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Friday, August 23, 2019

Post Tour Review: Arkel Drylite Panniers

Cycling bags are a compromise. For my trips on my single bike, I avoid panniers as much as possible, preferring saddlebags or bike-packing bags to keep the bike as light as possible and without drawing the weight penalty of carrying a rack on top of it.

For this year's tour, I knew Xiaoqin's rental bike would have a rack. With a bike weighing in at 50 pounds, there's no point skimping on weight, and you might as well have panniers. On the other hand, Xiaoqin doesn't ride her bike every day, and certainly wasn't about to go practicing on fire roads the way I regularly do, so I couldn't overload the bike enough to cause handling problems.

Arkel Dry-Lite Panniers are billed as the lightest waterproof panniers ever made. Xiaoqin went for the red color, which actually made them tough to find, as nobody seems to stock them in that color. The panniers are light and fold up really nicely. I didn't weigh them as an e-bike was going to carry them, not me. The tops are the usual dry-bag roller tops, where you fold them over 3 times before you clip them to prevent water intrusion, and there are no compartments inside.

The mounting system is unusual: instead of hooks on the top, the panniers grab onto each other using an intersecting set of velcro: a layer of hooks sandwiched between two loops. The result is that the panniers can go on and off the rack as a pair. Once you figure out the system this is a very fast and easy on-and-off system, though god help you if you get the velcro system mixed up. At the bottom is a hook attached to a bungee cord that helps you stabilize the panniers horizontally. These do a good job but we didn't figure that out until the second week of the tour, and the panniers still never fell off, because the rental bike's rack had a spring-loaded mechanisms that held the panniers down securely anyway.

The capacity is mediocre: Xiaoqin carried her own clothing, some of Boen's clothing, and Boen's PS Vita. Everything else (including bike tools, backpacking towel, Bowen's clothing, my clothing, most of Boen's clothing, raingear, etc) went in my venerable Robert Beckman panniers, which are much more substantial, but of course weighed more and were way more bulky.

For single bike touring, I think the Revelate Designs bags at 517 are lighter (these are spec'd at 540g) and eliminate the need for a rack. These are mostly good only if you're renting a bike that has a rack that you're not going to take off. They are lighter than the traditional English saddlebags (a Carradice low saddle longflap comes in at 904g), but only have similar capacity.  Keep in mind that a typical bike rack weighs north of 600g, so even though these panniers are lighter than a traditional Carradice, after you add in the weight of a rack you're no longer better off. From that point of view the new Revelate Designs bags are substantially better and I'd recommend them over these.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Review: The Hidden Life of Trees

After reading The Weather Detective, I had to read The Hidden Life of Trees, which many have praised as being a better book. It's definitely a fascinating one, about how trees can communicate to each other:
The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there. (Pg. 7)
 I loved the chapter on "street kids", on why the isolated trees in cities, suburbs, and even various preserves and parks don't do well, which is because they're not actually part of a forest, and therefore not part of a community. He explains why trees that grow naturally in a forest are longer lived than the "street kids": the reason is that for trees to be long lived, they need to grow slowly, and straight up. A tree in an open area would grow in all directions quickly, but that would lead to a short life.

