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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.


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!

Monday, January 30, 2023

Review: The Peripheral

 I bought The Peripheral back when it was a $2 special.  I bounced off it and put it away without a thought. Then I started watching the Amazon TV show and decided that hey, I can read a book way faster than watching a TV show, so I tried again.

I realized now that William Gibson is actually not a very good writer. He's a great ideas person, with certain characters like Molly Millions which have obviously become iconic and will stick with you long after you're done with the book or story. But the actual writing style is detached, and the characters actually never develop during the story. What it's replaced by is a world-building style where the in-cluing is done densely, at a fast clip, and without long exposition. That style was innovative and unique when Gibson introduced it in the 1980s, but to be honest more modern writers have surpassed even Gibson at this point.

It's a cliche that the book is better than the TV show, but in this case the TV show is actually quite a bit better than the book. So I'm stuck watching video anyway in addition to reading the book. A win for Gibson, not so much a win for me.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Review: Growing up Human

 Growing Up Human is written by an archaeologist. The question behind the book is to ask why childhood takes so long for humans, and how the various pieces of it comes together. The early part of the book is fairly straightforward and no doubt you've heard about how puberty onset is affected by body fat. The details are interesting:

A study carried out by Taipei Medical University researchers found that for every extra gram of animal protein eaten a day, the age of a girl’s first period moved forward two months. This is something of a cycle, it seems, as mothers who hit puberty at an earlier age go on to have bigger children – and they are more likely themselves to have an earlier puberty. Somewhere in us is an insistent little voice telling us to accrue fat – so we can have more babies...Not only do we have critical levels of body fat for reproduction, we need much, much more fat than other primates. Our female rhesus macaques from the lab hover between 8–18 per cent body fat; human females struggle to reproduce with less than 17 per cent. (kindle loc 1054-1064)

There's quite a bit of section devoted to debunking the recent fad behind attachment parenting and all the baggage that goes with it, as well as an interesting factoid about how your teeth effectively have a scar in there which indicates your growth line:

 Being born is sufficiently traumatic that a baby’s body sort of stop-starts normal growth, and that stop-start shows up as a neonatal line, which is a scar through the inside of your teeth where all the little cells had their moment of existential panic. It exists in all of your kiddie teeth and even in ones you have as an adult – the first big chunky adult chewing tooth that comes in was actually forming before birth, so you can see the scar there too. (kindle loc 1933)

Brenna Hassett has a good sense of humor, especially when it comes to methods of baby carriage and how the body wrapping fad doesn't mean much:

 Babies who have gone on to lead full and happy adult lives have been positioned strapped to chests, strapped to boards, hung on walls, in their parents’ arms, in slings or even – and this is a personal favourite – strapped to a board and then hung on a wall. (kindle loc 2068)

There's a huge long section about breast feeding. She debunks all the myths about how easy breast feeding is, and notes that even macaques have difficulty with it:

It’s not just humans – research has shown macaques struggling and many monkeys are just, quite frankly, very bad at babies the first time around. But the rather cruel thing is that human mothers are made to feel particularly bad about it.

Mammal milk maven Katie Hinde and anthropologist Brooke Scelza were able to discuss breastfeeding with Himba mothers from Namibia, where every single mother was able to breastfeed, something that certainly isn’t true in most Westernised cultures. The authors picked out two key factors that accounted for this remarkable success rate: the support of other mothers, and the absence of any taboo or stigma associated with breastfeeding in public. The things that inhibit breastfeeding in other societies – like working hours or social rules that prevent frequent feeding – are simply not a part of Himba life, along with the stress or even the guilt associated with not breastfeeding. (kindle loc 2458-2465)

 I loved the section about the invention of grandmothers:

While male strategies for reproduction appear to consist of both making a bloody mess and captivating primatologists, the more subtle strategies of the female have often been overlooked. Some strategies aren’t even that subtle. While the rest of our primate relatives have been merrily living out the spans dictated them by sensible models of energy in, energy out, and fitting appropriate periods of dependence and maturity into their size-appropriate life spans, humans have been busy developing a world-changing evolutionary female adaptation. Something so radical that it may be single-handedly responsible for our reproductive success and the subsequent overrunning of the planet; something so unlikely so as to be almost unbelievable: grandmas...An incredibly small number of animals live past the ability to reproduce – even our own species’ males maintain some generative capacity until nearly the end of their lives. Here are some animals with grandmothers that are done having babies: Orcas, short-finned pilot whales, us. Here are some animals without grandmothers: every other animal in the world.13 There are plenty of species where some animals don’t reproduce for whatever reason – perhaps they are not the dominant breeding pair, perhaps their mate has died – and continue to live without reproducing, but this is a very different thing to what we (and those whales) do, which is to live past our biological capacity to reproduce. (kindle loc 3001-3025)

