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Monday, December 30, 2019

Review: Netflix's The Witcher

I came to the Netflix series having read a number of the books and played The Witcher 3 all the way to the end.  The series essentially adapts a number of stories from The Last Wish, and one of the best things about that first book was that it retold a number of familiar western fairy tales with a twist, such as Snow White, or Beauty and the Beast. Sure, there's an over-arching plot, but that wasn't at the forefront of that first series of short stories. (To be honest, the video game does a much better job than the books of giving you a plot that's coherent) I was suprised that the Snow White story didn't get played up as much as it was in the original.

The series deviates from the book in giving Yennefer an origin story that's not bad, but also doesn't provide any of the little twists that would have been in character from the books (or the video game, whose writers did an amazing job of providing plots that were entirely inline with the books).  The sword play and choreography is well done, though not so good whenever CGI monsters are in play. The CGI is not of a high quality and will age the worst.

Episodes 4 and 6 are the best of the series in providing the sort of twists that the stories in the book are known for, while episode 3 is the classic opening sequence that everyone knows from the first video game, and is well done enough that if this was your exposure to the story it's worth watching. The episodes are only loosely connected (yes, there are 3 timelines being told simultaneously, and the plot doesn't mark what order the timelines are in).

In any case, the TV series is a successful adaptation, and sets up for a second season well. I'd recommend viewing it.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Review: Noric Flash Waterproof Camera Float

The biggest problem with a waterproof camera is that you want it to float when you're snorkeling and you want it to be neutrally buoyant when diving. The Nikon W300 as I learned to my misfortune a couple of years ago sinks. With that in mind, I bought the Nordic Flash Waterproof Camera Float. The package comes with 2 floats and two quick release buckles which you then attach to the camera's anchor/neck-strap points. Even though rated for 200g, it floats well enough when attached to the Nikon W300. The float is wide enough for an adult to slide all the way up past the elbows, and the quick release is handy to drop the float if you need to dive. (That's a good way to lose the float if you're doing so in open water, however!) Together with the float, the camera is bulky enough that it tends to fall out of the pocket of my swimming shorts, but fortunately I was always able to find it again in the swimming pool. I have reasonable confidence that if I ever drop the camera again while paddle-boarding I'll be able to find it again in short order, rather than watching it disappear into the depths.

Recommended.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Review: Lifespan - Why We Age

David Sinclair comes with impeccable credentials: Harvard Medical School, and editor of the journal on Aging. His book, Lifespan, is a book mostly about the research that has achieved miracles in animal trials, but have yet to make it into clinical trials for people. Basically, in the lab, achievements have been made such as regrowing the optic nerves of mice, and reversing aging in mice. Unfortunately, as you read the book you realized a lot of this stuff is stuff you heard about ages ago, such as resveratrol, which turned out to have negligible benefits for human health or lifespan. Sinclair doesn't dwell on that and moves on to brag about other achievements in the lab.

OK, what can you do to live longer? Sinclair details his diet regiment, which includes NMN, resveratrol, asprin, and metformin (yes, that drug used to treat diabetes is claimed to extend life in people without diabetes). He also follows  Ray Kurzweil's regiment of getting blood draw every few months to check for biomarkers of aging. The book recommends intermittent fasting (Sinclair says he skips lunch most days), exercise (but not very much exercise --- he mentions just trying to keep his step count high and lifting weights on weekends and doing the sauna and ice baths), and as a result, despite being 50 he says he has not a single gray hair.

Part of the book is a huge diatribe about how aging should be treated as a disease and therefore deserves more funding than it toes.

All in all, the book provides health advice that you already know (eat less, fast occasionally, avoid meat and animal proteins), and doesn't seem to have high standards on actual evidence on human subjects of the drugs and supplements he recommends. As he says, there's no shortage of volunteers for his regiment, and the effects of reversing aging should be pretty obvious, so I'm now curious as to why if the animal experiments are so compelling, there isn't a rush of research into this area. Society is definitely full of billionaires who would like to live longer!

Friday, December 20, 2019

Review: Green Lantern - No Fear

I'm old enough to remember that Hal Jordan was the definitive silver-age Green Lantern. Of course, then there were Guy Gardner and others introduced, just before I stopped reading the comics. Apparently, Hal Jordan got brought back just before getting a reboot in this series, so I checked it out of my Kindle Unlimited selection and discovered that the book was no good. Maybe it's because I've been binging on Alan Moore, but the book uses many pages to tell relatively simple stories, while the characters don't ever go through epiphanies or significant changes. I'll pass on continuing to read further adventures.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Review: Hellboy Seeds of Destruction

The entire Hellboy collection is free on Comixology, so while I had a free trial (that I have every intention of cancelling), I decided to try it, remembering the movie with fondness. The art is crude and lacking in detail, but the characters are full of evocative references though unfortunately, with relatively little development. The lead character protagonist, is big on hitting things and not very big on philosophy, thinking, or talking, so don't expect a lot of cerebral action.

