Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review: Memoirs of a Theoretical Physicist

I met Joe Polchinski on a bike ride some time back in 2010. We rode together several times but then he dropped off the radar at one point. Then I recently learned that he had brain cancer and had to be operated and was in recovery when he wrote his autobiography.

As you might expect, the book is heavy on physics, and with my under-educated background, there was no way I could keep up with even the non-mathematical wordy descriptions of what he was doing in string theory. But the overall arc of his life is clearly described in non-technical terms, and was interesting to me in terms of how unconventional his approach was (for a while he was famous as the guy who didn't write papers).

The best thing about books written by technical people is that they're very honest. Polchinski doesn't shy away from his struggle with his mood disorders or health, and addresses everything head-on. I think that in itself made the effort to read the book worthwhile. There's also a humility in the book that goes deeper than what you typically find in business-oriented books like Raising the Bar.

It's a difficult book to read (especially for this non-physicist), but it was worth my time. I recommend this book, but be prepared going in that the physics is not going to be easy, and you might have to skim those sections.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Review: Brush On Block SPF 30 Mineral Powder Sunscreen

I was at Costco and they had a 2-pack of Brush On Block SPF 30 Sunscreen on sale. I was really skeptical, but on examining the ingredients decided that it's actually pretty much the only sunscreen that Costco had that doesn't have potentially hazardous chemicals. Plus, it's non greasy, which is great as I have not found a non-greasy sunscreen ever since Lifeguard Sunscreen went out of business.

The package comes in a tube, with a cap for the brush (and a brush saver so you don't mangle the brush when it comes time to stow it away), and a bottle for the dispenser. You dispense it by turning the bottle to "unlock" (past that and the bottle will unscrew so you can buy a refill, which is substantially cheaper than buying the package over), giving the package a quick flick, and then uncapping the brush and applying.

The big disadvantage of the sunscreen as far as I can tell is that it's effectively invisible: I cannot really tell where it's been applied. I probably over-apply the sunscreen as a result, but so far, I've never been burnt and neither have my kids (and we've used it enough to buy a refill!). The packaging is a bit awkward: it's a long tube rather than a short bottle, but it goes into a jersey pocket well enough, and I like that the refills are tiny so I could potentially start a tour with multiple refills. Each refill lasts about a couple of weeks of near daily use.

All in all, this is excellent stuff, and while it feels insanely expensive, the lack of grease makes it about on par with Lifeguard, which also cost about $15 per bottle.


Friday, October 13, 2017

Review: The Body Builders

The Body Builders is an optimistic book about the possibility of improving the human body and brain through engineering. It explores the current state of the art, which to be honest still seems pretty crude by science fiction standards: improved prosthetics from MIT, magic pixie dust limb regeneration, Artificial Synesthesia, and brain-computer interfaces.

Of the lot, improved prosthetics and regeneration seem most magical, potentially providing improved performance for otherwise impaired athletes, and obviously regeneration has wide application across a wide range of medical problems. Brain-computer interfaces seemed the least cooked: at this point doctors are still stuck drilling holes in skulls and planting electrodes: one researcher actually did this to himself only to have to reverse the procedure months later due to infection. Not for the faint of heart.

The obvious avenue of genetic engineer are largely unexplored: it seems like that would be the ultimate hack for the human body, but the human DNA and the accompanying epigenetics still seem much too complex to tackle with what we know today.

Nevertheless, it's a fun book to read and worth the time. Recommended.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review: The Secret Race

I remember once being on a bike ride with a colleague and discussing the doping scandals in professional bicycle racing. "It's a good thing that doping for intellectual performance isn't effective, or we'd all be pressured into doping for work." "How do you know that it isn't being done?" came the response, "Look around you, and look for those people who're not quite normal --- hyper-focused or strange." And of course, I had no ready answer, though I now know that the reason why intellect-based doping isn't an issue is that there are far more important methods of getting ahead at a corporation than any amount of chemical can fix. (Indeed, I recently read a book where a well known Physicist mentioned that Paul Erdos, for instance, wrote all of his 1500 papers under the influence of stimulants, including amphetamines!)

