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Monday, February 27, 2023

Review: Let My People Go Surfing

 I was intrigued by the Chouinard's family decision to roll all their holdings in Patagonia into a company that's dedicated to preserving the environment. Not only did they do so, they did so in such a way that the company is free to participate in political causes, which is one of the highest leverage activity anyone who wants to change the world can do.

I picked up Let My People Go Surfing to get an idea of the man behind Patagonia. I enjoyed the opening stories about how he ended up making climbing equipment and selling it in a low volume business before setting up a company. I thought it very sad that he got out of making climbing equipment (after pioneering non-destructive climbing tools) because he was getting sued by people who were not using the equipment properly or using it for purposes that were unintended. The pivot into full time clothing manufacturing seems wrong to me, though obviously from a business point of view it absolutely makes sense --- there will always be more people wearing Patagonia down jacket to go to the mall than people wearing the same jacket while backcountry camping --- Chouinard admits as much.

I loved the philosophy Chouinard espouses --- in many ways Patagonia is the anti-Apple. While Apple would build computers with soldered RAM, glued-in batteries, and work as hard as possible to make its computers and phones non-repairable, Patagonia would encourage its customers not to buy new jackets but to repair it and hang on to it for longer. I love it. In fact, Chouinard goes out of his way to indict manufacturers who void warranties on products where customers dare to attempt repair. Of course, given the difference between the market caps of Apple and Patagonia Chouinard is probably tilting at windmills, but the environmentalist in me appreciates his attempt.

Much of the book covers the approach to clothing and how Patagonia operates. After reading this book I now understand why the Patagonia Messenger Bag is so awful. It's quite clear that Chouinard doesn't ride a bike seriously, nor does he employ someone who rides a lot. As a result there are all sorts of decisions (such as the bag not just being water-leaky, but designed in such a way that rain is directed into the laptop compartment!) that Patagonia probably would never do on their mountaineering or backpacking equipment. (Not having ever owned a Patagonia waterproof piece of clothing, I'm can't say that in confidence --- it may be that Patagonia waterproof jackets are just as leaky as their bicycle messenger bags)

The rest of the book is pretty good, with interesting material on organic farming methods and how much that can help as far as carbon sequestration is concerned. Chouinard is indeed quite pessimistic about how the human race will handle the climate crisis, but that's not news to you --- I'm pessimistic as well:

The difficulty of convincing people to act is evident from walking through Patagonia’s own parking lots and offices. SUVs are studded all over the lot, and people are wearing jeans and shirts made from nonsustainable fibers grown with toxic chemicals. Even here, where everyone knows how bad all this stuff is, environmental values are a hard sell. One hopes that the kids coming out of our child-care center will do better. (kindle loc 3249)

I loved the section of the book about how he dealt with the protestors who were picketing Patagonia for donating to planned parenthood:

 Despite receiving thousands of letters from people saying they would never again buy our products, we coordinated a unified response from all the targeted companies—every one much larger than Patagonia. When we were threatened by the CAC with groups picketing our stores, we relied on a strategy called Pledge-a-Picket. We said that we would reward every picketer who showed up at one of our stores by donating ten dollars to Planned Parenthood in his or her name. They chose to stay away, and the boycott collapsed. We were described in the New York Times as “courageous,” and we then received thousands of letters from Planned Parenthood supporters. (kindle loc 3389)

Clearly unlike many businessmen who claim to be principled environmentalists Mr. Chouinard clearly can walk the walk as well as talking the talk. I learned a surprising amount from this book, and most of it wasn't corporate propaganda or self-congratulatory entrepreneur memoir-speak. It's worth reading! 

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Review: Slouching towards Utopia

 Slouching Towards Utopia is Brad DeLong's economic history of the world from 1870 to the present day. Brad DeLong not only worked as an economic advisor during the Clinton administration, he's also a professor at UC Berkeley and an avid read of science fiction, giving him a perspective that most other academics do not have.

What makes this period different for DeLong is that this is the period where technology and material improvement from human ingenuity finally outpaced the increase in population:

Before 1870, over and over again, technology lost its race with human fecundity, with the speed at which we reproduce. Greater numbers, coupled with resource scarcity and a slow pace of technological innovation, produced a situation in which most people, most of the time, could not be confident that in a year they and their family members would have enough to eat and a roof over their heads.13 Before 1870, those able to attain such comforts had to do so by taking from others, rather than by finding ways to make more for everyone (especially because those specializing in producing, rather than taking, thereby become very soft and attractive targets to the specializers in taking). (kindle loc 162)

All the grand characters in the sweep of this period are covered, from Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt to the Keynes, Adam Smith, Marx, Hayek, Von Mises, and one I didn't know about before, Karl Polanyi. DeLong loves wrestling with ideas, and does a great job representing each of their ideas well with repeated quotes, themes, and he accurately portrays the clash of ideas that affect our lives to this day.

