Friday, April 28, 2017

BVI 2017: Day 5 - Soper's Hole to Long Bay

Bowen joined us on our usual 6:00am reverie, as did Boen. I made him Mac & Cheese for breakfast, after which the rest of the crew proceeded to explain to me that Mac & Cheese is not breakfast food like I'd thought, but was in fact, lunch and dinner food. I'm just bringing up my kids all wrong by feeding them Mac & Cheese for breakfast!

We raised the dinghy, turned on the engines, puttered out of Soper's hole, and once past the channel between Great Thatch and Tortola, raised the sails and turned off the engine.

The original plan was to visit Sandy Spit or Sandy Cay and enjoy a morning on the beaches, but upon arrival, we observed that the place was pretty rocky, and so proceeded to look for a less rocky anchorage. We found a mooring ball right off of Foxy's Taboo. No one was using the slips next to the bar, since it looked like it would beat up your boat just by sitting at the slip. The forecast was for the swells to slowly die off the rest of the day, so in the mean time we decided to visit the bubbly pool, which should be excellent during times of north swells.
The hike to the pool is best done in dry conditions, there are several Manchineel Trees on the trail that would blisters the skin if you stood under the tree in a rain storm! The day was dry, and except for Bowen feeling out of sorts, we made it to the pool easily and in short order. The intermittent waves from the Atlantic would blow past the rocks guarding the entrance and make a natural jaccuzzi out of cool water. With the swells, we certainly had lots of bubbles to play with!


After we had had our fill of the pool, we explored the cliffs above the pools, which presented views of the Atlantic as well as an astonishing blow-hole.
On the way back at the boat, we walked past a sign that said "Jewel's Bakery." We stopped and Bowen ordered a pineapple tart. We brought it back to the boat and checked the forecast again. To our dismay, the forecast for the swells had been pushed off and we were expected to have swells the rest of the day into most of tomorrow. We had a quick debate as to what to do --- we still had plenty of time to sail over to Norman island, forgoing Sandy Spit and Sandy Cay. But the place was nice, we had plenty of sunshine, and we were on vacation, so staying put was also a good option. In the end, we opted to stay put.
We had a cold lunch, then as the day warmed up, got into the water with mask and snorkel. The shallows were a lot of fun, having a lot of coral and feather dusters to play with. In fact, Bowen wanted to touch every feather duster he saw, though with a wet suit on, he was far too buoyant to be able to dive! I helped him and he could submerge and touch a few and make them shrink.

After a long 40-minute snorkel that even ended with me cold, Bowen took a nap, though not before asking for more pineapple tart. What I noticed was that there was a strong current coming back to the boat. I talked Arturo into running the dinghy back to get the tart from the bakery, and then after dropping it off at the Kokomo III, we ran the dinghy over to Sandy Spit to see if it was a viable place to anchor for the night.

The currents were fairly strong. At one point, it felt like the dinghy had stalled, and Arturo had the throttle on the outboard motor run all the way! The looked at various potential anchorages on the way back from Sandy Spit, which didn't look appealing at all. In the end, nothing looked appealing: the one boat which had anchored in what looked like a quiet spot was actually (illegally) anchor'd on a coral patch, while the others looked like they would be very bouncy. Our mooring ball looked good by comparison.

That evening, we ran the oven and made pizza, and used the BBQ for the last time to make chicken. Our plan the next day was to spend time on Sandy Spit, and then find a place to dive if the swells had come down. In fact, if the swells did come down, we could visit Great Tortugas, which I had never been.

At night, I started an evening star-gazing session with Bowen. He really wanted to see a shooting star, and I had actually spotted one near the start of the trip, and Mark reported he saw one the day before. "Did you make a wish, Daddy?" "Yes I did. I wished for you to be safe and grow up healthy." "I have a wish for when I see a shooting star." "Really? What is it?" "I wish for my brother to have swimming lessons and learn how to swim!" Bowen's such a sweet kid.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

BVI 2017: Day 4 - Great Harbor (Peter Island) to Soper's Hole

I slept for 9 and a half hours the night before, which put me in a great mood come 6:00am! In fact, I definitely felt well enough to dive. Bowen had also switched to a 6:00am rise time, so now we had a full complement of crew at 6:00 to help move the boat. We made coffee, ate quickly, and did engine checks as well as health checks. Arturo and Mark felt great, and John also felt OK to dive, so we headed off to fine the wreck of the Rhone buoy.