The Secret Race is Tyler Hamilton's tell-all confession about the culture of doping in professional bicycle racing and how he ended up being discovered as a doper. Along the way, it corrected many incorrect ideas I had about doping. For instance, I thought that it would basically give everyone the same boost. It turned out that during the years when there was no test for EPO, the UCI rules basically stated that your hematocrit level couldn't exceed 50%. This meant that those with a naturally high hematocrit level wouldn't benefit from EPO!
Hamilton’s 1997 decision to start using EPO may have been based on an inaccurate assumption about his teammate, Marty Jemison. “That spring, Tyler and I were in the same boat, hanging on by our fingernails,” Jemison says. “I raced clean through the spring. Then in June, just before the Dauphiné, Pedro [Celaya] came to me and said if I was going to make the Tour team, I needed to be healthy. He taught me, he provided everything. So yeah, I did what the others did, starting in June and then in the Tour. But my Liège result was an honest result. I just had a good day.” Jemison, who won the U.S. national championship in 1999, rode just two Tours for Postal, a fact that might be attributed to the way the EPO era changed how teams assessed riders’ potential. “I had a natural hematocrit of 48, so EPO didn’t add that much horsepower to me,” he says. “The longer I was [at Postal], the more I saw that I was no longer being groomed for the A team. Clearly, they were looking for riders who could deliver a whole new level of results.” Jemison left the team after the 2000 season. (Page 62)
 This is a book where you really want to read the footnotes, as they contain the most juicy parts. For instance, it turned out that the doctor that Hamilton was using (Fuentes) had an assistant suffering from dementia, and that assistant had probably mixed up the blood doping blood bags:
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: The thing to realize about Fuentes and all these guys is that they’re doping doctors for a reason. They’re the ones who didn’t make it on the conventional path, so they’re not the most organized people. So when they leave a bag of blood out in the sun because they’re having another glass of wine at the café, it’s predictable. The deadly mistake that Tyler, Floyd, Roberto [Heras], and the rest of them made when they left Postal was to assume that they’d find other doctors who were as professional. But when they got out there, they found—whoops!—there weren’t any others. (Pg. 232)
It was also amazing how easily the system was gamed and the athletes knew how long they had before they could pass a dope test, so they knew exactly when to take the drugs and when to back off.

Hamilton asserts towards the end of the book that the authorities have finally cracked down on doping in cycling, and that the speeds in the 2011 Tour have dropped to reflect that. Ultimately, however, the temptation will always be too high, and all it takes is one person to start and everyone has to join the arms race again. Considering that the next step in doping is genetic engineering of human bodies for high performance, I also have to wonder when chemical doping is just not going to be an issue any more.

In any case, the book's a fun and entertaining read and well-written to boot. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: Your Name

I rarely review movies, but Your Name is an exception. It was Japan's highest grossing movie in 2016 and was apparently a hit in China as well. Traditionally animated, beautifully scored, and with a script that defies genre classification, it's worth your while to seek out.

I missed the movie while it was playing in the theaters, and now I don't think that's a bad thing, since I managed to get a DVD with both English and Chinese subtitles with the original Japanese voice acting rather than a dub.

The plot begins simply enough as a body-swap between two teenagers separated by a huge distance: one lives in Tokyo while the other lives in the country-side. The plot picks up dramatically when the swapping stops, and suddenly little details that originally seemed meaningless become important. There's a science fictional element in the plot (beyond the body-swapping), but the story focuses mostly on the characters and never bothers to explain the mechanism, which is a good thing, as no explanation would have been satisfying.