There's even a casual debunking of why human males are slightly bigger than human females:

 We might actually be mistaking the reason human males are a teeny bit bigger; perhaps rather than trying to become an ultimate fighting/loving champion, males are just bigger because females are smaller. And females are just smaller because they stop growing earlier so they can put that energy into babies because, as you may have picked up from the theme of this book, babies are important. (kindle loc 3307)

 The last part of the book covers the effects of poverty on childhood:

if poverty was ever classed as a cause of death it would be number one in the world – in every country. Poor children are more likely to suffer preventable childhood diseases, more likely to have growth falter and to die before they reach adulthood. When it comes to childhood, there is just the one real difference to reckon. It is the one that was there between the snarky schoolboys of Aristophanes and the slaves that served them, and it is still present today, and that is the time we give it. (kindle loc 4818)

The book points out that the history of human evolution is our gradually increasing investment in childhood, and the recent trends in American society to de-emphasize education and childhood is an aberration.  I read this book and highlighted many sections of it. It's definitely worth reading.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Review: Existential Physics

 Existential Physics is Sabine Hossenfelder's book about what is or is not scientific. Her beef with physicists is that sometimes they speculate without actually explicitly saying that they're doing so, and that some of those speculations have no evidence in support of them. There's chapter after chapter of this relatively short book where some of these questions (such as what happened before the big bang) are explored, and the answer is probably somewhat boring, but it's very likely that she is right --- there's so much that we don't know, and the scientific evidence only takes you so far. Past that, you get into the realm of religion or philosophy, and Hossenfelder points out that scientists aren't better equipped than the typical lay person to speculate in those realms.

The book is short, and it explores things like AI, quantum physics, cosmology, and math. One interesting insight is that it's kind of pointless to try to translate mathematics into plain English, because if it was easy and possible, then there wouldn't be a need for mathematical notation. So your best bet for actually understanding those topics is to dive into the math. But of course, not everyone has the time or inclination to put in that much time into math, so we end up with these stories that attempt to translate say, the Schrodinger Wave Equation into English, which then has the problems she describes, people stretching those analogies into talking about what the actual science doesn't say.

When I was going through this book, I kept saying to myself, "What she's saying is obvious. Why does she have to write it down?" After I finished the book I realized that what she saying wasn't always obvious, it's just that she said it in such a way that you see the reasoning. That's the hallmark of a great teacher, which makes this book worth reading. Recommended.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Review: Pixel Stand 2

 I've had a few friends buy the Pixel 6a over the holidays using my Superfans code, which grants both them and I a $100 coupon from the Google Play Store. The coupons aren't stackable, so you can't stack 3 of them to get yourself a free phone or anything like that --- they pretty much either get you a Pixel Stand 2 or a Google Pixel Buds Series A for free (or a $100 discount off say, the Pixel Buds Pro).  Unfortunately, the coupon is a discount off the regular price, so sale prices, etc do not apply.

The Pixel Stand 2 comes with a 30W charger, and can charge your Pixel phone at either 21 or 23W depending on whether you have a Pixel 6/7 or Pixel 6/7 Pro. The reason to use wireless chargers over regular wires is that the USB-C port is the first thing to go on most phones, and if you get your phone wet, it's not a good idea to plug it in. The standard Qi charging standard is set at 10W, which means the Pixel Stand 2 charges twice as fast.

In practice, you don't get the fastest charging speed unless your phone is below 50%. But that's fine. Even above 50% it's still faster than my old Qi charger. There's a fan in the stand which spins up to cool the phone (or maybe it's the charger that needs cooling). If you're in an office (for those of us who still visit offices), the Pixel Stand is great --- you'll drop it in for the time between the meetings and your phone charges as fast as when you plug in a wire, but without the hassle.

