Auto Ads by Adsense

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: 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.

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Review: Scooby-Doo Betrayal at Mystery Mansion

 There was a sale on Amazon for Scooby Doo in Betrayal at Mystery Mansion for $13. My first edition copy of Betrayal at The House on the Hill had long suffered water damage, and at this price I couldn't pass it up since it was more than 50% off the price of the bigger, adult-oriented game.

Just like the original, your cast of characters go exploring the haunted house. The themes allow you to explore inside or outside the house, and the instructions are a bit vague, but we got through the game, including rolling the haunts and the betrayal scenarios. I half expected the game to go unused after one game, but the kids love it and have been demanding to play it the entire winter break. Note that they've never so much as watched a single episode of Scooby Doo or any of the movies, so it's not because of the theming.

The gameboard is smaller compared to the full sized game, and in the 6 games we've played the monster has won only once. There are only 24 scenarios, but with a reconfigurable gameboard that's unique every session the kids will keep asking for more until they get bored.