutionary pressure is for the psychological damage to be confined to a relatively narrow area of the recipients’ thinking, but to be deeply entrenched, so that the recipients find themselves facing a large emotional cost if they subsequently consider deviating from the meme’s prescribed behaviours. (pg. 384)

In fact, his claim is that the current modern Western society is the only reason-based society that has survived more than a few generations, and even then, we don't do a good job propagating it:

 Despite modern talk of encouraging critical thinking, it remains the case that teaching by rote and inculcating standard patterns of behaviour through psychological pressure are integral parts of education, even though they are now wholly or partly renounced in explicit theory. Moreover, in regard to academic knowledge, it is still taken for granted, in practice, that the main purpose of education is to transmit a standard curriculum faithfully...we live in a society in which people can spend their days conscientiously using laser technology to count cells in blood samples, and their evenings sitting cross-legged and chanting to draw supernatural energy out of the Earth. (pg. 393)

 Deutsch then points out that there has never been an age of humanity where we didn't have new problems, urgent problems, or impending doom heading down our way. His take on it is that we have to be optimistic and try to use reason to find technological solutions to our problems --- this includes climate change, etc., rather than trying to turn the clock back. Deutsch has the most persuasive case for cautious optimism that I've ever seen about the climate crisis --- he points out that until the solution was implemented, very few people had any idea how the food crisis would have been solved, and yet today we have an abundance of food. I'm reminded of the time when someone at a startup said to his team, "At a startup you have to plan for success, because if you plan for failure, you're going to fail! That means that when you build a solution you have to plan for scaling it up."

In any case, the book presented a good idea, took it to its natural conclusions, doesn't mince words or hold back from criticism. There's a self-indulgent place in the book where Deutsch writes historical fiction about Socrates and his students, but you can skip that section with no loss of fidelity to the ideas in the book. Well worth your time reading!

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Review: Neugent Cycling A422TwoX wheels

The thing with ball bearing wheels is that I learned that I can't be bothered to overhaul them myself. While it's possible to do the overhaul --- I'm actually decent at disassembly, I discovered that the amount of faff involved in adjusting bearing preload was such a pain that I avoided doing it and always end up paying someone to do it. That costs about $60/year.

Neugent Cycling's A422TwoX wheels on a black friday special cost $350. That's about 6 years of bearing overhauls on a set of wheels that's lighter than I could build myself (at a claimed weight of 1400g). Even more importantly, I can't buy the parts to make them --- the idea behind the rear wheel is that it uses 16 spokes on the drive side, with only 8 spokes on the non-drive side to equalize the tension between both sides. This makes a lot of sense --- one reason I had to over-tension my Primato Syntesi wheels was because the non-drive side would come loose over time!  Even better, Neugent claims that the drive side has washers so the high tension wouldn't cause the rim to break. You can do the same when you build a pair of wheels but then you'll have to make allowance for the required extra length when calculating spoke length. Just buying parts for a new set of wheels cost more than what John Neugent was charging, so I bought a pair.

Let's get the negatives out of the way first. The front wheel had a rattle that indicates a loose spoke nipple that's in the rim. I'd have to take the rim strip out to shake it out. It makes an annoying noise at low speed when the centrifugal force wouldn't keep the nipple from knocking around in the hollow section of the rim. Secondly, I noticed that tires were much harder to mount on the rims than I expected. Neugtent pointed me at his article for mounting tough tires. It turns out that he made his rims tubeless compatible and now even those of us who have zero intention of going tubeless have to pay the price by having difficult to mount tires! Having said that once I used this system (installing the valve stem part last!) I could get the tire mounted without massive pain. Finally, after a few rides I had to true the rear wheel --- the tension still isn't high enough but with the assurance of having washers inside the rim I just basically added tension. With time the wheel should settle out.

Now for the good news. The wheels are light! The first time I bunny hopped the wheel I felt like I'd gained an extra inch! Now I'm used to the wheel but they still feel light. I'm not any faster than with my older wheels with more spokes, but that was never the point. Light wheels are just more fun. The other interesting things is that the rims are wider, so my 700x25 GP5000 tires actually measure 28mm on the rear wheel! On the front wheel, my 28mm GP5000s measure 28mm, so the rear rim must be wider than the front. That means that you can size your tires one size down from what you'd normally run and get reduced weight.

I was going to wait longer to write a full review after abusing the wheels a bit, but after my recent ride in the snow I realized that I've abused these wheels far more than most people will do so in their lifetime. I wouldn't recommend them for the novice with no ability to true wheels up, but for any one else these wheels are cheaper than anything you can build yourself, and come with everything you would want --- spare spokes and nipples, etc. And for the price they can't be beat!

Monday, March 13, 2023

Review: Free to Learn

 Free to Learn is Peter Gray's indictment of the modern industrial style school. It starts with a personal story about his child rebelling against school and comparing it with imprisonment. After that, he went and found Sudbury Valley School, where the school is run democratically, not by adults, but by the kids voting on what they want to do. There are no formal classes, no formal sporting activities, and the staff of the school is there as resources for the children in that school.