As a bonus, the stand lets you pick Google Photo Albums to display as a screen saver. Using Google Photo's face recognition feature, you can pick members of the family you'd like to see displayed and you'll get a random selection of those photos. This is especially great for me since I stopped using Google Photos as a data sink a few years ago when Google started charging for photo storage, so my screensaver only shows me pictures of my kids back when they were tiny.

At full retail price of $80, the Pixel Stand 2 is too expensive for my taste. But if you're looking for a good use of the Superfans coupon, I think this one is awesome! Recommended.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Review: Chivalry

 Chivalry is Collen Doran's graphic novel rendition of the Neil Gaiman short story of the same name. The story predates Doran's rendition of it by several years, and Doran reveals in the end-notes that it was her pandemic project, discussing how she envisioned it originally as an illuminated manuscript before giving up after many technical difficulties to render it in a more conventional format.

What is to Doran more conventional is for anyone else simply an amazing piece of comic book art. The book juxtapositions conventional side by side panels with entire full page (or in many cases an entire spread) illustrations that overwhelms the eyes with richness, detail, and story. Your eyes could linger on multiple details that serve the story while reading, and the story while simple (and short!) is charming and perfectly set off by Doran's illustrations.

The story is well worth your time, as is the amazing art. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Review: Gorewear Shakedry Cap


I was so impressed by the Gorewear Shakedry Jacket, that when the Shakedry Cycling cap went on sale I bought one.  Little did I know that I would use it almost right away as a series of atmospheric rivers arrived during the California winter. I used this under my helmet, and one time I made the mistake of putting on the cap and forgetting to put on the helmet --- the feel of the cap means that I can't really feel any ventilation of the helmet when I'm wearing it!

As you can see from the above picture, water beads up nicely on the helmet and it doesn't let any water in. This is perfect since the Shakedry jacket does not have a hood. The brim of the cap doesn't quite protect your glasses from getting water on them, but on the other hand, there is a little bit of shielding. When worn under a helmet it can get hot if it's not raining, but if it's raining you don't mind. If it's not raining, don't wear the cap!

At full price no way would I consider this worth the money, but at the current $33 discounted price I consider it a reasonable purchase. It's light enough that I will carry it on tour.


Review: Anker Nano 3 511 Charger

 Chargers are unsexy technology, to the point where smartphone makers no longer ship them in the box because your'e assumed to have a billion of them at home. The Nano 3 511 Charger, however, is exceptional. I bought one over the holidays for $18, and it's tiny. 30W is more than sufficient for most smartphones, but what amazed me was that I plugged it into a Dell XPS 13, and it would charge that as well while it was running! If you do reboot the XPS 13 while plugged into the charger, it would complain about being plugged into a not very powerful charger, but it would still boot, run Windows Updates, etc. The charger does get hot, but what charger doesn't when maximum load is being pulled from it?

The charger is light enough that even when plugged in upside down it doesn't fall out, and the foldable prongs prevent damage when travel. These are way better than the 18W bulky chargers that came with previous iterations of Pixel phones. Well worth the money.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Review: Lamy Toothpaste Squeezer

 If you squeeze toothpaste out of a tube, you know that it's a pain to deal with different people squeezing different parts of the tube so you always end up having to squeeze it from the bottom again when it's your turn. The toothpaste squeezer solves this issue.  This particular one also turns into a stand for your toothpaste, which means it dispenses nicely. It also has a key that lets you get toothpaste out by turning a key. I tried it and it really works. Recommended.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Review: Far Sector

 When I saw that Far Sector was written by N.K. Jemisin I checked it out of the library. It's a green lantern novel, but about an unusual lantern with an unusual ring. This green lantern is a black woman, and is investigating the first murder in 500 years in an alien city far from home.

The setup is unique, but unfortunately, the alien civilization doesn't feel very alien --- it has all the conflicts and power struggles of contemporary New York, and the injection of cyberspace with some bitcoin jargon as well as the introduction of the default state of being emotionless (with a counter-drug to alleviate that) not helping things along. We don't get a good explanation of how people can be motivated without emotions (or even how society would reproduce), nor are the characters and power groups within the society interact well enough to get invested in them or believe that they are real.

The protagonist, Jo Mullein, is much more fleshed out. Unfortunately, we don't get any idea as to why she was selected to be a green lantern, nor do we get a good understanding of how committed she is to the green lantern corps.