There are lots of little secrets for your garden:
 These secret reserves can be activated at any time, and depending on the tree species, they contain a selection of defensive compounds produced by the tree. These so-called phytoncides have antibiotic properties, and there has been some impressive research done on them. A biologist from Leningrad, Boris Tokin, described them like this back in 1956: if you add a pinch of crushed spruce or pine needles to a drop of water that contains protozoa, in less than a second, the protozoa are dead. In the same paper, Tokin writes that the air in young pine forests is almost germfree, thanks to the phytoncides released by the needles.56 In essence, then, trees disinfect their surroundings. But that isn’t all. Walnuts have compounds in their leaves that deal so effectively with insects that garden lovers are often advised to put a bench under a canopy of walnuts if they want a comfortable place to relax in the garden, because this is where they will have the least chance of being bitten by mosquitoes. The phytoncides in conifers are particularly pungent, and they are the origin of that heady forest scent that is especially intense on hot summer days. (Pg. 156)
 There's also lessons in forestry, on how to get back those old growth forests. Unfortunately, the time scales involve are truly immense, on the order of 500 years:
if the conifers that have now fallen into disfavor were to be removed, the future old-growth forest would develop a bit more quickly. But once you understand that the first generation of trees is going to grow too quickly anyway and, therefore, is not going to get very old—and that the stable social structure of the forest is not going to be laid down until much later—then you can take a more relaxed view. The plantation trees growing in the mix will depart in less than a hundred years because they will grow above the tops of the deciduous trees and stand unprotected in the path of storms that will ruthlessly uproot them. These first gaps will be vanquished by the second generation of deciduous trees, which can now grow up protected by the leafy canopy formed by their parents. Even if these parents themselves don’t grow very old, they will still grow old enough to give their children a slow start. Once these youngsters reach the age of retirement, the future old-growth forest will have achieved equilibrium, and from then on, it will hardly change at all. It takes five hundred years from the time a national park is established to get to this point. Had large areas of an old deciduous forest that had seen only modest commercial use been put under protection, it would take only two hundred years to reach this stage. However, because all over Germany the forests chosen for protection are forests that are far from their natural state, you have to allow a little more time (from the trees’ point of view) and a particularly intense restructuring phase for the first few decades. There’s a common misconception about the appearance of old-growth forests in Europe (pg. 237)
 In any case, the book is well written, easy to read, conversational, and education. How often do you get that great combination all put together? Recommended.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Review: Salt - A World History

I read Salt while touring across Bavaria, and it was a surprisingly appropriate read! The book covers the history of Salt's importance, of how roman soldiers used to get paid in salt, and the history of various forms of salt existed throughout human history and the role of salt in preserving food.
It was said that in the markets to the south of Taghaza salt was exchanged for its weight in gold, which was an exaggeration. The misconception comes from the West African style of silent barter noted by Herodotus and subsequently by many other Europeans. In the gold-producing regions of West Africa, a pile of gold would be set out, and a salt merchant would counter with a pile of salt, each side altering their piles until an agreement was reached. No words were exchanged during this process, which might take days. The salt merchants often arrived at night to adjust their piles and leave unseen. They were extremely secretive, not wanting to reveal the location of their deposits. From this it was reported in Europe that salt was exchanged in Africa for its weight in gold. But it is probable that the final agreed-upon two piles were never of equal weight. (Kindle Loc 650)
The Italian mainland was originally much farther away from the islands that are now the city of Venice. The area between these islands and the peninsula of Comacchio was called the Seven Seas. “To sail the seven seas” meant simply sailing the Seven Seas—accomplishing the daunting task of navigating past the sandbars of those treacherous twenty-five miles. About A.D. 600, Venetians started using landfill to extend the mainland closer to the islands of modern-day Venice. The Seven Seas became a landmass with a port named Chioggia. Below it, in a now much-narrowed lagoon, was Comacchio, overlooking the delta of the Po. Ravenna, formerly a port, became an inland city, and nearby Cervia became its port. (Kindle loc 1070)
 Another example: I didn't know that Ketchup came from Indonesia:
Ketchup derives its name from the Indonesian fish and soy sauce kecap ikan. The names of several other Indonesian sauces also include the word kecap, pronounced KETCHUP, which means a base of dark, thick soy sauce. Why would English garum have an Indonesian name? Because the English, starting with the medieval spice trade, looked to Asia for seasoning. Many English condiments, even Worcestershire sauce, invented in the 1840s, are based on Asian ideas...The salt in ketchup originally came from salt-cured fish, and most early anchovy ketchup recipes, such as Eliza Smith’s, do not even list salt as an ingredient because it is part of the anchovies. But the English and Americans began to move away from having fish in their ketchup. It became a mushroom sauce, a walnut sauce, or even a salted lemon sauce. These ketchups originally included salt anchovies, but as Anglo-Saxon cooking lost its boldness, cooks began to see the presence of fish as a strong flavor limiting the usefulness of the condiment. Roman cooks would have been appalled by the lack of temerity, but Margaret Dods adds at the end of her walnut ketchup recipe: Anchovies, garlic, cayenne, etc. are sometimes put to this catsup; but we think this is a bad method, as these flavours may render it unsuitable for some dishes, and they can be added extempore when required.—Margaret Dods, Cook and Housewife’s Manual, London, 1829 Ketchup became a tomato sauce, originally called “tomato ketchup” in America, which is appropriate since the tomato is an American plant, brought to Europe by Hernán Cortés, embraced in the Mediterranean, and regarded with great suspicion in the North. (Kindle loc 2344)
 It covers MSG, the history of salted fish, and the modern use of "natural salt", which ironically has more dirt and doesn't have iodine, which is actually an important mineral that many do not get enough of:
The salt in ketchup originally came from salt-cured fish, and most early anchovy ketchup recipes, such as Eliza Smith’s, do not even list salt as an ingredient because it is part of the anchovies. But the English and Americans began to move away from having fish in their ketchup. It became a mushroom sauce, a walnut sauce, or even a salted lemon sauce. These ketchups originally included salt anchovies, but as Anglo-Saxon cooking lost its boldness, cooks began to see the presence of fish as a strong flavor limiting the usefulness of the condiment. Roman cooks would have been appalled by the lack of temerity, but Margaret Dods adds at the end of her walnut ketchup recipe: Anchovies, garlic, cayenne, etc. are sometimes put to this catsup; but we think this is a bad method, as these flavours may render it unsuitable for some dishes, and they can be added extempore when required.—Margaret Dods, Cook and Housewife’s Manual, London, 1829 Ketchup became a tomato sauce, originally called “tomato ketchup” in America, which is appropriate since the tomato is an American plant, brought to Europe by Hernán Cortés, embraced in the Mediterranean, and regarded with great suspicion in the North. (Kindle Loc 5437)
There's a lot more in this big book, including coverage of the salt mines in Salzburg (the name means "salt city!"), and how much of lower Bavaria was important because of the presence of the salt mines. It even put the mining exhibit and the salt mine visits that we made during the tour into perspective. The book can be a bit repetitive and a bit of a chore at times to read, but I was very happy to have read it when I read it.