We arrived at the Rhone NPS buoys as the only boat around. A swim check revealed that there was a better buoy for what we wanted to do, so we moved the boat and then started prepping for the dive. Xiaoqin felt well enough to dive, so she did the first dive while I took Bowen around the bow part of the wreck so he could look around as well as see mommy dive.

We were just about done with the snorkelling and were waiting for the divers to come up from their first dive before the first commercial dive boat started showing up. Dive shops typically start at 8:00am, and it takes a good hour to prep the divers and then drive the dive boats over to the dive sites, so if you manage to get to the dive site at 7:30am, you pretty much get the place to yourself.

My third (and last) dive on this trip didn't feel as nice as the first two. My lens kept flooding, and I had a hard time descending. Add to that was a current that did nothing for my sense of peace. Nevertheless, the wreck of the Rhone is still a great dive, and I enjoyed myself. Arturo did a good job of steering us away from what had become a crowded dive site, and when we got back on-board, we were hungry enough to eat lunch before putting away the gear and setting sail for Soper's Hole.

My last sail to Soper's Hole was in 2007 on a mono-hull. With a single-engine and inexperienced crew, dealing with mooring buoys was such a chore that I opted for a slip, and didn't have a good experience --- it took a long time to pick up water, and the place felt crowded. We debated contingency plans for when we got there, including deploying the dinghy to reserve a mooring buoy if the place was so crowded that finding a free mooring buoy was going to be an issue.

Once in the harbor, we were told to go to the main fuel dock to pick up water. While we were filling up our water tanks, we put Xiaoqin, her mom, and the 2 kids ashore, while I did the dishes. Mark, John, Arturo and I found a wheel barrow, moved all the empty air tanks into it, and then Mark proceeded to wheel it to the Blue Water Divers shop. The shop had a great policy --- since we had rented the tanks from them, we didn't have to wait for a fill --- they would just exchange our tanks with already filled ones, and then bill us for the fill along with the rental equipment when the charter was entirely over.

We paid for a mooring ball and water, and then got off the docks to grab a nearby mooring ball. There were a large number available, so it was a non issue.
Ashore, Bowen and Boen had gotten ice cream, but when we arrived at the land showers (might anticipated), we discovered that the marina office was closed! While the staff manning the fuel station was willing to give us the code to the bathroom, the showers would only operate using a token that can be purchased from the marina office.

Arturo was unhappy. "No land showers, no way am I going to eat ashore!" We reprovisioned, piled into the dinghy, and went back to the Kokomo III intending to get a BBQ dinner. Even that was almost thwarted, as the BBQ literally fell apart in Arturo's hands when he mounted it! It was so old that the hole around the screw cap had rusted off. Arturo salvaged it by screwing back everything in an "unauthorized" fashion. "It probably won't hold for more than 2 more BBQs, but we don't have to BBQ more than that!"

For once, everyone had a decent appetite, but right after he had his burger, Bowen threw up! He'd gotten the Nolo virus. We cleaned up, gave him a nice hot shower, and put him to bed with a garbage bag and instructions to throw up into the bag if he felt sick. This left Mark the only person who'd gotten away without getting sick. Not coincidentally, he had imposed quarantine by labeling a bowl, plate, and eating utensils with his name and making sure he was the only person to touch them.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

BVI 2017 Day 3 - Cooper Island to Peter Island (Great Harbor)

Upon waking up, Arturo told me that he threw up a couple of times during the night, which must have sucked. Well, definitely no diving today. He didn't feel well enough to lead any dives. For whatever reason, I always thought the motor from Cooper Island to the Baths was 2 hours. It turned out to be closer to 40 minutes.






Arturo reminded us that the Baths had been listed as one of the 250 places you have to visit in your lifetime. Visiting the Baths in a small boat is the best way to see it. For one, by arriving at 7:15am, we had our choice of mooring balls and could moor near to the dingy buoys for a short swim ashore. The waves were surprisingly big, but it was not a problem for Bowen to swim to shore, after which I went back to fetch Boen. Boen did not care much for the swim ashore, however, screaming all the way from the dinghy to the shore, whereupon he attached himself to mommy and refused to let anyone else hold him.