While the book has rave reviews (and obviously the movie was pretty good), it wasn't enough to keep me reading past a couple of the collected volumes. Maybe there's some good revelation or character development later on that justify the rave reviews, but not from the first two volumes of this work.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Review: Alan Moore's Top Ten

I was reflecting on how none of the comic books I'd read recently came up to anywhere near Alan Moore's old work, and decided to checkout Top Ten from the Kindle Unlimited library. Top Ten imagines a world in which everyone's a superhero, and follows the travails of an imaginary police station set in such a multi-verse.

Moore as usual does a great job of throwing all the tropes into play with a density of story that does in one 22 page comic book what lesser authors would spend entire graphic novels detailing. Unfortunately, as an ensemble cast, none of the characters really do a good job of becoming a character that you're emotionally involved in. Furthermore, Moore doesn't quite take the story to the extremes that he does in say, Miracleman, which is still a better work.

Nevertheless, many of the story arcs are great, though unfortunately it feels like the series was ended before its potential could really be fulfilled.

Recommended.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Review: Amazing Spiderman - Coming Home and Revelations

While I had a Comixology trial, I decided I might as well read the Straczynski Spiderman run. Coming Home is the first volume, and Revelations is the second. Not suprisingly, Straczynski's a better Spiderman writer than he is as a creator of his own worlds. With its set of rules pre-defined, Strazynski's take on Spiderman is reasonable. Even better, his improvement to the mythos was to strip away Aunt May's ignorance of who Peter Parker was, and the handling of that revelation was done delicately, without ham-handedness or easily. I was impressed in ways I wasn't for Rising Stars. Recommended.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Cabo San Lucas Trip Report

I was very jealous of Arturo's whale shark snorkeling trip. The last time I tried to see whale sharks I got completely unlucky  with weather and my trip got canceled. For thanksgiving when Xiaoqin suggested we go to Cabo San Lucas, I decided up front that we would try to see the whale shark. I'd arranged with Cabo Expeditions, who were kind enough to make an exception for Boen even though he was well below the age cut off. They requested that we brought our own life jacket and snorkel for Boen. I would later discover that VIP Tours out of La Paz would have taken kids of any age and supplied all the necessary gear.

I also organized a snorkeling trip for Saturday, using our hotel credits to do so. While in previous years, Bown had been happy to do ziplines, this year he stated "no ziplines." I guess the San Diego trip had made him to sea world had made him scared of heights with the roller coasters that flipped upside down which even gave me a little bit of a thrill.

For this trip, we brought along the Nikon W300, and the EOS M5 with just 2 lenses, the 22/2mm and the 50mm/1.8 with adapter. (Photo Link for the trip)

We arrived and had a free day, but immediately after that a storm blew in and cancelled our whale watching trip. Fortunately, we had a week, and promptly rescheduled for Friday and opted for a yellow submarine trip on Thursday that turned out to be not very interesting because of murky water. On Wednesday, we paid a visit to downtown Cabo San Lucas as well as San Jose de Cabo. Both obviously catered to American tourists on medical vacations, with lots of pharmacies targeted for Americans.

The Whale Shark trip happened and we did get to see a Whale Shark:
The process was a long wait, with a 2 hour drive to La Paz, and then when  we cleared into the National Park waters, we were told there were 19 boats ahead of water, so the tour operator just parked the boat on a beach and we ate lunch while waiting. When we got a chance to do it, the guide would direct the captain to steer near the whale shark, and then we'd get in the water and the boat would swing around in circles until we were ready to board. Our first encounter spooked the whale shark and it swam away, so we had to get back in the boat to repeat. Fortunately, with an hour trip we were able to scan around and finally found one that was moving slowly and we got plenty of pictures.


The next day we did a snorkel trip, but the water was murky. On our last day, we were supposed to visit Cabo Pulmo for a snorkel trip, but the tour operator canceled on us despite perfect weather. My guess was that it being a Sunday they wanted the day off and just made up some excuse to not do the trip. We booked a taxi to Santa Maria beach where Boen finally managed to see some fish.
On our finaly afternoon I finally persuaded Boen and Bowen to try the water slides and they had a fun time.
We did achieve all our objectives, but I'm not sure I need to repeat this trip. The Carribean is still a better place to visit.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Review: Woom 5 off

Bowen's been mountain biking enough that I bought him wider tires for his Woom 4. Of course, while corresponding with Woom about the maximum tire size I could fit on the 4, the owner casually mentioned that the Woom 5 off was going to be available soon.  He met the height requirement (50") right on his birthday, so I ordered the Woom 5 off. We expected to hold on to the bike for several years between Bowen and Boen, so I ordered a pair of "road" wheels as well so we could easily swap between mountain bike and road bike configurations.

The salient features of the Woom 5 off vs the regular version (other than the $200 premium) are the carbon fork and the disc brakes. The off also comes  with wider ties, suitable for mountain biking. I'm well known for my dislike of disc brakes. However, I hate the cantilever/V-brakes that come with the regular Woom bikes even more: those are even worse!

My lack of experience with disc brakes meant that putting together the bike was an unusually bad experience, culminating with Woom sending me off to the local bike shop to resolve a persistently bad brake rub situation that turned out to be partly my fault (I didn't realize that the big plastic piece that came with the wheel was the disc brake side axle washer), and partly theirs (the rotor was out of true). Woom paid for the work, which turned out not to be expensive ($18), but obviously made me feel very good about company. The spoke protector was also out of alignment, and they had sent me 2 left-sided pedals instead of a left and a right! This was an unusually poor experience, but Woom made everything right.