Recommended.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Review: Exhalation

Exhalation is the latest collection of Ted Chiang stories. If you're a fan of Ted Chiang, you probably didn't need to know more, and you'd just click through, buy or checkout the book from the library, and read it. Unlike other writers, nearly every Chiang story is a gem.

Outstanding stories in this collection include: "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", "Omphalos", "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling", and "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom." I thought the title story "Exhalation" was good, but not as outstanding as the others, but it was nevertheless far better than most stories you'll find anywhere else. I also enjoyed "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," but thought the story went on far longer than it needed to to make his point.

The remaining two stories "What's Expected of Us", and "Prisms" were far less interesting, but nevertheless do not detract from the book. You can pay full price for this book without any qualms.

Recommended.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

I'm an environmental pessimist. That doesn't mean I don't do everything I can to avoid increasing my carbon footprint --- I ride my bike everywhere instead of driving when I can, and I do try to avoid flights. (I almost never fly to weddings, for instance, or do weekend trips) I've told friends that I don't expect humans to be around in 200 years, because as a species we seem to be hell-bent on destroying the environment that we live in.

The Uninhabitable Earth makes me look like an optimist. To my surprise, I learned a lot more about the global climate crisis than I already knew:
more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before. The United Nations established its climate change framework in 1992, advertising scientific consensus unmistakably to the world; this means we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance. Global warming may seem like a distended morality tale playing out over several centuries and inflicting a kind of Old Testament retribution on the great-great-grandchildren of those responsible, since it was carbon burning in eighteenth-century England that lit the fuse of everything that has followed. But that is a fable about historical villainy that acquits those of us alive today—and unfairly. The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld. (Kindle Loc 75)
Think about what this means. You can't blame your ancestors, or the WW2 generation for the climate disasters that are facing the earth every year from now on. It's the responsibility of this generation and of course, the generational cohorts just before us (the silent, the boomers, gen x, and the millennial are all in it together). It means that when Bowen and Boen are entering college and remember that back when they were 7 and 4 it was still possible to do a summer bike tour in temperatures under 100F, they can (and probably should) blame us for doing nothing about our greenhouse gas emissions.