Part of this is the high expectations I had coming into the comic. Consider what Alan Moore was able to do with the green lantern corps in 23 pages, and I expected far more from Jemisin in a 12-issue run. It's probably very good compared with the standard writers the green lantern books get nowadays, but it's far less interesting than anything by Alan Moore.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Review: Nulksen Tire Inflator

 The battery on my costco purchased jump starter (bought in 2014) is dying to the point where it couldn't even inflate one tire when fully charged, so it was time to get another one. The Nulksen Tire Inflator was on sale for $40 during the holidays, so I picked one up.

It came with a cloth case, a hose for Schraeder valves, a pin for balls, and a couple more weird nozzles for whatever other thing you might want to use it for. The hose screws into the device, and I immediately took it out of the box and air'd up all 4 tires of the car with no problems. The device vibrates while doing so, enough to move the inflator and scratch it on the ground, but otherwise it worked.

The USB C plug recharges it using USB C which is very nice, and it can act as a flash light as well. I tried the ball inflator and it worked, and I even tried it on my wife's e-bike in Schraeder mode, and it checked out with decent accuracy. I don't dare try it for high pressure presta tires, since I already have good floor pumps for those. Besides, exercise is good for you.

For $40 + tax, getting something that works well is fine! It's way lighter than what it replaced!

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Review: Fairy Tale

 Fairy Tale is Stephen King's novel of a world crossing adventure. It describes a 17-year old who in the course of helping a mysterious neighbor, discovers that the neighbor's shed contains a well which leads to another world. Like many examples of the world-crossing genre, it turns out that he has a special role to fulfill in that world.

The story builds slowly, and Charlie Reade (the protagonist) has a transparent, cheerful, interesting voice which makes for great reading. King is probably at his best when convincing you that Reade is a real person, and establishes the milieu he lives in as no one else can. The protagonist being an almost adult rather than a young child makes the book different than many other examples of the world-crossing genre, and lends the story believability.

Once the story crosses over to the world of Empris, however, a lot of the world building feels lacking. There's definitely no sense of deep history, and many set pieces or important plot points feel like superficial objects meant to act as MacGuffins rather than something real. For instance, one major motivation for Charlie to enter deep into the enchanted capital explicitly draws inspiration from Something Wicked This Way Comes, but at the end of the book the explanation is a huge disappointment.

All throughout the book are sprinkled references to Bradbury and HP Lovecraft, and there are many pieces of brilliance in the novel --- more than enough to keep me reading. It's not a coincidence that the novel is set in Illinois, the same locale as in Bradbury's novel. The climax feels like it comes a bit too easy, but the easy to read prose and moments of brilliance kept me going anyway. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Men's Carpis

 I had a pair of Men's Capri pants I had somehow found online ages and ages ago, which were perfect for cycling and bike touring. They were light, had belt loops, and didn't extend far below the knees so you could ride in them and not worry about pants legs getting trapped in the chain. One of them completely fell apart during a tour one year, forcing me to buy women's capris when I was in Bolzano, but those were so narrow-waisted that even Arturo told me that I wasn't allowed to gain weight during that tour. (Perish the thought!)

I could not for my life of me find replacements. "Men's capris" returns crappy results. I eventually learned that the manly term for carpis is 3/4 pants! Jack Wolfskin was the first to come up with their Desert Valley 3/4 pants.  Their standard price of $70 was too much for my blood, and even at $49 on sale it was barely tolerable. I got them and they ride well, with side-pockets that are perfect for a phone and a wallet, as well as two button-up pockets on the outside of the thighs for things you don't need while riding. I like them enough, but they were so pricey I didn't think it's worth a second pair.

Amazon is full of knock-off Chinese products, so I looked on amazon, and 33,000ft has a Men's Hiking Golf Capri pair of shorts for a much more reasonable (though still expensive) $35. These come with double zipper pockets on each side. The belt loops are a bit wide (for clipping say, a badge for going to the office), but the premium feature on these are the cuffs at the bottom of the hem. There's a QR cord there for cinching them down tight so they don't rub against brake cables along the top tube while riding. These are a clear winner and it's worth getting a second pair or watching if they go on sale.

If you hike in California, there are many good reasons to wear full-length pants --- tick protection and mud protection makes sense. But those same pants are annoying to wear on the bike and frequently get chewed up by bicycle gears and chains, so for the daily cyclist, these are the pants to get. I'm glad I found them!