There are many places where DeLong speculate (as only a science fiction reader could) about how things could have different outcomes in history:

When I first started writing this book, I felt, as many others did, that 1929–1933 was a uniquely vulnerable time, and planned to devote considerable space to explaining why. But in 2008, we skated to the edge of another Great Depression (which we’ll explore in more detail in Chapter 17), which made it painfully clear that the years 1929–1933 were not so uniquely vulnerable after all. Rather, we had been remarkably lucky before 1929, and we had been remarkably lucky after 1929...Why did the Great Depression not push the United States to the right, into reaction, or protofascism, or fascism, as it did in so many other countries, but instead to the left? My guess is that it was sheer luck—Herbert Hoover and the Republicans were in power when the Great Depression started, and they were thrown out of office in 1932. That Franklin Roosevelt was center-left rather than center-right, that the length of the Great Depression meant that institutions were shaped by it in a durable sense, and that the United States was the world’s rising superpower, and the only major power not crippled to some degree by World War II—all these factors made a huge difference. After World War II, the United States had the power and the will to shape the world outside the Iron Curtain. It did so. And that meant much of the world was to be reshaped in a New Deal rather than a reactionary or fascist mode. (kindle loc 3062-3300)

 He points out (very rightly) how the libertarian right is so fond of fascism:

At the start of the 1980s, libertarian darling Friedrich von Hayek wrote a letter to Margaret Thatcher suggesting that the British hew more closely to the methods of fascistic Augusto Pinochet, whose 1973 Cold War coup overthrowing and murdering President Salvador Allende Hayek had greatly applauded as rescuing Chile from the road to serfdom. We catch his urged sympathies in her politely worded reply. Thatcher wrote, “Some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable.… We shall achieve our reforms in our own way and in our own time.”17 All of these—save Thatcher—at least flirted with a temporary and tactical alliance with and allegiance to fascism, and some of them did much, much more: believing that representative democracy could not summon the strength to resist really-existing socialism, and believing that that disastrous threat to civilization called for desperate measures and alliances in response. (kindle loc 3996)

 The entire book is great reading, with a lot of history, and he's as critical of Obama as he is of Hoover for his handling of the Great Recession, making multiple good points and quoting Obama's words to demonstrate it.

My biggest criticism of the book is that the kindle edition shows signs of bad editing, with places where you get repeated paragraphs, or even chapters where very similar words were used.

I think the books about Keynes and Roosevelt I linked to above are much better reading for context and understanding, but DeLong's book is still worth your time. Recommended.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Review: 2 USB current measuring devices

 When you buy a charger or power bank, it usually brags about how much power it supplies. But how do you verify that it actually provides that power? The answer is that you have to use a device that measures current through the wire. Pierre Morrels suggested the Eversame tester, while Nelson Minar suggested  the mcdodo cable. To be honest, the mcdodo cable looked way easier to use, but I bought both to try. Indeed, the mcdodo cable has a very nice display to tell you how much power you're drawing from the cable. The eversame is bulkier and harder to use. I tried them both on the Pixel Stand 2. The geek in me loves the more detailed output from the Eversame --- it displays both voltage and current, and I get a kick out of seeing the Pixel Stand 2 draw 19V and 1.5 amps when the phone's battery is nearly empty for a full 21W of power to the phone (minus a 7W penalty for supplying power wirelessly), and then dropping down to 9.5V and 0.7amps past 50% charge, and then finally all the way down to 5V.

What got me to return the mcdodo cable, however, was that I noticed that the Pixel Stand would occasionally stop charging for no reason with this cable. There might be something in the cable that interferes with the power negotiating process. After a while, it would flip back to normal and display 18, 27, or 21W depending on the mood of the Pixel Stand 2.

The Eversame also provides a way to store the capacity of the current passing through so you can test how far gone your battery bank is. That's a useful function, so worth the higher price and bulk. I'm keeping it.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Review: A Bike Ride - 12000 miles around the world

 I enjoyed my read of Lone Traveler so much that I looked for Anne Mustoe's first book, A Bike Ride - 12,000 miles around the world.  It wasn't available from the library or on kindle format so I bought it on eBay used. The book arrived and I read it while on vacation.