The hike from Devil's Bay to Spanish Bay is unique: you walk amongst the Batholiths, negotiating over and in between boulders, occasionally wading in water the came up to your waist. You're assisted along the process by rope, stair cases, and in many cases have to bend down, squat down, or squeeze between places. Xiaoqin's job was made much worse by a clingy baby, a far cry from the last time we visited the place with just adult friends. Bowen, by contrast, loved it, and walked every step himself.

Upon reaching Spanish Bay, Arturo realized that the swim to the dinghy line there was shorter, so he and Mark volunteered to return to Devil's Bay, pick up the Dinghy, and shuttle it over so that Xiaoqin wouldn't have to walk all the way back. Xiaoqin agreed and shortly thereafter, the two of them returned with the Dinghy. I swam out with Bowen, Arturo met me half-way to pick him up, and then I went back to grab Boen, who screamed once again all the way back to the dinghy.

Arturo was effusive with praise for Bowen's swimming. "I held out my hand to him in case he needed help but he pushed it away. Then as he approached the boat he started corkscrewing just for the heck of it, and I realized that I wasn't there to babysit him. I was just there to observe and keep him from getting over-confident! You're swimming like a dolphin, Bowen!"

Once on the boat, we ate some snacks and then hoisted the main halyard while on the mooring buoy. Then I powered on the engine, we dis-engaged the mooring lines, and sailed on a broad reach towards Peter Island. Since all our air tanks were filled, we did not need to stop at Cooper but could get a less rocky harbor. Half of our freshwater was gone, however, so I knew that we would have to make a stop somewhere for water the next day or the day after at the very latest.

Arriving at the Great Harbor, we looked about for anchorage space but there wasn't any. There were plenty of mooring balls, however, so we picked one deep on the inside of the harbor for the smoothest night, and then proceeded to rest and eat lunch. At about 3:00pm it got so warm that we needed to go for a swim, and proceeded to look for a snorkeling place, which the cruising guide said that the Great Harbor was known for. Taking the dinghy out towards the restaurants on the west side of the harbor, we looked for a dinghy buoy but didn't find one. We ended up tying to the dinghy dock for the restaurant, whereupon the staff told us to just jump off the dinghy dock and look around!


Indeed the area was full of wildlife and fish, including a barracuda which I didn't spot but Arturo and John did. However, the north swell had churned up the water so much so that visibility was very limited so we didn't get many pictures.
That evening, Boen seemed much recovered, while the rest of us were still feeling a bit sick. At least without Boen screaming at night we'd all have a chance to rest. So we all took an early night, hoping that sleep would heal all.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

BVI 2017: Day 2 - Norman Island to Cooper Island

We got up at 6:00am, made coffee, checked the engines, and headed out to the Indians, enjoying the sun rise and solitude as we were the first boat to arrive. The biggest problem with arriving at the BVIs during spring break is that the solitude is soon gone. By 7:30am, all the mooring buoys were taken, but we had the prime spot! Soon, we were in the water exploring the area.


In the past, we'd always opted to do 2 dives at the Indians, but the current warning from the chart briefing was to arrive at Cooper island before 12:00pm to be assured of getting a mooring ball, so we opted to do just one dive. Xiaoqin was still feeling ill, so I would get to dive and then take Bowen for a snorkel after the dive.


While many complain that the dives in the BVIs are shallow, I don't mind. In shallow waters you get better light, and that makes for better photography. The dive in the Indians for me felt like I'd never left diving. The BCD Arturo had rented for me felt perfect, with weight pockets so I didn't need a belt, and 8 pounds of weight felt very comfortable. The swim through was no problem, and holding a 15' depth for a 3 minute safety stop didn't result in me bobbing up and down.


Upon returning to the Kokomo III from the dive, we talked Bowen into a wet suit and got him into the water with his mask and snorkel on. As Arturo instructed the day before, I refused to give him any towing, and made him swim to the reefs by himself. As expected, he wasn't at all uncomfortable in the water, and in fact, swam all the way around the Indians navigating the shallows with ease and making it onto the swimming ladder by himself. In fact, he even took off his own fins and threw them onto the boat! He would improve from day to day at a dramatic rate for the rest of the trip.