The bike is light and Bowen loves it. The easy stopping power of the discs meant that his hands no longer hurt on steep off-road descents, which was one of the main reasons to go with a disc brake! The wide tires are surprisingly light, and if you're not a stickler like me for maximizing your kid's experience with cycling, I'm not sure it's worth the expense of an extra set of wheels to get the lower rolling resistance of road bike tires. (Though I could be wrong --- if Bowen decides to go touring on his single this would be an essential purchase anyway!)

Color me impressed. It's extra expensive, but if you have more than one kid in the family, it's probably worth springing for the disc brake version of the Woom bikes rather than the regular. The reduction in hassle compared to cantilever/V-brakes in itself would be worth it.

Recommended!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Review: Rising Stars Compendium

I tried to find Rising Stars after reading Straczinski's autobiography, and to my surprise it wasn't available from the library. Fortunately, it was available through Comixology Unlimited program with a 30 day free trial, so I checked it out that way.

Good Superhero books are difficult to write: all the tropes have been explored at this time, and the giants of the field, Watchmen and Miracleman (both written by Alan Moore) have yet to be surpassed even decades after Alan Moore has left the field.

Unfortunately, Straczinski's Rising Stars doesn't come close to any of the giants. It's not even as good as Frank Miller's run on Daredevil collected in Born Again.

The premise of the story is that a single event caused the birth of a hundred odd kids with super powers, and of course the government gathers them together and brings them up together. The consequence of this one time event is explored. There are a few interesting twists (such as a person who's invulnerable but has no other super powers), but mostly there aren't any interesting new twists save for a single villain whose multiple personality disorder manifests her powers.

The story starts with a murder mystery, but the murder mystery is unfair (the power behind it was never disclosed to you until after the fact), and the resolution to it is unsatisfying. Then the last third of the book gets really hokey and unbelievable. You might think that this is an unreasonable  expectation for someone reading a comic book to expect believability, but in this case it was so egregious it was dumb. (no, radiation poisoning is not a contagious disease!) To top it off the ending is hokey and  dumb.

I can't recommend this book. I don't understand why it got any of the acclaim it did.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Review: Magic for Liars

Magic for Liars appeared in several year's end "best-of" lists, so I picked it up with high hopes. It's set in a parallel world to our reality where magic exists, and the novel takes place mostly in an imaginary private school in Sunol. The viewpoint character, Ivy Gamble cannot perform magic, but is the sister of a talented magician who's part of the faculty at the Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, and when a teacher at the school dies, Ivy as a private investigator, is brought in despite the authorities pronouncing suicide.

So far so good. A murder mystery, a magical high school, and a viewpoint character who can get the magic system explained to her by the magical characters, and by grit, smarts or a combination of other personal qualities, will solve the mystery, lead a denouement, and grant us closure.

At a high level all of those properties are true of this book, and the setting is somewhat fresh and there are a few red herrings thrown in. Yet the book fails on several levels:
  1. The magic system is never explained, so the mystery is not fair. In other words, at the denouement, rules that were previously laid down in the novel were broken, so the reader has no prayer of solving the mystery on his or her own, except through the meta-mechanism of: "it's always the spouse." This is unsatisfying for many obvious reasons.
  2. Despite the setting being a school, there's not enough faculty or students in the novel to grant you a feeling of reality. You get the impression that this is a play that's designed for 5-6 characters, and despite the apparent setting you're stuck talking with/thinking about the same 5-6 characters. (Which means that if you took a random guess you would be right 1/6th of the time)
  3. OK, you can claim that (1) is never necessary in a Raymond Chandler novel. But Chandler's novels (and many sterling examples of the genre, such as Altered Carbon) have protagonists that are witty, sardonic, cynical with brilliant turns of phrases, while Sarah Gailey's Ivy Gamble is an alcoholic person who's out of touch with herself, and shows no scintillating wit.
I got to the end of the novel, but didn't feel that the pay off was worth the effort. After I was done I felt like cleansing my palette and going off and reading some decent Raymond Chandler instead.  If this novel wins any awards it'll be because of politics rather than good writing (like All the Birds in the Sky) Not recommended.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Review: The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal

I've done quite a bit of negotiating for clients, on several occasions negotiating 7 figure sums (and in one case RSUs that turned out to be worth in the 8 figures), but I'm always trying to improve my art. The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal is a great courses audio series that came highly recommended.

The first couple of lectures were repetitive, boring stuff. It's not until chapter 8 where Professor Freeman gets into BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Settlement), which I feel is the first effective method (and the most effective method for most engineers) when it comes to negotiating compensation: basically, if you don't have any alternatives that pay better than the company you're negotiating with, then you have no leverage.

