Friday, August 28, 2015

Review: Foundation's Triumph

Foundation's Triumph is written by David Brin, which was the main reason I picked up the book despite being underwhelmed by Foundation and Chaos.

The book details Hari Seldon's last adventure, where on a whim, he leaves Trantor on a hunt to figure out why the soils of the various planets of the galaxy are clustered the way they are. As a result of this adventure, Seldon discovers the robotic forebears of the human pioneers who settled the galaxy, and sets off a struggle between various factions of robots, representatives of the Chaos world Klinta, and of course, Seldon's own conflicting feelings about his Foundation and Second Foundation.

The net result is a bit of a mash. You do get a nice complex plot with lots of moving parts, but a shortage of new ideas which is what David Brin's famous for. There's a sense that Brin's far too constrained by having to work within Asimov's universe, as well as the issues of writing a prequel: there's too much already known about the future, and not enough freedom to introduce new concepts.

Ultimately, a disappointing read.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Teton/Yellowstone RV Trip: Day 3: Rafting on the Snake River

The rafting trip was broken into 2 parts: the scenic tour in the early morning, where everyone was allowed to go, and the late morning white water trip, where Bowen was excluded and my father elected to stay behind to watch him.

The morning trip was indeed a slow float down the river, where everyone stayed dry. Our river guide, a 27-year old woman from the East Coast, was formerly a pre-med before deciding that it wasn't for her and came to Jackson to lead an outdoor life as well as retrain for education.

We spotted 10 bald eagles, multiple ducks, and Bowen got a chance to row with the guide. I expected a struggle to keep him off the white water trip, but it turned out that an early explanation had stuck, so he agreed to stick around the rafting office and take care of Grandpa.

The white water trip was at most a class 3, since it was summer and the water was low. It was fairly tame by white water standards, but it was a lot more active than the earlier trip, and we got wet quite often.
There was even a section where you could jump off the boat and swim, and the weather being warm enough to do so this time, quite a few folk took the river guide's offer.

After that, we visited the Pearl Street Market to buy lunch, and then were driven back to the Fireside resort. We spent the rest of the evening doing laundry.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Teton/Yellowstone RV Trip Day 2: Bear Lake State Park to Fireside Resort

We got up early the next day to make the remaining drive to Jackson, Wyoming, where I'd pre-booked a site at the Fireside resort for 2 days. I'd gotten to realize early on that a 32' RV was hard to get a space for, and so had booked about the first 9 days of the trip.After that, I figured I'd be competent to fly by the seat of my pants.

The reason for staying here two nights was because I'd signed us up for a rafting trip the next day. We'd arrived early enough to be able to take the bus into town and walk around, so we did so. We then had an early night so we could wake up in time for the pickup from the rafting company the next day.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tetons/Yellowstone RV Trip Day 1: Salt Lake City to Bear Lake State Park

In early April, we thought it might be a good idea to take the family to the Tetons and Yellowstone for some RV camping. Because of the number of people involved, I thought that an RV might be practical. I've never tried it before, but given my experience with relatively large sailing catamarans, I didn't think that maneuvering an RV would be especially difficult.

Because of the number of people involved, I was forced to reserve a fairly large motorhome. I ended up picking a class B Sunseeker 3170 from Utah RV Rentals.

Because of a few last minute change of plans (driven entirely by external circumstances beyond our control), neither Boen nor Xiaoqin could come, so my parents were recruited to come along instead.

On August 3rd, we flew a 6:15am direct flight from San Jose to Salt Lake City, where upon landing the representatives from Utah RV Rentals met us, tossed everything into an open-top pick up truck, squeezed all 6 of us into the cab, and drove us to pick up the RV. You might think me insane for deliberately picking an absurdly early hour, but my reason for doing so came from my experience with sailboat charters: I expected the check-out to take 2 hours, and then wanted another couple of hours for provisioning, and then to gingerly make my way to Bear Lake State Park, where I had a fully hooked up connection.

The check-out doesn't take nearly as long for an RV: you're presumed to know how to drive a car. The systems aren't nearly as complicated, and RV rental companies seem to be really casual about teaching you how to operate systems. For instance, on a sailboat, the propane is usually cut off whenever you're sailing, but on an RV it's apparently OK to turn on the propane while driving!

We left the RV rental place around 11:00, made our way to a Costco, and then proceeded to eat lunch before buying about 10 days worth of consumables. The RV handled pretty nicely, much closer to a boat than a car, but much less bulky and more maneuverable than any sailboat I've had to drive. What caused us to drive slowly, however, was an unusual storm, which made visibility poor and traffic on I-15 slow an uncharacteristically slow 45mph. We did leave before rush hour traffic, so we were able to get onto the smaller roads past Ogden fairly early.