Written in a clear, transparent style that reflected her experience as a Principal of a private school (she calls her self former head mistress), the book is a single narrative comprising of her notes while traveling. Being an English writer from before the current spate of travel books by women, the book is unusual in that in doesn't depict a woman running away from an abusive relationship, trying to find herself, or recovering from some prior trauma. It also doesn't depict an incompetent person trying to execute a trip in way over her head. Mustoe is competent, preparing for her trip with meticulous research (even to the point of scheduling vaccinations at various points during her journey), with not a single shred of self-pity in sight.

There's even a great section in the book where she describes how she deals with sexual propositions while on the trip, and an encounter in a 3rd world country where a group of school children started chasing her on their bicycles. By and large she follows famous routes (like Alexandra's conquering army), and she's slept in situations that would cause many distress (e.g., on a table in a room filled with cockroaches), yet at no point does she claim pathos or pity.

Her tastes in food really reflect her culture. For instance, she rode all through India enjoying the cuisine, but would arrive in Thailand and hate the food! (She really didn't like rice or rice noodles) She loved Malaysia, a former British colony, and didn't enjoy mountains but didn't mind deserts.

I really enjoyed the book. Recommended.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Review: Eye of the Dragon

 I enjoyed Fairy Tale enough to check out Eye of the Dragon from the library and read it.  This is how Stephen King does fantasy --- there's very little world building --- he assumes a medieval generic fantay setting, and just dives into the (rather simplistic) plot and characters. The narrator frequently breaks the fourth wall, addressing the reader directly, and the voice of the narrator is awesome --- this is what Stephen King is great at --- the tone is conversational, transparent, and a very easy read --- he never makes the reader work.

The plot and world is where things don't quite work. The magic in the universe is never defined, explained, or has limits drawn around it, so the ending doesn't feel fair. Secondly, there's a lot of detail the plot depends on that feels quite artificial and contrived. You just have to accept it. To his credit, King's narrator is so convincing and personable that you will by default accept it while reading, only later realizing that the plot is kinda fishy.

It's enjoyable and light reading, but don't expect anything that bears repeated reading.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Review: Fire TV Cube 3rd Gen

 Of all my Alex-enabled devices the Fire TV Cube is the one that consistently gets the most used. It was a bit slow, however, and never supported Zoom, so when the 3rd Gen Fire TV cube came up and Amazon offered a 25% trade-in offer, I bought it.

This thing is fast! It comes up faster, and downloads faster. And Amazon's PMs as usual did a fantastic job --- on setup it just carried over all the settings from the previous version and everything worked as expected. What I didn't like was that it didn't also download all the previous apps --- those had to be downloaded separately. Fortunately, it's fast so I didn't have to wait long --- I guess that meant it was still a good product decision.

What's not so nice was that the remote wasn't the Pro remote.  I ended up buying one separately so that when the kids hid the remote I could still find it.

All the existing features of the Fire TV Cube are there --- just faster. It automatically turns on the speakers for music, and does all sorts of other nice things. There's a pass through HDMI port, but I haven't bothered trying it since it's not recommended for the PS5. I haven't tried the Zoom feature yet. I'll try it soon.

All in all, it's a worthy upgrade. I have no idea why the competition hasn't caught on yet. I guess as usual, Amazon gets under-estimated!

Monday, February 13, 2023

Re-read: Farewell My Lovely

 There's nothing quite like Raymond Chandler. I picked up Farewell My Lovely and the prose just sucked me in and before I knew it I'd read the whole thing in a couple of evenings. Sure, the time and place are dated, and perhaps Chandler didn't like women or at least enjoys making them villains, but his prose makes everything so enjoyable that time just flies by. Recommended.

Thursday, February 09, 2023

Review: Reality is not what is seems

 Reality Is Not What It Seems is Carlo Rovelli's quantum loop gravity for the layman. Rovelli writes really good prose, and he covers the history of physics all the way from the ancient Greeks to Einstein, Heisenberg, and Bohr. The descriptions are vivid and easy reading, and the launch into quantum loop gravity stalls a bit as he tries to avoid math, but then he carries right along into the reasons why Quantum Loop gravity is important and what the implication is for the existence of time and why it appears the way it is in general relativity.