Starting with chapter 8, however, Professor Freeman gets into a framework for negotiating that I think is potentially useful, including a framework for discussing different types of negotiations: distributive negotiations (zero sum games) vs non-distributive negotiations. One interesting point  that he makes is that stepping away from the negotiating table and taking time to prepare is a great approach and often improves outcome. This fact alone explains why my clients frequently do better than clients who try to negotiate on their own: to make full use of my services they have to step away from the negotiation and call, e-mail, or text me and wait for a reply, and that distance keeps them from panicking and accepting a suboptimal offer.

Similarly, the framework introduced in chapter 14, "I FORESAW IT" is a good one to use and encourages people to try for creative negotiations.

There are several places where Freeman clearly doesn't negotiate as much as I do in certain domains. For instance, he claims that you can negotiate vacation as part of a compensation package. In my experience, it's very rare that companies do so. On the other hand, some of his case studies are great: there's one example in chapter 14 where an apparently great deal turns out to be a terrible one, and Freeman explains why and how.

For parents, there's also a chapter about negotiating with kids. (It's a stand-in for negotiating with difficult people) It's good and I wish there was more of that in this audio series.

All in all, I thought the series could stand more of the case studies I described above, but even I learned quite a bit from it so I can recommend it!

Monday, December 09, 2019

Review: Becoming Superman

Despite not being a fan of J. Michael Straczynski after reading Superman - Earth One, I picked up his autobiography Becoming Superman, which received rave reviews. It's a book that deserves its rave reviews.

Straczynski's childhood life was horrific, ranging from a mom who dropped him off the roof of a house, to an abusive, alcoholic control-freak dad. It's a clear ode to a man who was clearly a dandelion, who as a teenager that he decided to be whatever his dad wasn't. (Some of us who didn't have abusive childhood made that decision as well, but obviously we didn't have so much of an anti-role model as Straczynski). His parents apparently successfully killed one of his siblings, and his horror of childhood was such that in his early adulthood he had an irreversible vasectomy just so he wouldn't be able to father any progeny.

The story of Straczynski's life is interspersed with a mystery, a name repeatedly showing up in his childhood mentioned by his parents, which later shows up as a denouement for the autobiography. Along with all this is a rinse and repeat expose of what writing for Hollywood is like, his time on various TV animation series, and how he tried to fight the censors, some of whom actually thought that the Necronomicon is a real book.

This book answers a few question I'd always had. For instance, why was Babylon 5 so unwatchable for me, despite getting all those rave reviews. And of course, all the politics behind how Deep Space 9 came to be.

In any case, I found this book not just profoundly readable, but also fun to read, despite all the horrific scenes and descriptions of Straczynski's early life. Recommended! The book makes me want to read more of his comics, even though Superman - Earth One didn't make me a fan.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Review: RAVPower GAN Slim 45W USB-C charger

I hesitated over buying the RAVPower GAN charger for a long time, only opting to pull the trigger when I knew I had a trip upcoming where I was going to bring my XPS 13. With 45W of power over USB-C, this replaced the 144g Dell charger with a much slimmer and lighter 78g device. I was worried that the device would be awkward to use because of its long flat profile (no doubt for better heat dissipation), but it turned out that my biggest problem was that the device is too easy to pull off a power socket (no doubt because its long body provide lots of easy leverage).

Nevertheless, as only one of two chargers I brought on this trip, it did its duty charging the laptop, various phones, and also the tablets and camera (with a USB-C to USB-A dongle). In use, the device got warm but never got hot, and it's reliable about charging everything I own. Recommended. While there are lighter devices out there, they tend to cap out at 18W or 30W making them useless for charging the laptop.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Review: Nikon W300

After losing our AW130 last year, I waited until May to replace it with the Nikon W300 this year for the Shasta Trip, but didn't use it all that much during the trip, so waited until this past snorkeling trip to review it.

The image quality and other attributes of the device hasn't changed much between revisions --- the zoom range is identical, as is the resolution, etc. I would review all those aspects, since I mostly only notice what changes.

First, the UI seems to have degraded. It's no longer easy to switch scene modes, but the camera seems to do a good job of selecting which mode to use so I'm not going to gripe too much. What's impressive though is the wireless connectivity, which used to upload downgraded photos via the Nikon Camera app. Now, a new app has been tasked with this, and it's called Snapbridge. This connects to the camera via Bluetooth, and now downloads full resolution pictures to your phone without having to open up the camera and pulling out the SD card. Usually by the time we returned to the hotel from a snorkeling trip all the photos have uploaded to the phone and are ready for sharing.

I looked around for other waterproof cameras and none of them have the depth rating (100') that the Nikon has, and I've had very bad experiences with waterproof cases in the past, so this is still the camera I recommend for divers and snorkelers.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Review: Vaincre Kids Snorkel Mask

I'll state up front that there's a ton of controversy over the concept of a Snorkel Mask, with some claiming that it's dangerous, while others claiming that it's because of either a cheap knock-off or use misuse. These masks are intended for surface snorkeling only, and not for free diving, so it's quite possible that some people killed themselves by free-diving in it. Examining the snorkel mask, it's also quite possible that an improper design could cause air exchange to be a problem. Of course, Americans can make nearly anything dangerous.