And it's not just about driving. It's also about food wastage and construction:
Fully half of British emissions, it was recently calculated, come from inefficiencies in construction, discarded and unused food, electronics, and clothing; two-thirds of American energy is wasted; globally, according to one paper, we are subsidizing the fossil fuel business to the tune of $5 trillion each year. None of that has to continue. (Kindle Loc 551)
Americans waste a quarter of their food, which means that the carbon footprint of the average meal is a third larger than it has to be. That need not continue. (Kindle Loc 556)
Five years ago, hardly anyone outside the darkest corners of the internet had even heard of Bitcoin; today mining it consumes more electricity than is generated by all the world’s solar panels combined, which means that in just a few years we’ve assembled, out of distrust of one another and the nations behind “fiat currencies,” a program to wipe out the gains of several long, hard generations of green energy innovation. It did not have to be that way. (Kindle Loc 557)
If the average American were confined by the carbon footprint of her European counterpart, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by more than half. If the world’s richest 10 percent were limited to that same footprint, global emissions would fall by a third. And why shouldn’t they be? Almost as a prophylactic against climate guilt, as the news from science has grown bleaker, Western liberals have comforted themselves by contorting their own consumption patterns into performances of moral or environmental purity—less beef, more Teslas, fewer transatlantic flights. But the climate calculus is such that individual lifestyle choices do not add up to much, unless they are scaled by politics. (Kindle Loc 567)
These problems are all problems of scale, and it's not enough to do it one person at a time. You have to scale up the solutions. Think about that last paragraph above: the Europeans live well, in many ways better than Americans, with fewer health problems, more income mobility, etc. There's no reason Americans have to live their current lifestyle, but the courage to make that change will be hard to come by: humans don't measure their material progress against absolutes, but against what their neighbors and their friends' lifestyle is. That's why wives compare their husbands' incomes against each other, and people in the office gasp when I tell them that I don't currently own a car and have no desire to change that state. And that's why I'm a climate pessimist: our concern for survival pales against our greed and envy. Consider the millions of people who smoke despite knowing that it's likely to cause a painful death. That's the state of humanity today.

n the modern age, at least, there is also the related tendency to view large human systems, like the internet or industrial economy, as more unassailable, even more un-intervenable, than natural systems, like climate, that literally enclose us. This is how renovating capitalism so that it doesn’t reward fossil fuel extraction can seem unlikelier than suspending sulfur in the air to dye the sky red and cool the planet off by a degree or two. To some, even ending trillions in fossil fuel subsidies sounds harder to pull off than deploying technologies to suck carbon out of the air everywhere on Earth. This is a kind of Frankenstein problem, and relates to widespread fears of artificial intelligence: we are more intimidated by the monsters we create than those we inherit. (Kindle Loc 2434)
At the same time, that this has all happened in one lifetime is also cause for hope: that means it's possible to try to stop it to happening in one lifetime as well, and that we (and definitely our children) will live long enough to face the consequences of our (in)action means that maybe a few more catastrophes will change people's mind. I'm realistic enough to not expect it to happen (I've watched more than one human organization deliberately adopt policies antithetical to their existence)

In any case, I hope I can convince you to read this book. If the book causes you to change your lifestyle and vote to end our current suicide pact with each other, it would have been well worth your time. Recommended.

