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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Review: The Etymologicon

The Etymologicon was an Audible sale purchase. This is one of those cases where the book and information itself is good, complete with a history of various words and how they came to be, but the presentation lacks structure. In many ways, the book just segues from one word to another in no particular order, so we go from Moby Dick to Starbucks, but without a firm structure to hang all that knowledge it just whizzes by as entertainment and by the end of the book you realize you heard a lot of stories but didn't retain any of them. That makes it not a good use of time.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Review: How To - Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real World Problems

I loved What-If, and wasn't a big fan of Thing Explainer, so I checked out How-To from the library instead of buying it. To my relief, Randall Munro is back on form and How-To is a great read, full of fun musings and intelligent thinking.

In recent months, Bowen's been balking at reading real books, asking to read comic strips instead, and sometimes repeating a book he's already read rather than working on harder material. He even turned his nose up at Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry, which disappointed me as I thought it'd be something that he'd enjoy.

But when I got to the chapter in the book entitled "How to Play Tag", I knew I had him. So I gave it to him at the dinner table (where he would look enviously over his brother's shoulder to watch whatever show grandma was giving him to placate him) and before 3 minutes was over, he'd taken the book off the dinner table and was reading it instead of eating (which is not as impressive as you might think, since Bowen has deprioritized eating below any kind of fun, reasoning that he can always get something to eat as parents won't even deny a child that, but play time is always limited!). Bowen read the entire chapter and then complained that I'd started him on the book at chapter 14, and now he'd have to start over at chapter one and read the entire book!

To my mind, any book that gets your kid to classify reading as "fun-time" is great, and one that's scrupulously accurate, not afraid to use math and equations to explain problems, and demystify the scientific approach to thinking is one to treasure. Highly recommended!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Review: The Intelligence Trap - Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes

I checked out The Intelligence Trap from the library half expecting it to be a let-down. I thought it might turn out to be another rehash of Khaneman's book, but it turned out not to be that, though it did reference his work.

The interesting thing about this book is that it reveals a new area of study called evidence-based wisdom, a lot of the insights in this book are interesting:
  • higher humility scores appear to predict scholastic performance (and on-the-job performance as well) even better than IQ.
  • teams that have too many super-stars/high performers (more than about 30%) actually underperform teams of fewer super-stars.. In other words, you can actually build a team/company with too many super-stars. This is a counter-intuitive result, and is supported by examples in the book with references to literature.
  • once designated a leader, executives frequently become less likely to cooperate, reaching impasses at a far higher rate than less powerful employees lower down in the hierarchy
  • experts take many short cuts to get quick decisions fast. However, in that rush, they can fall prey to motivated reasoning, avoiding taking the hard decision to re-examine their work from first principles.
  • Asian educational systems are actually better at cultivating evidence-based wisdom, emphasizing thoughtfulness over quickness and confidence.
All in all, the book's well worth the time, and certainly for leaders looking to build teams, has important implications for team building. Recommended.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Review: The Path to Power

I picked out The Path to Power  on Audible because it seemed like the perfect book to use the audiobook treatment on: it was non-fiction, had an interesting topic I didn't know much about, and Robert Caro's On Power had intrigued me, especially the part about rural electrification.

Wow, when people talk about detail, this book has it. I expected it to be a straightforward biography about Lyndon Johnson, but instead, it meandered left and right (politically and metaphorically), discussing his time as well as introducing several political figures of the period that were lesser known to me, like Sam Rayburn.

The description of the political environment was also critical, as it explains how then (as it is now), the Democrats have always been short of money, and the money has always been on the side of the Republican party.

In terms of coverage of Lyndon Johnson, it's extensive and described how he wasn't much of a new dealer, despite his successful attempts to ride on the coat-tails of the very popular Franklin D. Roosevelt. The section on what it took for Johnson to get elected as a Congressional representative was evocative and descriptive: in many cases he traveled to distant farms and villages to make his case, and that was the difference between him and other candidates.

The book spent a lot of time discussing how Johnson became a "professional son", flattering and ingratiating himself to older men with power, as well as how he came to wield power himself, not through electoral popularity, but by being willing funnel public work projects to contractors he favored and then accepting political donations from them. He even got Roosevelt to help cover up these illegal campaign contributions when the contractor (Brown and Root) was investigated by the IRS. The description of the senatorial campaign of 1941 was also impressive, with Caro discussing which districts had votes that could be bought, and how Johnson lost because he made the mistake of letting his bought votes be called in first, as well as how radio and newspapers were used in the campaign.

Of course, the book also describes his affair with Alice Glass and his poor treatment of his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, again, with chapter long digressions into providing thorough biographies of both women.

The book deserves its Pulitzer prize, but imagine my dismay when I discovered that it's part of a 5-book series, and that Caro is still several years from finishing the series, despite projecting that it would be done in 2013! I've checked out the next book in the series from the library, but I'm not sure I'll get around to finishing that! Nevertheless, the book is recommended.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Trip Report: Emigrant Wilderness

This year's backpacking trip was suddenly changed to the Emigrant Wilderness (so named because it adjuncts the old wagon road into California) because a cold spell was forecast and Arturo decided that it was a good idea to go lower and not freeze ourselves. We hadn't been hiking much this year, so the proposed length of 4.5 miles sounded good to me.