The idea is that at the quantum level you have events linked together in a topology, which relates events to each other. Time, then, is an emergent property of a lot of quantum events at the aggregate level. He then points out that if quantum loop gravity shows that space has a minimum size, then a lot of the singularities in existing theories go away.

Finally, what I love about the book is its defense of science and the scientific method:

The answers given by science, then, are not reliable because they are definitive. They are reliable because they are not definitive. They are reliable because they are the best available today. And they are the best we have because we don’t consider them to be definitive, but see them as open to improvement. It’s the awareness of our ignorance that gives science its reliability. And it is reliability that we need, not certainty. We don’t have absolute certainty, and never will have it unless we accept blind belief. The most credible answers are the ones given by science, because science is the search for the most credible answers available, not for answers pretending to and religion frequently find themselves on a collision course. Not because science pretends to know ultimate answers, but precisely for the opposite reason: because the scientific spirit distrusts whoever claims to be the one having ultimate answers or privileged access to Truth. This distrust is found to be disturbing in some religious quarters. It is not science that is disturbed by religion: there are certain religions that are disturbed by scientific thinking. To accept the substantial uncertainty of our knowledge is to accept living immersed in ignorance, and therefore in mystery. To live with questions to which we do not know the answers. Perhaps we don’t know them yet or, who knows, we never will. (kindle loc 2772-2782)

Short, eloquent, and easy to read. There's nothing about this book not to recommend.

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Review: Silca Synergetic Wet Lube

 There all sorts of web-sites that go crazy about chain lubrication, and if you believe the experts, the only way to lubricate your chain is to strip the chain of oil and then bathe it in hot wax. I'm not quite interested in that kind of extra work, so I don't do that. I go for web lubricants and sometimes neglect the lubrication until the chain starts to squeak.

Some of those web-sites will recommend the Silca Synergetic Wet Lube as the best lube for someone who can't be bothered to wax. The claims are hyperbole, as I've discovered the hard way that the lube like all other lubes attracts dirt and gets gunky. What caught my eye, however, was the dispensing bottle. When the lube first came out, the bottle came with a needle dispenser. This lets you get the lube exactly where you want it, especially if you're not lubricating the chain, but pivot points on other bicycle components. Having a needle dispenser also means that you aren't wasting lube --- it's easy to get exactly one drop of oil per link.

Alas, all good things come to an end and if you buy the lube from Amazon at this point it comes with a standard applicator which is much harder to control. Fortunately, I kept an old dispenser and poured the oil over to the new one. (I should have just moved the cap over) So I expect that if I break or lose the dispenser I'm going to hunt around for a new lube.

Does the lube make the chain last longer? Beats me. My switch to 11-speed is relatively recent so I've yet to wear out a chain. And chains are so cheap anyway it's probably not worth spending $20 worth of lube for a $20 chain.

If you can find the old dispenser, get it. Otherwise, I'm not sure this is worth the steep price.

Monday, February 06, 2023

Review: Acceptance - A Memoir

 Acceptance is Emi Nietfeld's memoir about her childhood and tertiary education years, topped with her successful career at Google and Facebook as well as a bestselling author. A childhood where her father decided to become a woman, her mother being described as a "hoarder" (you quickly discover what it means and it's not a good thing), followed by spells of institutions mixed in with forster care but then success at getting a full scholarship as a boarding school.

Many parts of the books are dramatized --- there's a definitely vibe that comes from being a person who's successfully marketed herself to Harvard and other Ivy League schools. For instance, she mentions that she wrote her college applications while sleeping in her car. When you get to that section you realized that she did it only for a couple of days before her pro bono famous college counselor told her to get to a shelter to get evidence for it so she could write a statement of extenuating circumstances. (I had no idea that that was a thing!)

That's not to detract from Nietfeld's achievements --- she did win national writing competitions (including the Horatio Algier award --- which she successfully turns into a skewering of the kind of person who sponsors those kind of awards). It's also a statement about how important a prestigious university like Harvard is --- she claimed to be the kind of student who got Bs and A-s in an institution where due to rampant grade inflation, it would have been an equivalent to be a C elsewhere, but the aura of Harvard was such that she managed to get a $130K/year job offer from Harvard, which she turned into a $200K offer by getting a second offer from Yahoo, where she had interned and been compared to then-CEO Marissa Mayer.