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Review: HeCloud Diving Flashlight

 I've had poor experiences with underwater flashlights in the past, and they've never survived more than a couple of trips. I knew I was going to need flashlights for the Puerto Rico trip because of the bioluminescence tour we wanted to go to. The HeCloud Diving lights came in a set of 2, and at $27 seemed worth the risk.

I was very impressed when I saw that the lights came not only with AAA battery holders, but also rechargeable lithium ion batteries that are custom fit for the flashlight. You can't carry those in checked baggage, so be careful! But having both meant that we could carry the lithium ion batteries in carry on, and also carry the AAA battery holders (preloaded) and not bother carrying the chargers.

The lights were bright, easy to use even for Boen, and robust --- we didn't have to be careful with them or baby them. We didn't actually dive with them, but they were also light. And if one flooded, we had a spare right away. I wish they hadn't bothered with the strobe feature, but in any case these were good lights and I can recommend them.

Monday, January 09, 2023

Review: The Big Questions of Philosophy

 After listening to David K Johnson's Sci-Phi, I picked up The Big Questions of Philosophy expecting similar levels of entertainment. But I was disappointed.  This wasn't because he's any less competent as a lecturer or that the ideas he explains are wrong or badly defined, but because of how much time is spent on Religion rather than philosophy. While I get that some people who study Philosophy might want to spend a lot of time thinking about omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence, since I don't actually think God exists, that's like spending time thinking about the physics of how Santa Claus gets down chimneys.

The rest of the course is reasonable, the discussion of free will, the existence of government, and the quick tour of Rawlings and his detractors, but I wish he'd spent more time on that instead of religion.

I definitely recommend Sci-Phi a lot more than this great courses series.

Review: Troy

 Troy is the third book in Stephen Fry's Greek Myths trilogy, and to my surprise it doesn't include the Odyssey, just the Iliad. As a retelling, it's much more detailed than Rosemary Suthill's children's books, and goes into details about Achilles and the backstory in gruesome detail. The narrative voice is enjoyable, and I had a lot of fun. Recommended.

Friday, January 06, 2023

2022 Spanish Virgin Islands: Epilogue

We celebrated Xiaoqin's birthday at a restaurant with Mark Brody, with both Bowen and I having swordfish burgers, an exotic specialty we'd never had before. 

 We spent the next day touring Old San Juan's forts, where Boen and Boen got inducted as junior rangers. The weather was warm and beautiful and we got some great food in old San Juan. The condo we'd rented was in fact, exactly in between the awful first place we rented and the noisy hotel we'd stayed on the second night, but this place was quiet and had great facilities.

Our return flight was marred by an unusual snow storm in Seattle that cancelled hundreds of flights out of that airport and delayed our return to San Jose by 6 hours, but after all that we got home. Our casualties on this trip were limited to my diving mask from my 2007 dive certification, and my pair of Keen sandals.

I would agree with my wife that it was ok doing the trip once, but we felt like we exhausted all the possibilities of the Spanish Virgin Islands and had no need to return for another visit.

Thursday, January 05, 2023

Review: Great Courses - The Theory of Everything

 I started watching The Theory of Everything as a bit of a lark --- Dr. Don Lincoln of Fermi Lab is an experimentalist, and I that it's a very different perspective from the purely theoretical physicists' take. The video covers everything from Relativity to Quantum Chromodynamics, Quantum Electrodynamics, the Standard Model the Electroweak Unification, and all the details therein. What it provided that's somewhat unique in terms of presentation is a perspective on the difference between (for instance) Grand Unified Theory (GUT) and the Theory of Everything (TOE). It also provides a historical perspective on physics and all the successful unifications in the past, as well as the unanswered mysteries such as Dark Energy, Dark Matter (they're not related), why we still don't have a theory of Quantum Gravity, why we still don't know what caused inflation and what topics of ongoing research are happening. The approach is light on math (though yes, equations still happen) but the presentation is engaging.

It's a great way to consolidate the lots of little pieces of understanding I picked up here and there, and was definitely worth my time. It's available on Kanopy, and therefore free to most people who have access to a library.

Wednesday, January 04, 2023

2022 Spanish Virgin Islands: Punta Arenas to Punta Del Rey Marina

 Waking up pre-civil twilight, I did my morning routine, making coffee for everyone, including one last pancake for Boen. By first light, everyone was awake and ready to raise anchor and set sail. Weighing anchor was easy, and raising sail was also easy because of the light wind. In fact, once the sails were up I started worrying about whether that 2.5 hour journey would end up being much longer, since we did no better than 3 knots!