We drove up on Friday night as soon as Bowen's school let up, and navigated horrendous traffic all the way to  the Pinecrest Ranger Station after a burger dinner. It was already late, so we visited the Meadowview Campground, paid $28 for a site, and went to sleep.
The next day, we headed over to the Crabtree trailhead, repacked all our belongings, and headed down the trail. As a last minute decision, I decided to bring the hammock, since it was only an overnight trip and my pack felt light. This turned out to be a good decision. Because we were at a lower elevation, the hiking didn't feel as hard as in previous years, and even Bowen whined a little less than usual.
For it being the weekend the day after labor day, the trail was fairly crowded, with relatively few day hikers but lots of backpackers heading up the trail. Arturo had picked up a permit, saying, "The chances of meeting a ranger are low", but of course we did meet one. Arturo offered to show him the permit but when the ranger found out that the permit was stowed in a hard to reach compartment of the backpack he declined and just said, "I'll trust you." He told us that on the far end of the lake there would be more campsites if the main ones were full.
At Camp Lake, it was time for lunch so we found a spot next to the lake, set up the hammock, and proceeded to eat lunch and enjoy the spot. Bowen felt the water and said it felt warm, not cool, so we had hopes that Bear Lake would be swimmable, even though it would be cooler, since it was significantly bigger.

Bear Lake was only a mile and a half away from Camp Lake, so after lunch, we kept going. Camp Lake was attractive, but there were lots of signs saying: "No camping between trail and Lake", which meant that any camping we did there would be quite far away from water. In retrospect, it would have been a much less crowded campground, with better swimming, but that's only in retrospect.
At Bear Lake, we found that all the spots near the trail was taken, but Arturo hiked around and found a big area that would have been suitable for a group three times our size. We hurriedly took it, pitching tents and putting up the hammock to indicate the boundaries of our spot. None too soon, for another big family came by and eyed our campsite jealously, but moved on and took a spot further along the lake. After all that we gathered firewood for the night's campfire, which was quite an effort since the area was quite denuded of dead wood!
Then it was swimming time, and sure enough, the lake while cold, wasn't too cold to swim in. It was fun and felt fresh, since we hadn't had showers the day before. We then made dinner and watched the sunset. The clouds that had appeared earlier while swimming had gone away, leaving us a crystal clear sky. Arturo told us this was normal in the Sierra during low pressure --- there's not enough moisture during the summer for the clouds to stick! Arturo taught Bowen how to create sparks to start a fire using steel and magnesium. To our relief, the cold spell seemed to have killed off the mosquitoes, and I got away without a single bite.
The purpose of a campfire, of course, is to roast marshmallows and make smores. Bowen ate 10 marshmallows, and then we called it a night.

The next morning, we ate a quick breakfast and packed. It had been cold and my tent had significant bits of condensation, so I had to take it down and move it into the sun so it would dry, but we said goodbye to Bear Lake and headed back to Camp Lake.
At Camp Lake, Bowen was hungry, having ate none of his oatmeal or even drank his apple cider at breakfast, so we setup the hammock, and ate the rest of the lunch we'd brought with us. We were definitely getting a fair bit of use out of the hammock (Arturo said he spent some time in it last night star-gazing as well), so I was glad I paid the weight penalty and brought it! From there, it was less than 2 hours from the trailhead, and we were done! 

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Review: Replay

Replay is Ken Grimwood's novel that was the inspiration for Groundhog day. Well, OK, it's not, but it's what Groundhog day would have been if it was written by an intelligent thinking person. For instance, one of my pet peeves about Groundhog day was that the protagonist never considers doing anything that a smart person would do to break his enchantment (e.g., staying up past midnight). By contrast, while reading Grimwood's novel you get the impression that his protagonists would have tried everything.

The premise of the novel is what if you got to relive your life again, but with all the experience acquired from actually living it, including knowledge of future events, past mistakes, etc. And what if you got a chance to do it again and again?

With a multiple decade span, Grimwood's protagonists try everything, from winning horse races, betting on stocks, hiring Spielberg/Lucas to make movies, etc. The drawbacks of all these opportunities are also presented in focus. The novel even does a good job of ensuring that there's a reasonable ending, though of course, no reasonable explanation of why the protagonists are the only people to get a chance to re-live life that way is posited (or explained). All the actions are drawn to their logical conclusions, and I was happy with the way the novel ended.

Recommended, and thanks to Terence Chua for the recommendation!

Monday, October 07, 2019

Review: Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry

I checked Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry out from the library hoping that Bowen would read it, but Bowen turned his nose up at it after reading one chapter. To my surprise, I found myself sucked into it and just finished reading it in a couple of days.

The book does a fantastic job of introducing the Big Bang Theory, the 4 fundamental forces, and Hubble expansion, relativity, and myriad other topics without either talking down to the reader or resorting to equations and dense mathematics. In some cases, like relativity or quantum mechanics, the topic is mentioned as relevant and the reader is left to do more reading and research if interested, but the subject isn't beaten to death.

The book's a short quick read, and I hope to get Bowen to give it another chance one day. Recommended.