Friday, August 16, 2019

A Man for All Markets

A Man for All Markets is Ed Thorp's autobiography. It's a great book about how Thorp went from being a mathematician to being the first person to systematize and develop a system for beating blackjack, and then created the modern hedge fund. It's filled with great anecdotes:
We had been told that slide rules would be allowed for the first time this year but that they weren’t necessary. As an afterthought I brought along a ten-cent toy slide rule—all I felt I could afford—thinking I could always do a quick rough check of my calculations if I had any extra time. As I worked through the test I knew every answer. But then the last section of the test was distributed. This part of the exam required many more calculations than I could do by hand in the time allowed. My cheap tiny slide rule was worthless. Out came the full-sized well-machined slide rules all around me. Surprise! Slide rules were not merely optional—they were necessary for anyone who wanted to win. There was no credit given for showing the correct method, only credit for a numerical answer, to a specified level of “slide rule accuracy.” I was sickened by the realization I would likely not place high enough to get the scholarship I needed and unhappy with myself for not preparing by purchasing a hard-to-afford top-of-the-line slide rule. It seemed so unfair to convert a test about chemistry into one about slide rule arithmetic. Be that as it may, I set to calculating by hand as quickly as I could. In the end, I was only able to complete 873 of the entire exam’s 1,000 points’ worth of questions, so this was the most I could possibly score. I knew the top winner typically got 925 to 935, so I had no chance at first place. When my father picked me up I was forcing myself not to cry and could barely talk. In class Mr. Stump could see that I was chastened and obviously had done badly. We didn’t talk about it. I wrote the episode off to my own naïveté. But I did go out and buy the best slide rule I could afford. A couple of weeks after the test, Mr. Stump called me aside to tell me the results. My score was 869 points out of the 873 points I had answered. First place was far ahead at about 930, but second and third place were just a few points ahead of my fourth-place finish. With a good slide rule I could have been first. (Kindle Loc 716)
 And once again, Thorp emphasizes how important public universities like UC Berkeley is to the poor and under-privileged:
The scoring pattern of the chemistry exam was repeated, only this time I was first with 931 points. The second-place winner was fifty or sixty points behind. Surpassing the smug and privileged, I had first pick of the scholarships that were offered, wavering between Caltech and UC–Berkeley. Caltech, my first choice, offered full tuition, but I did not have an extra $2,000 per year for the dormitories and expenses. Pasadena was expensive and I knew of no place nearby within my budget. I simply couldn’t afford Caltech. My UC–Berkeley scholarship, the largest they then gave, was for $300 a year. Tuition, which was $70 a year, was covered separately for me by a scholarship for children of World War I veterans. Berkeley also had low-cost room and board just off campus. Cheaper yet was the Student Cooperative Housing Association, with room and board for $35 per month and four hours of work a week. When I picked Berkeley, I consoled myself with the hope that at least there would be plenty of girls and my social life might bloom. (Kindle Loc 831)
My kindle highlights page from the book is chock full of great stories:
 Most people I’ve met haven’t thought through the comparative values to them of time, money, and health. Think of the single worker who spends two hours commuting forty miles from hot and smoggy Riverside, California, to a $25-an-hour job in balmy Newport Beach. If the worker moves from his $1,200-a-month apartment in Riverside to a comparable $2,500-a-month apartment in Newport Beach, his rent increases by $1,300 a month but he avoids forty hours of commuting. If his time is worth $25 per hour he would save $1,000 ($25 × 40) each month. Add to that the cost of driving his car an extra sixteen hundred miles. If his economical car costs him 50 cents a mile or $800 a month to operate, living in Newport Beach and saving forty hours’ driving time each month makes him $500 better off ($1,000 + $800 − $1,300). In effect he earned just $12.50 per hour during his commute. Does our worker figure this out? I suspect he does not, because the extra $1,300 a month in rent he would pay in Newport Beach is a clearly visible cost that is painfully and regularly inflicted, whereas the cost of his car is less evident and can be put out of mind. (Kindle Loc 4724)
 What's amazing to me is that Thorp, unlike many of his cohorts who made tons of money at Wall Street, decided to fold up his company (which had been brought down not by poor investments, but by poor ethical decisions on the part of one of his partners):
Vivian and I would make the most of the one thing we could never have enough of—time together. Success on Wall Street was getting the most money. Success for us was having the best life. (Kindle Loc 3647)
Clearly, this is a man who's thought through everything, and made good decisions at every step of the way. I hope to get Bowen to read this book one day, because I think that not only does it explain why it's great to be good at math and thinking, but also that many of the most important decisions aren't just about probability and money, but about choosing the right people to partner with.

Recommended!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Review: Stiff

Stiff is Mary Roach's book about what happens to Human Cadavers. If you've read her other books, you'll discover that this one is much like the others: lots of pithy quotations, such as this discussion about the most ecologically pure thing to do with a body:
I used to think the traditional navy burial at sea sounded nice; I pictured the sun on the ocean, the infinite expanse of blue, the nowhereness of it. Then one day I had a conversation with Phillip Backman, during which he mentioned that one of the cleanest, quickest, and most ecologically pure things to do with a body would be to put it in a big tide-pool full of Dungeness crabs, which apparently enjoy eating people as much as people enjoy eating crabs. “It’ll do the thing in a couple of days,” he said. “It’s all recycled, and it’s all clean and taken care of.” My affinity for burial at sea—not to mention crabmeat—was suddenly, dramatically diminished. (Kindle Loc 3292)
That's not to say that the book doesn't cover lots of different topics. Cadavers get used everywhere from crash testing to firearm effectiveness to improving footwear for bomb clearing squads. Many of these applications sound interesting, but as you can imagine,  it takes all her skill as a writer to make a giant ass book about them, because most of the applications are obvious. By the time I was done with the book I was quite bored.