Monday, March 27, 2017

Review: Babylon's Ashes

Babylon's Ashes is the 6th "Expanse" novel. The previous novel, Nemesis Games, ended in a bad place, with the plot hanging in the middle of a cliff-hanger. This novel does not suffer from that problem. In fact, what's interesting about the book is that this would be a natural stopping point to stop reading the series.

The threads from all the previous plots are resolved, though not necessarily in a very satisfactory fashion. For instance, the motivation for the Earth attack in the previous book wasn't very sound in the first place, and that the people who would be motivated into supporting such an action would even raise an eyebrows in the relatively milder event of this novel seems unlikely. As such one of the major events in the novel, the betrayal of Marco Inaros' fleet captains, just felt out of character to me and never felt real.

Similarly, the ending of the book, with a pulling out of the hat of an interesting feature of the gate from the Solar system felt very much like a deus ex machina.

From the authors' perspectives, they probably felt like they fulfilled their initial promise to deliver the story of mankind's migration from the solar system. It's just not as convincing as I hoped it would be. I expect not to continue reading any Expanse novels beyond this point.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Review: Now - The Physics of Time

I'd previously audited Mysteries of Modern Physics - Time and found it interesting. Then I watched Arrival and it sparked a discussion about time with my wife. Then I saw Richard Muller's Tachyon Murder quora answer and that got me to check out Now - The Physics of Time.

I sort of expected it to cover the same material as Sean Carroll's lecture series, but this book has several advantages over Sean Carroll's lecture series, not least of which is that it's fairly recent (2015) and has more up to date information. Muller also has a completely different perspective than Carroll, and approaches things very differently from Carroll.

For instance, Carroll's lecture series spends a lot of time covering entropy, and basically comes to the conclusion that the arrow of time occurs because of entropy. Muller disagrees with this theory or approach. His primary objection is that this explanation doesn't provide any falsifiable ways of proving the theory. And of course, local entropy on Earth (powered by the sun as an energy source) doesn't always increase.

Muller makes 2 key points: the first is that the physics approach to describing the universe is necessarily incomplete, not just because we have incomplete knowledge, but also because of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. In a world where we can't even predict when the decay of an atom could occur, determinism seems out of the question and the existence of free will is a strong possibility. The implication is that this means that there's no perspective in which all moments of time are equal: the now is a special time because if you have free will you can then change what will happen in the future.

The second point is that space is constantly being created by the expansion of the universe. His conjecture is that time is also continuously being created by that very expansion. He provides several approaches to falsifying this theory, though sadly he doesn't state whether there are experiments that aim to falsify it in the future.

The book's journey is quite fun, and an interesting read. There are a few places where Muller gets repetitive (especially in the philosophical section where he discusses determinism vs free will), but overall, I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of the experiments that were used to confirm both relativity and quantum mechanics. These are particularly good ways to illustrate how science works and made for great reading.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: Medical School for Everyone: Grand Rounds Cases

I really enjoyed all the "Medical School for Everyone" series from the Great Courses, so I was happy to add Grand Rounds Cases to my collection. The same doctor is the primary lecturer for all these audio courses, so there's no concern for the listener that he may be paying for the same material multiple times: as far as I can tell, there is no overlap between all the audio books in the series. Each book/course covers a completely different set of cases.

When I read Algorithms to Live By, one of the interesting stories from the book was how simple mathematical algorithms (no machine learning magic needed!) did a better job of diagnosing patients than even the very experienced doctors who helped to come up with the diagnostic criteria. This set of audio courses is a good antidote to that sort of thinking: in particular, many of the cases covered challenge the doctor not because the diagnosis between differentials (the medical term for diseases/conditions that can match a particular set of symptoms) is difficult or ambiguous, but the extraction of the medical history from the patient required finesse, delicacy, and social skills. For instance, one patient was reluctant to admit to her history with alcohol, misdirecting the medical staff. The need to gain a patient's trust is what convinces me that even if AI was successful in distilling all medical knowledge, to properly substitute for a doctor would require the development of empathy and understanding. That seems to me a much harder job than merely providing an accurate diagnosis when given symptoms.

All of the cases are interesting. Not all of the patients survive, but all are worthy of the half hour or so the lecturer provides. You may or may not want to be a doctor, but by listening to these lectures and the descriptions of the doctor/patient interaction, you'll almost certainly be better equipped to talk to your doctor or be a better advocate for a loved one.

I am reminded of the day when we discussed a possible surgery for my father after he had a fall which turned out to cause bleeding in the brain. The neurosurgeon we discussed the case with looked at the CT scan and told us that the problem could resolve itself, or it could quickly need surgery. We opted to wait but my father deteriorated and we brought him into the hospital via the ED. Afterwards, the neurosurgeon told us he didn't realize that the CT scan was for a recent fall, and that he had given us advice on the basis that this was an old scan! Having listened to this lecture I now know that we should have been on the lookout for this sort of assumptions by a doctor, and summarized the medical history immediately on first contact with the doctor so he wouldn't be prejudiced by his assumptions. In this particular case the situation was rescued only because his primary care doctor looked at him that very afternoon and told us to rush him to the ED right away!