I'm naturally sympathetic to this approach. While I did well in formal schooling, over time, particularly my last few years in high school, I discovered that for many things, I would read about them myself and learn on my own, and it was far more effective for me to do so than attending a high school physics class where the teacher herself didn't actually understand the concepts and couldn't communicate them properly. (And before you think that my high school was a crap high school, it was billed by the Wall Street Journal as the Gateway to the Ivy Leagues) My uncle (one of the first in the family to attend college) would tell my mom that reading comics were bad for me, but of course on the first day of my GP class, I would turn out to be the only kid who knew who FDR was, something I learned from a Frank Miller Batman comic.

Gray points out that in the hunter-gather society, most learning is not driven by parents or adults, but by the children themselves. I'm not sympathetic to that argument --- just because it was something that humans evolved to do, doesn't mean that it's not maladaptive to modern society. What is compelling to me are the stories (granted, anecdotes isn't data) of children who did badly in traditional schools moving to the Sudbury system and successfully educating themselves. Even more compelling was that those same kids who did badly in traditional schools would do well in colleges like Columbia college.

The book covers other important aspects of the school. For instance, mixing the ages of the kids naturally does several things: first, it allows the younger kids to do more sophisticated play, developing their language arts and math skills faster. The teaches the older kids empathy, and as we all know, to teach a subject properly requires a better understanding of it than mere regurgitation of the material on the exam requires. The staff at the school notes that in recent years kids have been learning to read and do math earlier and earlier because of the desire to play video games. Gray points out that given a chance to do free play outdoors, however, kids actually choose to do so rather than being immersed in a video game!

Another fascinating topic Gray notes is that the lack of a formal sports program means that all sporting play outdoors are informal. Mixed ages means that the children themselves modulate play so that younger kids can participate, and that the older kids actually deliberately handicap themselves in order to make the game challenging for themselves. The rules are negotiated informally, but more importantly, the kids learn to compromise because everyone has to be happy with the rules or the game will not continue. In fact, it turns out that in many games, kids spend as much time negotiating as they do playing, which sounds inefficient but is actually better preparation for the modern white collar workplace than adult-regulated formal games!

Finally, no book like this one is sufficient without talking about the free range parenting movement, the homeschooling movement, and the unschooling movement. Gray is actually optimistic that eventually the system will learn that the current structure schooling system is failing our kids and change. I'm actually quite doubtful, since many kids go through the current system and turn out fine, and change requires courage which the bureaucracy is designed to thwart.

Regardless, for the ideas, arguments, and approaches that could work, I think regardless of whether you're sympathetic to Peter Gray's ideas, you will not find this book a waste of your time. It's very much worth reading! If nothing else, using the approach in this book might give your kids an advantage over the traditional tiger parented kids. After all, those people who participate in competitive parenting will never consider letting their kids play to learn, no matter how many studies show that the latter approach is far more effective for real world learning.

Thursday, March 09, 2023

Review: Young Jane Young

 After reading the brilliant Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, I went back to read other Zevin books. Young Jane Young was published in 2017, after Trump won the 2016 election. The lead character is effectively Monica Lewinski, a young intern who has an affair with a married congressman, rather than the president, derailing her career and aspirations. Unlike the real Monica Lewinski, this version chose to move away, change her name, and become an event planner.

The writing style is still transparent, easy to read, and full of fun gimmicks like a section in the book that's written like a choose your own adventure book but with all the options the character didn't choose crossed out. It's an easy book to read, but the deep flaw in the book is that none of the characters are sympathetic.

The lead protagonist, of course, is someone you want to shake and say, "Stop making life destroying decisions!" She ignores good advice from her parents, never chooses the right path when she make a wrong choice, and full of self-pity. Her mom isn't terribly sympathetic either. Surprisingly, Jane's daughter Ruby also comes across as unsympathetic and full of hubris. That this didn't stop me from reading the book is a testament to Zevin's skill as a writer.

At the end of the novel Zevin makes a statement that she wrote the book as a testament to how women politicians have to put up with stuff men never have to. That's a fair testament to say, Clinton vs Trump. But on the other hand, maybe someone who makes awfully bad life choices shouldn't expect life to come easy, and history is full of men who started out from a much worse position than the life of privilege Zevin's protagonist had, so I'm not sure Zevin quite makes her point.

I find it good to read books written earlier from authors I admire and enjoy --- it really shows how much she developed between the two books. I wouldn't say that Young Jane Young is a book I'd avoid, but I'd definitely say it didn't feel nearly as great a book as her latest novel.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Review: Primato Syntesi Hubs

 You can get a pair of Primato Syntesi 32h road hubs (any color you want as long as they're black) for $100 on Amazon. On a sale, I managed to get them for just under $90 shipped. Compared to the high end Shimano Hubs (which no longer are being sold), these are slightly heavier, but a heck of a lot cheaper. They also come with sealed bearings, which means that unlike the Shimanos you will not end up spending more than the cost of the hubs in bearing over hauls in just 2 years.