That said, I bought the Vaincre Snorkel Mask because try as I might, we could not find a snorkel with a mouthpiece that would fit Boen. It is my belief that the elimination of concerns about breathing is the biggest obstacle to learning to swim, as my experience with Bowen bore out. Bowen was the kind of kid who would follow instructions, but Boen wasn't, so with him I had to get him a snorkel mask so he could breath through his nose instead of trying to do that while wearing a mask/snorkel and then choking.

Our first day of swimming bore this out. Boen loved it so much that he wore it into the Jaccuzzi.


Then the next day we took Boen and Bowen on the whale shark tour, and once he saw that Bowen had a mask and snorkel just like daddy's he refused and insisted on wearing a regular mask and snorkel as well.  But he just couldn't fit it into his mouth and never made it off the boat. Then he tried again the day after at an easy snorkel tour and would still end up breathing water instead of air.
On the final day of our trip we went to Santa Maria Beach and finally, Boen was willing to wear the snorkel mask into real snorkeling conditions. The difference was nothing short of a revelation. Not only could he see fish for a change, with his fins he happily pushed away my hands and chased after them by himself. While it wasn't a super long trip, it was clear that he was happy and comfortable in the water in ways that he wasn't before using the snorkel mask. In the pool, he's now confident that he can swim and propel himself, which wasn't true before.

Now I will state that I was always monitoring the kid (anyone in real snorkeling conditions with a 4 year old has to do that anyway!) and checking for any signs of distress or pain. But on the same Santa Maria trip Bowen had much more struggle with his snorkel and mask, and needed to abandon the entire attempt without even seeing a single fish, so you can have problems with any kind of equipment. The onus is always on you to check on your kids using this stuff.

With that in mind I'll recommend this piece of gear. Boen would never have been able to snorkel without it, so put me in the "these things are safe if intelligently used" camp.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Review: Passage of Power

Passage of Power is Robert A Caro's biography covering Lyndon Johnson's career between the last year of his time in the Senate (including his unsuccessful run to be the Democratic nominee against John F Kennedy) and the 100 days after his assumption of the presidency after Kennedy was assassinated.

The selection of time period was so that Caro could have a rising arc and end on a triumphant note. Basically, Johnson under-estimated Kennedy as a politician, and failed to campaign early enough or sufficiently strongly to claim the primary. Then when asked to be his running mate, Johnson looked at the odds and decided that 1 in 5 Vice Presidents got to be presidents without having to be elected, which was pretty good odds by his standards.

Those 3 years as Vice President proved to be demonstrative about how much loss of power affected Johnson. Stripped of the power he had as majority leader, he became obsequious, humbling himself but still not getting anywhere near the levers of power.

The death of JFK made Johnson presidency and effected an immediate transformation. Caro by no means is a huge fan of Johnson, but he makes several good points: first, because JFK wasn't a master legislature and spent very little time in the senate, both his major bills (the tax cut and the civil rights bill) were stuck in the senate. Only Johnson, with his grasp of what was going on could have pushed both of JFK's bills through, and it wasn't just because of sympathy for Kennedy's policies:
“Startled officials at the Government Printing Office” picked up their telephones to find that the caller was the President, ordering them not to close for the weekend in case the Finance Committee report was completed, one account said. Then a “flabbergasted” Elizabeth Springer picked up the phone to find the President of the United States on the line to tell her that the Printing Office was waiting for the manuscript. “No other President of the United States,” this account said, “had ever been quite so familiar with the minutiae of the legislative process.” (Kindle Loc 12863)
He had never had a gift for (or even much interest in) the more pragmatic requirements of Senate warfare: for learning, and using, the rules. (Russell “knew all the rules … and how to use them,” Johnson had told him in that Oval Office lecture. “He [Johnson] said liberals had never really worked to understand the rules and how to use them, that we never organized effectively, … predicting that we would fall apart in dissension, be absent when quorum calls were made and when critical votes were taken.”) Nor had he ever had a gift for organization; or for counting votes without false optimism. (Kindle Loc 13002) 
It was also because Johnson was under the gun if he wanted to win the presidency for himself in 1964: 
“I knew,” he was to tell Doris Goodwin, “that if I didn’t get out in front on this issue, [the liberals] would get me.… I had to produce a civil rights bill that was even stronger than the one they’d have gotten if Kennedy had lived.” And there was, as always, something more than calculation. Assuring Richard Goodwin there would be “no compromises on civil rights; I’m not going to bend an inch,” he added, “In the Senate [as Leader] I did the best I could. But I had to be careful.… But I always vowed that if I ever had the power I’d make sure every Negro had the same chance as every white man. Now I have it. And I’m going to use it.” (Kindle Loc 12980)
 Overall, the major point of the book is that history has tended to belittle Johnson's accomplishments in 1964 and 1965 with major legislature and programs, in the light of his later issue (Vietnam, etc). While parts of the book felt like padding, most of it was not, and all of it was worth reading. Recommended.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Review: The Big Picture

The Big Picture is Sean Carroll's philosophy book. I wasn't sure what to expect when I was reading it, and the early part reminded me of his Great Courses series  on Time. But once past that, he goes into ontology, ethics, and as well as that philosophical question: "What is Real?" The unique part of this, of course, is that Caroll is a physicist, so we get a unique view on what Quantum Mechanics means in terms of What is Real.