We motor'd up wind to Cooper Island, arriving just half an hour short of the 12:00pm deadline. Sure enough, there were only one or two mooring balls left and we grabbed one directly from the dinghy dock for air tank refills. We had lunch, then dropped off an air tank refill for the Cooper Island dive center. After digestion, we loaded 3 dive sets onto the dinghy. John was filling sick and had started to throw up, indicating that he had contracted Boen's Nolo virus. Xiaoqin was similarly out of sorts, so it was just Arturo, me, and Mark diving Cistern point.


Cistern point was a great location for wildlife. We spotted a lobster (rare sighting during the day), and a turtle. It was a long enough dive that I started feeling cold towards the end, and we all ended the dive with well over 1000psi in the tanks, indicating the being cold was the limiting factor, not running out of air.

Upon the return, we delivered air tanks back to the dive center for another round of refills, and picked up the previously filled dive tanks. Bowen refused to do more snorkeling despite having seen the turtle, but agreed to go ashore with mommy for ice cream. Arturo started feeling a bit ill, so we checked the weather forecast to plan the next day. The original plan was to dive the wreck of the Rhone, but with everyone feelling so ill and North swell conditions being in effect, we decided it would be better to do the Baths the next day and then come back to Peter Island to do the Rhone the day after.

Sunset was pretty as usual. It was muted because so many folks were sick that we didn't really cook very much as not enough people felt like eating. We retired early to try to rest up for another 6:00am start the next day.

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Monday, April 24, 2017

BVI 2017: Day 1 - Tortola to Kelly's Cove, Norman Island

Despite attempting to sleep in, I was too excited to stay asleep past 6:00am, a schedule I would maintain for the rest of the trip. It also didn't help that Boen, in the grips of the Nolo Virus, would complain all night and scream and shout, giving Arturo a hard time, since he had opted to sleep in the salon.

The night before, I observed that there was a Catamaran ahead of us, and that we wouldn't be let out until they were ready, but come 9:00am, our scuba gear was all delivered, and a second provisioning run had already been made. The boat  briefing came at 10:00am, and all was ready to go by 11:00! Conch charters upon being informed that we were ready, immediately motor'd the Catamaran ahead of us (who looked nowhere near ready), took us out of the slips, and gave us the thumbs up to go.

It was an exceptional experience.

Traveling on a sailboat in the BVIs is like nowhere else on Earth. There are few other places where you can sail out on any given day and see nothing but white sails on boats all over the horizon. The consistent winds and the beautiful scenery made it a crime to go anywhere on engine power, and we very quickly put up our own sails and turned off the engines. For our first night, I preferred Kelly's Cove on Norman Island. It's quiet, with moorings only for 4 boats, making it a challenge to capture a mooring.

It took 2 hours to sail there, and we discovered that nobody on board had binoculars, but  John had a monocular and some soon spotted a mooring buoy exactly where we wanted it, and we proceeded to execute a flawless mooring pick up and tie down. Unfortunately, after that we misplaced the monocular and couldn't find it for the rest of the trip. We eagerly dropped the dingy, put on sunscreen, and proceeded to dinghy out to the Caves for some snorkeling.

It was Bowen's first snorkeling trip since Florida, but he was clearly comfortable in the water, though I did hold his hands during this first trip. We explored the caves which unfortunately had too much surge for us to penetrate. Bowen got cold after just 20 minutes in the water, so I brought him back to the dinghy to wait for the others. When some of the other adults were done, I went back in for more snorkeling of my own. "Stop dragging him around next time," suggested Arturo. "That'll make him swim on his own and he'll not get cold so easily."
We returned for a classic sunset and barbeque for the evening. Unfortunately, Xiaoqin started throwing up, indicating that the virus Boen had was very contagious. We had tried to find hand sanitizer while provisioning but had come up empty, something that would haunt us throughout the trip. Nevertheless, the idea was to head for the Indians the next morning before making it over to Cooper Island.

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

BVI Trip Index

During Spring break, 2017, we revisited the British Virgin Islands on a 46' sailboat, the Kokomo III. It was the first time we'd done a sailing trip since Bowen learned how to swim, and a welcome return to the lovely scenery, consistent trade winds, and warm waters of the Caribbean.