If you use Google Maps to visit Bear Lake State Park, it'll take you to the wrong one. What you want is the Rendezvous Beach campground. We got there at around 5:00pm, proceeded to set up camp and dinner, when Kevin arrived. The kids got to play, and we got to walk around in the park, which wasn't particularly pretty, but it was only a temporary stop.

As expected, Bowen loved RV camping, and after playing was happy to sleep in the same space as me above the cab of the RV. He kicked around all night, however.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Review: Isaac Newton

I have fond memories of James Gleick's excellent biography of Richard Feynman, so I checked out Isaac Newton from the library hoping for similar excellence. To my surprise, it wasn't nearly as good, though upon reflection, I shouldn't have been so surprised.

With Richard Feynman, many of his colleagues were still alive when Gleick wrote his book, and so we were able to get personal, up close stories about Feynman. Feynman also left behind tons of media from books to lectures to actual videos (such as from his famous exposition about the O-ring problem in the Challenger disaster).

By contrast, Newton was secretive, frequently writing his notes in cryptography, and separated from the modern age by 300 years: enough time for even his undeciphered writing to be cryptic and full of spelling that seems ancient by the standards of modern English. He never married and had no children, and so left behind few who could explain his personal mannerisms in an informal setting or know what he was really like.

Given these limitations then, Gleick does a reasonable job for the layman, explaining certain myths (such as the Newtonian conception of gravity) but at the same time not really providing sufficient context for important inventions such as Calculus and differential equations. The overall picture that emerges is complex, and Gleick does a good job of explaining to the reader that as the bridge between pre-modern pre-scientific Europe, Newton wasn't just the first scientist and mathematician, but also the last alchemist who also poisoned himself in the quest to turn lead into gold.

My criticism of the book is that Gleick doesn't really provide sufficient context for Newton's contemporaries. We get some tantalizing glimpses of Charles Boyle, and of course there's Leibniz, but none other than Leibniz are given serious treatment, so we don't really see the context in which Newton worked.

I recommend this book despite the faults, because of the limitations Gleick had to work with. Newton was (and arguably still is) an incredibly important figure in modern scientific enterprise, and it's a worthwhile read to see the origins of insights that came from the great man, as well as getting a (admittedly very limited) glimpse of the context in which he worked.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Review: Foundation and Chaos

Foundation and Chaos is the second book in the post-Asimov Foundation trilogy. I missed it when it came out in 1998, and decided to skip the first novel because it was generally panned by reviewers.

The novel is interesting making references to Asimov's universe that I've long since forgotten, but also drawing the importance of robots, for instance, in the evolution of human kind to the logical conclusion. It's fun and a little bit creaky, but still entertaining.

The protagonist of the trilogy is clearly Hari Seldon, who of course is the prophet/leader depicted in the original Foundation trilogy. As a prequel, the novel grants us relatively little insight into what psycho-history is, what the parameters are, and of course, depends too much on the rise of psycho-history as the brilliant work of one man, while we know that most scientific work usually depends on not just theoreticians and mathematicians, but also experimentalists. Yet the rise of psycho-history (as depicted in these novels) appears to depend entirely upon mathematics without any empirical evidence, which seems really far-fetched, to say the least. I raise this as a criticism because the authors of this second trilogy are all writers with real scientific credentials, as Asimov was.

In any case, the plot revolves around the rise of telepaths (called mentallics in the novel) who can influence other people or even groups of humans. Readers of the original series would know that this plays a critical part in the second foundation. It's an interesting romp, but ultimately fails to compare to the scope and grandeur of the originals.

Nevertheless, it made me want to go back and read the original series again, which can't be a bad thing.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review: Armada

Armada is Ernest Cline's love letter to the 1980s media, including video games and movies.His first novel, Ready Player One was also from the same mold, so if you read that novel and wished for more, well, here it is.

Treading the same waters is a dangerous game, but Cline pulls it off. The plot is a remix of The Last Starfighter, where video games are used as a testing ground to train and recruit fighter pilots (and mech warriors) for a secretly planned war against an alien invasion. Except this is updated to modern times, where it's a MMO shared world shooter.

The twist that Cline adds is that all the obvious plot-holes of The Last Starfighter are covered. Cline covers all these issues in a fun and straightforward way, with the protagonist constantly questioning the underlying premise he's presented with. The net result is that you never feel like you're being taken for a fool, while Cline still gets to throw in all the fun and important action hijinks that's a crowd-pleaser.

Nevertheless, the entire novel still feels like a re-tread. If Ready Player One satisfied your 80s nostalgia, there's no need to read this book. It's fun, but it does feel a bit too obviously an attempt to repeat the prior success without adding a whole lot.