I especially loved the section on ESP and Telekinesis, having never heard someone explain it quite this way: in particular, since we've pretty much uncovered all the forces that can affect us (both on the microscopic or macroscopic level), there's very little chance that there's another force that can affect the world, so ESP/Telekinesis advocates have literally nothing to work with. (This also applies to stuff like force fields and other science fiction apparatus)

There's a great section about Bayesian statistical thinking, and how to evaluate priors and how to apply that to theories, but again, Carroll takes a twist and applies it to "how should you think about the existence of God?" This is all done with a scientist's enjoyment of exploratory thinking, and interjected with a personal memoir that I enjoyed reading.
Here in the early years of the twenty-first century, a majority of philosophers and scientists are naturalists. But in the public sphere, at least in the United States, on questions of morality and meaning, religion and spirituality are given a preeminent place. Our values have not yet caught up to our best ontology. They had better start catching up. When it comes to deciding how to live, we’re like that first fish flapping up onto land: faced with a new world of challenges and opportunities, and not yet really adapted to it. (KIndle Loc 6351)
I really had enjoyed this book. Sure, there's lots of stuff in here that you've probably read about before, but the unique twists that Caroll brings to that material, be it quantum mechanics or Bayesian statistical thinking are worth the time. Recommended.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Books of the Year 2019

This was an unusually prolific year for reading 102 books! Granted, many of them were audio books, and some of them were kid's books, but this is the largest collection of books I've read in a year since as long as I've been keeping track.

This was also an unusually short year for fiction. Of course, that made the selection easy: Ted Chiang's Exhalation easily took the prize for the best fiction all year. In the current climate of door-stoppers being the standard for fiction, Chiang's devotion to quality over quantity stands out. Part of it is that he has a day-job (as a tech-writer, which is actually a decent paying job), and so can afford to work on his fiction and polish it. The other part of course, is that the man has consistently good ideas. You owe it to yourself to read Ted Chiang.

For non-fiction, there's much more to choose from and therefore a tougher choice, since the selection I made this year was unusually broad. For sheer impact on my thinking, I'll nominate Master of the Senate. Non-fiction books tend to try to engage your cerebral side (after all, you're trying to learn something), but few attempt to engage your emotions, but this one does, and not with any loss to the facts and arguments that the book presents. It's a long, intimidating book, but I think it's well worth your effort. If you're an American voter, you owe it to yourself to read this book. It's a piece of history that truly teaches you how the modern American landscape came to be.

Other great books that I read in the non-fiction category include Sex At Dawn, a radical rethinking of the traditional view on human social reproduction, and an example of how you can make good arguments in what is an extremely controversial topic. Kochland is also well worth your time.  It's very clear to me that when the inevitable environmental collapse happens, we're going to look upon this era with a strong sense of how greed overtook our sense of responsibility. It's unfortunately already too late to bring the Koch brothers to justice, but if there's any justice in this world, that brand of capitalism will be eviscerated from human society --- if we survive.

As a parent, I can't turn down books about child development and parenting. If you have middle-schoolers who might be headed for college, How to Become a Straight-A student is worth recommending to him or her. For parents themselves, Voice Lessons for Parents jumps out at me as being particularly important for Bay Area parents, who have a tendency to turn into tiger parents. Unfortunately, the people who most need to read it probably won't, and it's very likely that if you actually want to read a book like this, you probably won't need it as well. Wow, when it comes to good non-fiction this year there was a huge selection.

Comic Books: I ended up rereading Miracleman, and you still can't find a comic book story out there that's any better. Unfortunately, it requires a ton of context for the subversion of superhero troupes to be completely satisfying, but independent of that it's so well written and such a good story that if you've never read it you should.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Review: Spider Holster Black Widow

For cycle touring, I tend to just carry my camera in my jersey pocket. I can reach it, grab the camera, turn it on while moving it to position, and shoot when in place. (It's much tougher to do that with phones because the latency involved and the awkwardness in getting the camera in place isn't great, but it's possible)

Recently, I've been mountain biking. With kids, I carry not just snacks, and a tire repair kit, but also a camping hammock. That means a backpack, which blocks access to cycling jersey pockets, so I've been making do with cycling underwear, and a belt-mounted camera case. The zipper'd case, however, is awkward --- in the time it takes to take the camera out, I might have missed the decisive moment. Worse, when I put the camera back, I have to take the time to zip it up.

The Spider Holster Black Widow looked promising. It comes with a pin which you attach to the tripod mount (they claim it won't interfere with the SD card or battery case, which is false!), and then you wear the holster on your belt. A retaining mechanism keeps the camera solidly in the holster, requiring a lever to be pulled while unholstering the camera (which is surprisingly doable with one hand). The clever part is that when placing the camera back in the holster, the snap-down mechanism pops right in, allowing you to do this with one hand. The entrance is wide enough and designed in such a way that you can get the bolt in 100% of the time.