Pictures

Day by Day Trip Index

Friday, April 21, 2017

BVI 2017: Prologue

Last year, after finally learning how to swim and snorkel, Bowen asked for a sailing trip back to the BVIs.  I was very proud of him, because that previous sailing trip included a trip to Disney World, but Bowen very much preferred the sailing. After much planning, we decided on Spring break this year. Joining us this time was Boen, Xiaoqin's mom, Arturo, Mark Brody, and John Gates.

We flew from San Francisco to San Juan, Puerto Rico, spent 2 nights there, and then onto Saint Thomas and then took the ferry to Road Town, Tortola, where we visited Conch charters for our first night sleep-aboard.


Ominously, Boen started throwing up at the docks, before we even took possession of the Kokomo III, a 9 year old 46 foot sailing Catamaran that was to be our home for the week. Arturo would later diagnose this as a case of the Norovirus, which would go on to infect every one of us except for Mark during the week.

After Arturo and Mark showed up, Conch charters finally gave us possession of the boat, and we moved in. Bowen immediately went for the V-berth in the forward port cabin, which he loved. He wouldn't even hear of Arturo stealing it from him.

Provisioning was a taxi trip over to town, where we bought a few days worth of supplies. We forgot that the shore power wasn't powerful enough to run all the ships systems, and could only run the salon AC. That got fixed in a hurry, but after that we were OK.

Boen was having a terrible time sleeping at night, but other than that, we looked forward to being able to sail the next day!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Long Term Review: Nikon AW130

In January, we took the AW130 on a trip to Florida that produced decent pictures, but didn't wow us. We've since had the camera on a major diving/snorkeling trip in the BVI, and have many more pictures to check against.

Overall the pictures are excellent, frequently producing images in good light that made me go "wow!" The fact that the camera is shock-proof and waterproof meant that we were willing to clip it onto the BCDs or even to the wrist band of my Vivoactive HR and take it snorkeling and diving in places where it might get knocked up a bit.
You have to set your expectations correctly with this camera. Give it poor or dim lighting, and it's going to provide muddy, brownish pictures that no amount of tweaking in lightroom will improve. To make things worse, it does not shoot RAW files, and so you're going to have a lot of trouble making even simple adjustments. Don't expect to do much more than the JPG that comes right out of the camera.
The videos are surprisingly good, with my video of a Stingray feeding providing great detail and relatively good sound, even when zoomed in.

Is there room for improvement for the Nikon AW130? Yes. The distortion could be corrected better. The camera could shoot RAW files. I'd be more comfortable diving with it if the depth rating was closer to 130 feet than 100 feet. But as it is, for a diving/snorkeling/cycle touring camera, it checks all the boxes. If you didn't plan to dive with it the Olympus TG-3 is probably better, but for now if you dive/snorkel/swim with the camera there's nothing else that comes close to the AW130 for the depth rating. For the price, the other cameras in this category cannot beat it either.

Recommended.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review: Fintie Origami Cover for Kindle Paperwhite

Along with the paperwhite, we bought a Fintie Origami Cover for it. The official Amazon origami cover is only available for the Voyage and Oasis, but fortunately the free market has provided it to those who merely own the paperwhite.

The cover is surprisingly heavy, at 118g, which is much heavier than say, the 93g advertised weight of the Omotion cover, which is a non-origami cover.

The cover does fold nicely and becomes a reading stand, which I like a lot. You can orient it both horizontally and vertically, but since the paperwhite does not appear to have an accelerometer that lets it automatically detect when you're holding it in landscape or portrait mode, I do not expect to use it in landscape mode often.

The magnetic clasp is strong, and automatically turns on the the kindle when you open it. This is a convenient feature if you have an ad-free Kindle, but on a Kindle with ads you still have to swipe to unlock, which is an additional step. Given that you have to touch the screen all the time anyway, this additional swipe isn't a particular burden, but if it annoys my wife a lot I'll ask Amazon to turn it off.

All in all, a solid product with interesting features that may or may not get used often. I'm pleased with it, but will probably try the Omotion cover for our next Kindle. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

First Impressions: Kindle Paperwhite

Amazon finally offered a too-good-to-pass-up deal for the Kindle Paperwhite in late March, just before our trip to the BVI. For prime members, they discounted the paperwhite by $30, and then threw in a $35 trade in bonus for our old Kindle 3rd generation. That brought the effective price down to about $70, so we jumped on it.