Ultimately, we learn to care about the characters and their tenuous connection with each other. Along the way we get some exposure to Japanese culture in a good way. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review: English Grammar Boot Camp

It took me several tries to finish English Grammar Boot Camp. This isn't because Professor Curzan's a boring lecturer, or because the topic itself is boring. On the contrary, her lectures are fun and easy to listen to, and what's more, rather than telling you "do this, don't do that," she frequently digresses into the history of a particular part of speech or grammar rule, and how it's evolved over time, giving you context as well as interesting stories with which to hang her points and ideas on.

Part of the problem with the lecture series is that it's mis-named. It's really not much of a boot camp. For instance, she immediately jumps into using grammatical lingo (such as noun phrase, etc) without defining them. As a result, I'd listen through a lecture and then be confused and unable to actually understand part of it without having to stop and resort to a google search on various grammatical constructions. This is a problem for an audio course, because the tendency is to listen to those while you're in the car or somewhere where a google search is not easily achieved.

I finally made progress when I stopped trying to learn from the audio course, but instead, treated it as entertainment, like a talk show. At that point, I could make progress and it was fun. But if I'd bought it expecting to learn English grammar from the basics I would have been disappointed. It's recommended, but as entertainment, not education.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Review: The Jungle Book

I started reading The Jungle Book to Bowen, interspersed with viewing the recent movie, which once he had read the book, made him realize that books and movies are usually very different (which was great). But when we got to the end of Mowgli's story, I realized that there was still 2/3rds of the book left, and so we just kept going story after story until we finally got to the end.

The language of the book shows its age: Kipling still used "thee, thy, and thou", but fortunately those were easy enough for Bowen that he never even stopped the reading to ask questions. The Riki Tiki the mongoose story was a lot of fun for him, though I'm afraid the last story just went over his head.

I'd never read The Jungle Book before, and found my first reading of it to be worth the time. It shows its age, but it's not bad. Recommended.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Review: Kingsman The Secret Service

I saw an ad for the Kingsman movie, and since it was based on a comic book, I went for the comic book at the library to see if it was actually any good. Written by Mark Millar and drawn by Dave Gibbons, the art is impeccable and stylish. Online reviews had led me to believe that the series was written tongue-in-check, with over-the-top send-ups of the superspy genre, but if anything the book seemed to take everything quite seriously.

There's a bit of sex, blood, and gore, so this isn't a book to leave lying around for your kids to read. I can see how it could potentially be more interesting than the typical superspy movie, but based on the first book I'm not sure I'd bother checking out the rest from the library. Even the movie's better, being quite a bit more coherent.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Review: The Genius Dialogs

The Genius Dialogues is a series of interviews by Bob Garfield of various MacArthur Fellows, the winners of the so-called genius prize. I picked up the series for free. Surprisingly, I'd only heard of the work of two of the interviewees: Luis von Ahn (who built ReCaptcha) and James Randi, the magician and skeptic. The others were new to me and I was pleased to be introduced to their work.

I'm of two minds about the series. First, most of the interviews are interesting and introduce you to something that you might not have known about. That's a huge plus. But the format is horrible and the interviewer, Bob Garfield seems a bit full of himself. Seriously? You're going to ask a MacArthur Award winner "How much of your $625,000 prize money did you squander on cheap hootch and fast cars?" None of the winners spent any money on alcohol or cars (even if someone did it was unlikely they'd admit it in an interview). It was a total waste of a question (not to mention on-air time) and should have been edited out.

Recommended, but please, Amazon, pick a better interviewer next time!

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Reread: The Player of Games

I started reading The Player of Games to Bowen at some point during our bike trip, because I thought he might find it interesting, since he loves board games. Midway through the book, he abandoned it because he got distracted by The Jungle Book instead. But I was already on a roll, so I just plowed on and kept going.

On a re-read, this is clearly one of the lesser Culture Novels that Iain M. Banks wrote. The setup is fairly simple and straight-forward, and who the drone narrator was is set up as a mystery but in retrospect seemed really obvious. The obvious implications of a machine intelligence based civilization are glossed over, though unlike say, Accelerando, it posits a much more positive view of post-scarcity civilization than most contemporary science fiction authors. It assumes that the organic civilization (which in later novels are explained to not be humans) has successfully transited to machine intelligence in such a way that the Minds running everything still consider human autonomy to be desirable and worth utilizing, if only to provide a sense of purpose to said organic beings.