I'm well aware of the alternate camera slings such as the BlackRapid. They work for running and hiking, but not biking, where the lack of an attachment will cause the camera to swing and hit you or get tangled in the bars. The various chest mounts are better, but my experience with chest mount is that you feel it all the time, especially if you're breathing hard.

In practice, the Hoslter works fine, but has a few characteristics that you might want to be concerned about. First, it offers no protection: I noticed my camera knocked against say, door sills if I walked too close. Theres' enough degrees of freedom that it won't break, but if you fell off your bike you could easily smash the camera against the ground. The second issue is that if you wear a T-shirt tucked out, there's a chance that when you want to reholster the camera, your T-shirt flaps over the holster, then you'll have to take an extra second to slide the pin under your shirt to plug it back into the holster.

Niether are major issues. The first solution is to use a rugged camera (TG-5) or just accept the fact (as I do) that if you want good pictures you have to risk good equipment. There's no two ways around it. The second is to tuck your shirt in.

The device seem sturdy, and can probably be used with bigger cameras than the compact GR-3 that I've been using. On the other hand, for one handed operation, none of the mirrorless cameras would be acceptable (they require a second hand to uncap the lens cap, and mountain biking throws up enough dirt that you won't want to ride with your lens uncapped). Certainly it's a good option for walking around town with a small DSLR or mirrorless camera while being a tourist. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Review: Master of the Senate

Strangely enough, the library didn't have the ebook version of Master of the Senate, but it had the audio book version, so I grabbed it.  This is a massive tome, coming in at over 18 hours of listesning time, and it took me 3 renewals of the book to get to the end.

To say the book is an incredible achievement is an under-statement. Certainly, the book deserves all the awards and accolades it has won, and filled me in on much of the American civics lessons that I should have had but never got as an immigrant.

The book starts with a great explanation of the structure of the senate, and where it fits in the legislative bodies of the federal government. It explains how the senate was intended to be the government's bulwark against change, and how that has served successfully in various parts of American history, as well as how it fails by being overly conservative. The exposition is intelligent, descriptive, and an example of clarity in both writing and great use of examples to illustrate the author's points.

The coverage of Lyndon Johnson's ascent to the senate and how he went about gathering political power is also exciting. This was a guy who truly could talk out of both sides of his mouth, to look conservatives to conservatives, and sound sympathetically liberal to the liberals. In other words, he was an out and out liar and a great example as to why nobody should ever trust a politician.

And yet, Robert Caro manages to make you feel for Johnson. For all his faults, his naked hunger for power, and his raw ambition, Caro makes it clear that only Johnson could have delivered the 1957 civil rights act, the first such act in well over 80 years. And the historical accounts of the times is nothing short of detailed and amazing. I'm not normally an empathetic person,  but the chapters of the book detailing conditions in the American south would leave me boiling with rage, while every other chapter would have me nearly in tears with how the South treated its blacks. The description of the Emmett Till case and how two white people could literally get away with murdering a 14-year-old boy is so well told that you can feel the bitterness seeping off the the book.

Many Americans (especially those of us who are immigrants and are in technical profession) tend to have give an understanding of history a low priority. We want to look at the future, and it's obviously easy to denigrate the causes important to those of other races. This book, so clearly relevant to our current times, shows why that is a mistake: without a clear understanding of history, without a good sense of how bitterly fought and hard won civil rights were in this country, it would be impossible to understand why and how the current political battles are fought. After listening or reading to how various historical figures would rather shut down schools than allow black children to attend white schools, you will more easily understand why universal healthcare is so difficult to achieve in this country --- there are many who would literally rather die than see members of other races get the healthcare they need.

If the cause of civil rights was not important to you before, you'd have to have a heart of stone for it not to be important to you after reading this book. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review: American Shaolin

I had a great time reading American Shaolin. At this point, the "New China" part of the title have been obsolete, and of course, when the book was written China's rise was already apparent which made the publishing of this book quite timely.

On the other hand, there's no question as to Matt Polly's achievements: how many people would drop out of Princeton, travel to China, learn Mandarin, and live at the Shaolin monastery for 2 years learning to be a bad-ass learning Kung-Fu? The parts of China that he visited then are quite different now, and everyone he knew has long moved away. But nevertheless, the books's well-written, the style transparent and enjoyable, and the Chinese language use accurate.

Polly, for instance, is surprisingly insightful about Taiwanese immigrants:
The truth was that John's father was like many successful Asian immigrants. He was educated, an engineer, so his move to America was a matter of choice, not desperation, and therefore represented the gamble of a lifetime, a bet that his and his family's life would be better in American than back in Taiwan. The problem for Taiwanese immigrants is that their birth-nation---perfectly positioned between huge consumer markets in the West, the technological savvy of Japan, and a huge pool of cheap labor in mainland China---refused to remain a backwater, which made keeping ahead of the Wangs that much more stressful. By the late eighties, Taiwanese doctors, engineers, and businessmen were waking up across America to discover that their second-rate classmates who had never been smart of ambitious enough to emigrate were now extremely rich VPs of sales at Taiwanese microchip firms. (Pg. 267)
 The book has sufficient number of such pithy insights combined with humorous situations for it to be a lot of fun to read. Better, it doesn't come across like a self-aggrandizing white guy's view of Asia, and has a mostly accurate view of Asia. That's pretty high praise, and good reason to read this book. Recommended.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Review: A Wrinkle in Time (Graphic Novel)

I never actually read A Wrinkle in Time, but the graphic novel was easily checked out electronically from the local library, so I picked it up and plowed through it in a few hours. It's a throwback to the 1960s, in both political context and in tone.