The other Kindles were also on discount, but the main reason for opting for the Paperwhite was the Waterfi Waterproofing process, which can only be applied to the Paperwhite. I'm a sincere believer that everything with a touch screen should be waterproof, if only so that you can wash it with detergent and clean up the oily fingerprints that inevitably accumulate on the screen. The Kindle arrived too late for us to send it into Waterfi in time for the trip, but immediately after the trip I sent the device in for waterproofing and will report on it for a future process.

The device is significantly heavier than the basic Kindle at 203g. (The basic kindle is 166) Against that is that the basic kindle requires a separate cover to provide a lighted reading experience, while the paperwhite has lighting built in. The lighting is much more even than my old Kindle basic lighted cover, but you can definitely see some light banding at the bottom of the screen, which does not impact the reading experience.

During the trip, we got to compare the 1st generation Paperwhite, my old Kindle basic, and a second generation Paperwhite with this 3rd generation device. Of course, compared to the old basic Kindle there's no contest. Surprisingly, there's a significant improvement from the 1st generation paperwhite, with the newer 300dpi display and brighter backlight making for a better experience.

What I dislike about the paperwhite is that the touch screen latency is pretty high: compared to the buttons on my old basic kindle it feels like it takes an extra 30ms before the touch screen gets picked up and then the device turns the page. The table of contents screen also feels very cluttered compared to the simple, text based screens of the older Kindles. I'm not sure that the new entry screen is worth the change.

Other than that, I flipped between the old basic Kindle and the new Paperwhite during the trip. At one point my wife grabbed the Paperwhite to read The Three Body Problem and I went all the way back to the basic Kindle. While it was a downgrade, it wasn't so much of a downgrade that I wouldn't trade in the older device except that the buttons on it are getting to be rather sticky and occasionally turns two pages instead of one, which is very annoying.

Because of the button wearing out issue, I paid the paperwhite the best compliment possible: I opened up a chat window with Amazon and negotiated the purchase of yet another Paperwhite to replace my old basic Kindle at a higher price than we paid for this first one. Between the potential for waterproofing and the improved screen, I found myself willing to give up my beloved page turn buttons.

Recommended.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Review: Grit - The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Grit is about what it takes to succeed in what is considered a grueling situation. Angela Duckworth claims that Grit, for instance, determines who's more likely to survive a West Point college career than your SATs, measures of scholastic achievements, or even physical fitness scores. She measures Grit through subjective surveys, including measures like: "how likely are you to have a never give up attitude?"

There are a few problems with her claims, chiefest of which is that correlation is not causation. In particular, unless the studies and effects are large, her sample sizes would have to be huge to account for "grit" being a major factor. A cursory search of the literature indicates that, for instance in her study of which cadets make it through the Beast Barracks:
what happened is that 95 percent of all cadets make it through Beast Barracks, while 98 percent of the very "grittiest" candidates made it through.
That's just 3%. Further down the NPR article we discover that the correlation of success with Grit is 0.18, while the correlation between SAT scores and performance in college is 0.5! In other words, given the choice between being gritty and being smart, you should definitely choose to be smart!

It would be one thing if Duckworth acknowledge all these flaws in her book, but chapter after chapter of the book is about how important Grit is, while sweeping aside any issues. She even discusses how to train grit into children.

To her credit, she does acknowledge that you can't just have someone tell you "get good at piano and improve your grittiness." One of her points is that no one can impose your goals on you --- you should be the one choosing your instrument, or the task or skill you would like to improve. Any other approach (including the typical tiger mom approach) is likely to fail.

And ultimately, grittiness can backfire. In John T. Reed's book, Succeeding, he discusses his teenage goal of getting into West Point and graduating from it. He succeeds in doing so, only to discover that military life wasn't actually very good for an intelligent, driven person, and that his personality was far less suited for it than he had imagined. In that book, Reed points out that picking your environment to suit your personality and strengths is actually far more important than the other attributes that others allude to.