Fortunately, once we cleared Punta Arenas the wind picked up significantly. It also changed direction frequently, requiring us to constantly adjust our sails and course as we tried to head up as much as we could to avoid having to come about. We got to see sunrise from the Yamuy, and constantly adjusted the auto-pilot. At one point the auto-pilot started to give CAN bus errors, and we'd have to sail manually while the darn thing rebooted itself.

To our surprise, the wind picked up and gave us 5-6 knots of speed, and by the time we rounded Cabeza De Perro, we were doing the better part of 7 knots and debating whether we had time to sail further so as not to arrive at the marina too early! We called the Sail Caribe and they said they would be waiting for us so we sailed directly to the harbor entrance, dropping sails at the last minute and then motoring in slowly to give ourselves time to mount the docklines and fender lines so we were ready to dock at the fuel dock.

At the fuel dock, we were greeted by the crew members and I was relinquished of the responsibility for the sailboat. The diesel bill turned out to be $94, surprising Arturo and I as well as the dock crew. "Did you sail alot?" asked the crew to Arturo. "As much as we could for the last 3-4 days, but we ran the generator every night to make water." It was a gratifyingly cheap diesel bill.

The crew cast off, turned the boat around, and immediately docked opposite the fuel dock, surprising me. We were plugged in with the AC turned on and told that the dock taxi would be here to pick us up 15 minutes before our taxi arrived. There was nothing to do but clean up the boat, get our $500 cash deposit returned, and eat lunch. It was Xiaoqin's birthday and Google was kind enough to grant us such an amazing deal on a trade-in that she got a new Pixel 7 for her birthday.

The offboarding onto the taxi went without incident, as did Arturo's departure at the airport. Our sailing trip was over.

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

2022 Spanish Virgin Islands: Bahia Isla Chiva to Punta Arena

 We had a leisurely breakfast, turned on the engines, and raised the sail. With a tail wind behind us, we easily made 5 knots past the tip of Vieques, going 3 miles out to dump the septic tanks again, before turning into a beam reach and arriving at Punta Arena in less than 3 and a half hours. Upon arrival, the point seemed to be filled with boats, but we would later find that one boat after another would depart, leaving us with only 2 other boats to share the bay with. What got us to stay despite the apparent crowd was that most of the boats looked like they would not support anyone on it staying overnight, so we were confident that it wouldn't be a loud party.

We dropped anchor in 15' of water, and snorkeled around in what looked like mediocre water. The water was calm, however, making me eager to make use of the paddleboard. To deliver the kids to the beach. I discovered that the approach to the beach was very steep, so ended up delivering Bowen and Boen to separate parts of the beach as I found a better entry later. I decided I join the snorkelers, but the snorkeling was fairly mediocre.

The beach was unlike any of the other beaches we'd seen in the Spanish Virgin Islands: the sand was coarse and easy to clean off. We walked the length of the beach heading South, and unlike the beach at Bahia Isla Chiva we pretty much had it to ourselves, as one boat after another pulled off --- the only other sailboat, a Catamaran, pulled off to join a BBQ on Puerto Rico proper.

When we were done, I swam back to the boat, got out the paddleboard and ferry'd the kids back to the sailboat, making them jump from the paddleboard to swim the last 10 yards so that they'd be sand free when they got to the swim ladder. I then used the paddleboard to explore more of the Bay to the North, and found some places that looked quite a bit clearer. It would have been a pain, however, to move the boat, since the coral was interspersed with sand, making it tricky to find a good place to anchor.

Arturo and I went snorkeling to see if the snorkeling was any better --- it was indeed a lot better, and he spotted lots of stuff, but I was tired and the visibility still wasn't great --- the water had looked much better from the paddleboard than it did from snorkeling. Besides, we had to pack! The next morning had to be an early start as we had been warned that it took 2.5 hours of sailing from Punta Arenas back to Punta Del Rey Marina. We extracted all the luggage out of one of the V-berths after showering, and started packing away everything that could be packed.

That evening, we enjoyed our last beautiful sunset from the beach, had dinner, and did a little bit of star gazing before clouds came over and occluded our views. I would wake up in the middle of the night to pee and would see one last shooting star in the early morning before waking up for real the next morning.