The front hub weighs 132g, while the rear hub weighs 295g. The front QR weighs 51, and the rear QR comes in at 55g. The rear is therefore about 45g heavier than the White Industries T11, the standard for rear hubs with sealed bearings, while the front is about 40g heavier than the equivalent white industries. But a pair of the White Industries T11 hubs will cost you north of $500!

Compared to my 7700 dura ace hubs, the rear wheel built from this hub will be a lot weaker --- wR is 16.1 vs the 21.1 on the 7700 dura ace hub. Compared to the White T11, it's also weaker, since that comes in at a wR of 18. On the other hand, you can swap out the free hub body on the Syntesi for about $50, switching to XDR if you need a 10-52 drive train.

I chose to build up with sapim laser spokes and a23 OC rear rim and a23 front. The front builds up easily, but the rear required a bit of tweaking to get everything down. I eventually gave in and tensioned past the recommended Velocity recommended spoke tension to get everything nice and tight, probably sacrificing rim longevity for wheels that stay true for longer.

The wheels ride nice, and are much quieter than the White Industries hubs, though nowhere as silent or near silent as the Shimano. I use them in the rain, and on the Roadini with TerraSpeed 40mm tires and beat them up with mountain bike trails. People watch me ride slowly down those trails and exclaim in surprise that I ride those trails with a road bike and sidepull caliper brakes.

To be honest, the Roadini rides much better than any mountain bike I've ridden, and the brakes never gave me trouble in mostly dry conditions. In any case, I'm not limited by the wheels that resulted and will happily recommend these hubs for all-round use if you're not a weight weenie. They're kinda hard to find in 36h configuration compared to the T11s, but otherwise I'm perfectly satisfied with them.

Thursday, March 02, 2023

Review: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

 Tomorrow, and Tomorrow and Tomorrow showed up on many "Books of the Year" lists. I checked it out of the library with suspicion, since books that show up in literary lists are usually pretentious, difficult to read, and full of characters you don't care about. To my delight, Gabrielle Zevin defies such expectations. Her prose is transparent, her characters real, and more important, the world she builds is so close to the world we live in and her voice so authentic that it overcomes my resistance to reading mainstream fiction.

The story revolves around Sadie Green and Sam Masur, who met when both were friends as children but had a falling out, only to reclaim their friendship when both are at college (at MIT and Harvard) respectively. The two had bonded over video games as children, and in reclaiming that bond, decide to partner and make one. The name of the first game, Ichigo, ironically, was the codename of Pikmin Bloom back when I was at Niantic. 

I loved the characters of Sam and Sadie. Both are half Asians. (Zevin makes it super realistic that both managed to get into top schools by having both of them explicitly not have Asian names) Sam has the attitude of many highly intellectual folks:

Sam was a complete teetotaler. He never drank, didn’t even like taking aspirin. The only drugs he’d ever taken were whatever painkillers he’d been given in the hospital, and he hadn’t liked the way they had clouded his ability to think. The body part that worked consistently well for Sam was his brain, and he was not going to compromise it. Because of this experience, Sam often suffered through pain that probably should have and could have been somewhat ameliorated. (Page 96)

He over-intellectualizes everything, and has the timidity and lack of social courage you may have observed in many such folks. Yet despite such stereotypes, Zevin paints a complete picture of his traumas, his stoic nature, and his willingness to push on. I love the way Zevin does so --- not only does she provide the usual narratives and internal dialogue, she also includes interviews with Polygon or Kotaku as appropriate --- the world she creates feels lived in.

Similarly, Sadie Green, for all her virtues, has a semi-neurotic nature who regularly makes up stories of betrayals from her closest friends, and resents the perception of other people for whom her friends can't take responsibility for or correct. After all the events in the novel, the two friends get together and reminiscence:

“There must be some other versions of us that don’t make games.” “What do they do instead?” “They’re friends. They have a life!” Sadie said. Sam nodded. “Oh, right. I’ve heard of those. They’re those things where you sleep regular hours and you don’t spend every waking moment tormented by some imaginary world.” (pg. 392)

I won't spoil the novel for you --- it ends with the characters overcoming their foibles, but the path it takes there is what matters. Like real life, the journey is the reward. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book with its hyper-real setting, and the author can't fake this one --- she truly does enjoy computer games.

The book isn't without flaws, but they're minor. There's a reference in an early section of the book about burning out video cards while writing a game --- I've been in the industry for a long time, and that's never actually happened. You can see it as an attempt by the author to depict technical work and going over-board.

Reading the blurbs for the book, it's clear that the authors go overboard to avoid mentioning that the book is about video games. Bah. It's as though games is not a legitimate venue for creativity --- ignore such things. The novel revolves around video game designers and programmers --- it's about time they got a novel, and I'm very happy it's a good one. Reading this book with my highest recommendation.