Nietfeld also describes her rape with unflinching detail. It took place in Budapest where she stayed at a hostel where there were only 2 men, a red flag which she hadn't been taught to avoid. It happened to her in between her high school and starting college, which led to her taking a gap year, which incidentally also made some of her sponsors from the Horatio Algier writing competition withdraw their support!

Her description of Harvard reminded me of the time when I went to graduate school and everyone else had an NSF fellowship but I had no idea what one was:

Harvard’s hands-off approach might have been ideal if I wanted to “explore” and “find myself.” But after everything, I mainly wanted to explore lucrative careers and find myself incredibly wealthy. Given my lack of parental guidance and ignorance of elite social norms, the freedom that Harvard offered didn’t feel like freedom at all. Instead it felt like another way other people knew the rules and I was in the dark. (kindle loc 4167)

Right at the end of the book Nietfeld got access to her childhood records and realized that much of what she thought was her fault turned out to be just how the system worked:

I  saw in the records that from my very first therapy appointment after my parents’ divorce, discussions of my mom’s diagnosis and potential treatment took up as much space as my own. Professionals knew she was sick, but they didn’t hesitate to medicate me rather than her. When I found my descriptions of our living situation, I wondered why no one had investigated. A decade after Ingrid first showed up at our front door, she told me she was glad I hadn’t let her inside. She knew Child Protective Services would’ve taken me away: “It would have made a bad situation worse.” One downside of a broken child welfare system is that no one wants to use it. While some families, largely those of color, have their kids taken away because they’re poor, other families who need interventions, like mine, do not get them. Much later, Annette told me she’d filed at least one maltreatment report. They told her there was nothing they could do since I wasn’t in immediate danger. As far as she could tell, no action was taken. (kindle loc 5010)

All in all, I found the book compelling reading.  It's probably going to be used as a defense of how the current systems work, since clearly it's possible for someone to work herself out of the horrible situation she found herself in. But obviously that's survivorship bias. There were probably many kids like Nietfeld who didn't get her successful outcome and we'll never know their story.

Recommended, but you'll need a strong stomach to get through many sections of it.

Thursday, February 02, 2023

Review: Lone Traveller - One Woman, Two Wheels and the World

 I picked up Lone Traveller at the library donations box for $1. When I picked it up I had no idea who Anne Mustoe was, but the first chapter had such a fresh attitude that I brought it home and read it in 2 days.

The book is not a linear travelogue, and so jumps around in time and trips. Mustoe starts off the book modestly, explaining that she always wondered why Devla Murphy chose to set off across Europe in the middle of winter rather than waiting until Spring so she could have good weather. Of course, by the middle of the book you're traversing the great Australian outback with her followed by stories of her traversing the silk road, and then you realize this is one tough cookie!

The big difference between British women writing about their travels and American women writing about their travels is the complete lack of incompetence in the British. They don't go for the self-pitying, I'm in such a mess that I need to do something crazy and totally incompetent in order to make up for a poor childhood, bad ex-husband, or some unsatisfactory relationship with a parent. Even when she is being harassed by the Chinese police and put on a bus and warned that bicycle touring in China was illegal, she would simply accept it, take the bus ride, and then after other adventures of a non-cycling nature, she would just get on her bike to keep going.

Mustoe travels in a much different style than I do. While I wouldn't feel comfortable cycling without knowing how to fix a flat, she flat out asserts that in most places you can find some mechanic who can fix your flats for you for pennies, a small sum for you but enough to make a living for them, and that there's no point learning how to fix a flat! That drives Mustoe to make certain decisions that I wouldn't have made --- for instance, she buys heavy bikes with heavy duty tires to minimize flat tires, and so travels slower while taking more time to do her trips (she quit her job to do her first big round the world trip and apparently her books made her famous enough and sold well enough that she never went back to work). As a result, while I look for mountains and views and try to stay high and cool, she goes for the flattish deserts and historical routes like the Silk route. Her knowledge of history is impeccable, and she clearly does a lot more studying of the history of the land she travels through than I do.

A surprising amount of the travel in the book is her putting her bicycle on buses, boats, and so on to get around obstacles or to get to the start (or finish) of a ride. Like myself, she eschews reservations, doesn't like camping, but carries a tent anyway. In many cases, she starts by asking if she can pitch a tent outside somebody's home and by the time evening rolls around she's invited into the home to stay for a night.

As a former principal of a school, she deals with potential predators with verve. She says she's perfected the icy stare and confident manner with which to scare of would-be harassers. Her stories in this regards are great. I think many people who are put off from traveling solo would do well to read her book. Recommended!