In any case, I think this course/audio book could very well save your life or the life of your loved one. It's well worth your time to listen to it, and if you can, get your spouse/significant other to audit it as well for the day when he/she might have to advocate on your behalf!

Highly recommended.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: Hanes Men's Ultimate X-Temp Lightweight Performance Boxer Brief

For the longest time, my go-to brand for travel underwear was Ex-Officio. The fabric is very breathable, dries quickly, and lightweight. You could bring 2 pairs on a bike tour and they would dry quickly enough that you never had any days where you would have to put on wet underwear. They weren't very durable, however: 30 days of wear and the elastic would stop being so tight, and eventually they'd look like they'd been worn by someone with twice my waist! Keep in mind that hand-washing the underwear on bike tours meant that I never put them in the laundry or dried them in a dryer, so I really babied these things!

I found a deal where I could get the Hanes Ultimate X-Temp briefs at a good price. To my surprised, they weighed even less than the Ex-Officio (by 30g each, they were 70g while the Ex-Officios were 100g!). They weren't as breathable as the Ex-Officios, but dried as quickly, and as a benefit, provided good support --- you could ride a bike wearing them and they wouldn't chafe. But the bees knees are that they're much cheaper than the Ex-Officios (1/3rd the price) and more durable! I'd been wearing them on a regular basis and sticking them into the laundry and dryer like any other pair of underwear and despite having put in 2 years into them they still show no signs of wear!

I paid the Hanes the best compliment I can give to any product recently: when my regular Costco-branded cotton underwear started wearing out, I bought new Hanes without waiting for a discount (to be fair, the discounts were rare!). Highly recommended. Don't bother with the Ex-Officios, heck, don't bother with the cheap Costcos either!

Friday, March 10, 2017

You know you're a nerd parent when....

  • All the other kids start counting from one, and your kid's counting from zero, because that's how programming languages usually start indexing their arrays from.
  • Your son asks mommy, "Mommy, I don't know how to tie knots. You better sign me up for a knot tying class."
  • He says, "That kid can only count with his fingers. This other kid can count using his brain."
  • He said to me after I demonstrated a piano piece to him: "How come you didn't practice and you can do this piece?"
  • One day, he was struggling with Rush Hour. I made him go swimming to take his mind off his frustration. The next day he solved the puzzle. He said, "After swimming, while sleeping, I worked on the problem while dreaming."
  • Instead of saying, "I need to memorize the song," your son says, "I need to download it to my brain."

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Review: Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality

I enjoyed the previous Great Courses work by Robert Sapolsky that I audited, so I picked up Biology and Human Behavior. I feel like the subject had great promise, but Professor Sapolsky under-delivered.

For instance, early on in the lecture series, Sapolsky stated that the Blue Whale Axon has a neuron that's so long as to be about 30m long! Wow, what a cool fact. To me, that immediately brought out all sorts of questions:

  • Why does it have to be a single cell?
  • What were the evolutionary pressures that drove this? Does anything ever go wrong? Why isn't this considered "a single point of failure?"
But Sapolsky never brings it up again, and in fact, there's relatively little to indicate that this has any relevance to human behavior.

Another interesting factoid that came up later on: While studying a tribe of baboons in Africa, members of the tribe started raiding the local tourist safari in search of human discarded food. The members that did so were the least socially connected members of the troop and also the most violent. Then those members caught tuberculosis and died, which effectively meant that the rest of the tribe was now composed of much fewer males, all of which were socially well adjusted. The culture of the tribe completely changed, and new male members added to the tribe (this form of tribal member exchange is apparently the norm) would get acculturated to the new culture, which was matriarchal. The mechanism of assimilation wasn't through imitation and teaching, but through the females of the tribe bestowing favors only to well-behaved males. Sapolsky asserts that if a single such generation shift can lead to lasting cultural change, there's no excuse for genetic determinism when it comes to humans. I then waited for a follow-on example of such single-generational cultural change in humans... and it never came!

I feel like the entire course consists of lots of little places like this, with many missed opportunities to pursue interesting venues of thought but very little follow up. The material itself is interesting, but somehow I felt like I'd heard it all before in my various readings over the years. The examination of human behavior was also limited: Sapolsky focused almost entirely on violence. Near the end of the series he claims that this selection was because while most other problematic  behaviors were unmitigated problems (e.g., schizophrenia), violence could have potentially positive impact on genetic survival and reproductive fitness, and so was a fit subject of study. I immediately thought to myself, "So's bipolar disorder, and to me that would be a much more interesting subject of study!"

This is the first Great Courses series that I'm disappointed by. It was still worth a listen, but perhaps some of the other audio books would be more interesting to you.