In short, I don't think Grit's a  worth while book, especially given its flaws and the author's unwillingness to point out the flaws in her research. Not recommended.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Review: The Three-Body Problem

I actually tried to read Cixin Liu's The Wandering Earth and thought it was garbage, so I wasn't going to bother with The Three-Body Problem. But Cynthia told me she thought it was good, so I thought that maybe my issues with the previous book was the translator. I decided to give it a try and check it out of the library.

Here's my problem with The Wandering Earth: it's science fiction as it was written in the 1940s. This might be great if you have zero scientific background, or no understanding of first year Physics or Chemistry, but for modern, scientifically literate audiences it's a major distraction and a major turn-off. Unfortunately, The Three-Body Problem also suffers from the same problems as The Wandering Earth.

The story is purportedly about the mysterious deaths of various high level Physicists. As the plot unravels, we get the real story. I won't spoil the true story, but suffice to say, the N-body problem plays a major part in it. Unfortunately, the science is implausible, and even the depiction of a VR game as depicted in the novel is a shambles. The characters are wooden, emotionally dead, and not developed. So let's see: the plot is dumb, the science is silly and unrealistic, and the characters suck. Wow, that's 3 for 3. I have to ask, "Cynthia, what were you on when you read this and liked it?"

This novel is as complete a waste a time as you can get. I'd like those hours of my life back, and I will not waste my time reading any more books by Cixin Liu. My guess is that the luminaries that have given this novel all the attention it doesn't deserve don't actually read enough good science fiction to know it if one good novel hit them in the head.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Review: Concussion

Concussion is the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu's first dissection of football players' brains and his naming of the disease of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This seems obvious to us nowadays, but once upon a time, nobody thought of concussions as being a big deal.

What's clear from the story is that Omalu himself did seek out the fame of being the first to discover such a significant disease. (He specifically found his mentor, Cyril Wecht, because he also wanted to be a star coroner)

Since the NFL is a multi-billion dollar business, it wasn't going to let any old medical doctor attack their business. The rest of the story is that of the NFL's attempt to discredit Dr. Omalu and his collaborators, and the eventual vindication of Omalu.

The writing is clear and compelling, and the reading is easy. I enjoyed the story, though I feel no desire to watch the movie. Excellent airplane reading.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: The New Confessions of an Economic Hitman

The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, rather than a sequel, is a revision of an earlier, existing work, so if you've read the previous version of this book I doubt if you'll get very much out of this one.

If you're a fan of Dani Rodrik, you're probably well aware of the so-called Washington Consensus and its failure to lift most 3rd world countries out of poverty. In effect, the Washington Consensus invites 3rd world countries to borrow heavily in order to build infrastructure, set up "market reforms", and run a so-called capitalistic economy. John Perkins claims that most of his career was to be one of the optimistic economic forecasters who paints an excessively optimistic view of the growth of such economies in order to persuade leadership to borrow heavily.

Economic forecasters have a poor track record: it's fair to say that they basically get paid to say whatever it might be profitable to say. I'll never forget walking out of a corporate meeting where some over-optimistic PM would bring out power-point charts to convince the head honchos that China would be a meaningful revenue market for a US-based internet company. As a naive engineer I thought the numbers were fishy at best and mendacious at worst, but I figured since senior management bought into it I might be wrong. Now, would I have called that PM an Economic Hit Man? He did benefit his own career (and his promotion opportunities, as well as additional stock) by effectively lying through his teeth, but I'm not sure there was a conspiracy in China to induce Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Uber to dump huge amounts of capital into China. Greed and hubris need not get support from the Chinese government.

As a result, reading this book feels like reading the auto-biography of a self-important economic forecaster taking credit for producing results, and confessing that yes, he was unqualified to make those ridiculous forecasts, and that yes, he was recruited into doing so by some nefarious groups of government agencies and private contractors. The problem with all these claims is that he doesn't provide any evidence, and the Washington Consensus approach certainly didn't need the help of a vast conspiracy to keep pushing its agenda: greed and blind allegiance to capitalism would be sufficient to keep the momentum.

In any case, the book's entertaining, but I didn't learn very much from it (though I did learn more about various South American countries' political leadership). It's quite clear that attempts to lift most third world countries out of poverty via the Washington consensus have failed, while the Asian model has been more successful. But for better analysis you should probably look elsewhere than John Perkin's book.