It's a gateway to more challenging Iain M. Banks' novels because of it's simple nature, but it's not one of his more interesting works. Nevertheless, it's worth reading. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Review: The Health of Nations

The Health of Nations is a book about the history (and present) of disease eradication programs. I’d heard of the eradication of smallpox, of course, and remember when Google hired Larry Brilliant to help it’s non-profit arm. (As far as I can tell, nothing happened from that effort worth noting) My impression was that after smallpox, efforts on disease eradication basically stopped or were stymied either from lack of will, lack of funding, or the difficulty of working in the tropics. 

To my surprise, this book disabused me of that! It acknowledges that polio eradication had stalled but recently, donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have stepped up and revived and refunded effort into tropical diseases like Malaria and Polio. The current hope is that in 2016, we’ll have seen the last case of polio anywhere in the world, and by 2019, the WHO would have identified the last child in the world to have caught the disease. Wow. 

The history of disease eradication has been intense and to a large extent controversial. Apparently, because the efforts usually originated from wealthy countries, particularly the US, these efforts have also been driven by the ideological needs of the countries. That meant that the approaches were largely technological, and worked very hard to avoid trying to improve the health infrastructures of the countries involved. The author points out that this is a mistake, since many situations (such as the Ebola outbreak of 2014) can derail your eradication efforts if the existing health infrastructure isn’t improved. 

Yes, there’s plenty of description of gory and scary tropical diseases, including Ebola. There’s also some hand-wringing about the successor to polio eradication, assuming it succeeds (there’s a statement in the book from a health worker that polio eradication will never happen because too many health workers are making way above the prevailing wages of their native countries because of the funding behind it). Much of the hard work of disease eradication, for instance, is focused around reaching difficult to reach children in order to vaccinate them against the disease, and without sustaining funding, it’s quite possible to imagine that the expertise and networks of health workers that have been built up will disappear. 

The book also covers the history of vaccination and the anti-vaccine movement (which are as old as the history of vaccination, not surprisingly). The author is surprisingly sympathetic to the anti-vaccine movement, pointing out that in the past, shared needles and people-to-people transmission of the attenuated vaccine caused serious problems. The fact that one of the two polio vaccines in common use utilized the live virus also increased the danger of the vaccine causing the disease. Nevertheless, she points out that the disneyland measles outbreak wasn’t caused by a vaccine, but by having large pockets of unvaccinated children in a fairly crowded environment. 

This book covers a huge amount of ground, and provides great insight into the various issues around vaccination, disease eradication, as well as, “Why do we not have a cure for these nasty tropical diseases yet?!” Highly recommended. It was well worth my time.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Review: My Favorite Universe

My Favorite Universe is Neil deGrasee Tyson's collection of essays (turned into lectures by The Teaching Company) that were originally columns from a magazine. It's available as a video download or audio only, and I picked up the audio only version during a sale.

Apparently, the video includes a lot of pictures that would be missing when you only audit the lectures, which is a pity. On the other hand, if you've watched Cosmos, you probably have seen similar imagery.

The huge difference between Cosmos and this lecture series is that Cosmos is much better written.  Tyson has a lecture style that frequently pauses (occasionally I would check to see if my phone had stopped playing audio, only to discover that he was simply pausing), and he likes to repeat words for emphasis. None of those verbal tics showed up in Cosmos, which meant that better editing and scripting made the other title much better viewing and listening.

Overall, the show covers many astrophysics topics but is subject to a bit too much hyperbole from Tyson. I didn't think it was a complete waste of time, but I think it could have been much better written and edited, and make its key points in much less time and with less repetition. Go watch Cosmos instead.