The story revolves around Meg, whose physicist father has disappeared for an unknown reason, but the mystical old woman living in a haunted house somehow has the answer. When I got to the explanation of the tesseract, I realized that this was probably the novel that inspired all the science fiction stories/illustrated novels that I'd read in the 1980s, meaning that the book is influential enough that the "space travel by a folding of space-time" is now a trope and the explanation and illustrations that accompany it are somewhat common.

The emotional part of the story is familiar to many of us, but is still told quite well, and definitely worth introducing to kids. The spiritual aspects of the story including the biblical quotes feel very much out of place, mostly because the Christianity that's often in media and politics today is no longer associated with physics, science, math, or compassion, but it's quite likely that a child approaching the comic without having to spend too much time dealing with evangelicals might not have the same association as I do.

Bowen probably won't get very far with this book because he doesn't seem to like  fiction, but perhaps if I tell him it has math in it I might fool him into reading it and getting the emotional maturity part.

The art in the comic is decent. It's all in black and white, and at the right level of abstraction. All in all, entertaining and worth your time. Recommended.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Review: World Class

World Class is Teru Clavel's book about comparative public educational systems.  She compares 4 different systems:

  • Hong Kong (pre-school and early elementary school)
  • Shanghai, China (pre-school and elementary school)
  • Tokyo, Japan (pre-school, elementary, and middle school)
  • Palo Alto, California (middle school)
First of all, you have to recognize how privileged Clavel and her family is. Her husband is a Wall Street (Morgan Stanley) banker who gets promoted and an expat position. If you know anything about how cushy expat positions are for spouses, the monies involved are substantial and the amount of help you get with relocation is also ridiculous.

Secondly, her children (all 3 of them) look Caucasian. This is a big deal. In particular, local residents of Shanghai don't even necessarily get to attend public schools in Shanghai. She admits that the staff of at least one of the schools her kid attended only accepted her kids illegally because they wanted photos of her caucasian kids in the school brochure. So the treatment she gets isn't necessarily representative of what a local resident might get.

OK, with that aside, I think that Teru's a brave person. I certainly wouldn't subject my kids to pollution in Shanghai during their developing ears (she noted how bad the pollution was as an adult, and kids are much more vulnerable). Nor would I have been sanguine if my son came home pledged as a member of China's communist party, but she took it all in stride as part and parcel of getting a top-notch public education with diversity and no compromises as far as academics is concerned. Maybe my growing up in a more or less totalitarian country makes me super-sensitive to this sort of stuff.

As everyone from Asia knows, US schools (especially public schools) cannot hold a candle to Asian schools in terms of academic challenge and difficulty. I will note that she glosses over the advanced stuff: my friends from India, for instance, have commented that they're actually a fan of the US approach to Math in Silicon Valley, because the kids do more than just learn a fixed set of problem solving skills and actually seem to understand the material at a deeper level. But of course, I don't know how much of that is because these immigrants do tons of coaching at home anyway, and are happily making up for the American school system.

Furthermore, it's quite clear that everyone in Japan is effectively a free-range parent, letting 6 year olds take public transit and go to school. (Crime in most Asian countries is a tiny fraction of what you see in American schools, and there are no school shootings, etc) But Clavel seems oblivious to the fact that the reason why Asian schools can do so well with so high a student/teacher ratio is that they actively stream and clump kids of similar caliber together, so teachers can teach to a group that's not too diverse in ability.

For me, the most interesting part of the book was when she moved to the Palo Alto school district, and finally views the American school system like an outsider. As I've mentioned before, I think that the American school system is bat-shit insane, simply because there are no national standards, and the tests are a joke. She eventually gives up and moves back to New York City and enrolls her kids in private schools, because public schools in the US are just a joke. This is as strong an indictment of the American school system as you can get.

This is a great book and fun and engrossing to read. I made it through in 2 days, and wish I was reading it on the Kindle instead of the paper copy so I could have highlighted it and posted quotes in this review for you to see for yourself. Recommended.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Review: That Wild Country

That Wild Country is a memoir of Mark Kenyon's various trips in the backcountry, hiking, camping, fishing, and hunting, along with a minor history of the wilderness in the USA. It's a short and easy read, which is about all the virtues of the book.

Kenyon was a marketing person at Google. You can tell, because there are all sorts of places in the book where he exaggerates for effect. For instance, he'll take up how tough a hike is, or how "he'd never been camping before", and then later on in the book he'll mention in an aside that his parents had taken him to Rainier National Park and the Hoh Rainforest in the Olympic National Park as a kid, and then you realized that some guy who's been hunting all his life cannot possibly be incompetent enough for an easy hike on a marked trail in a US National Park to be challenged!

The history, some of which I've heard before, is less obscure, but again, it's very shallow, with little detail about how the Wilderness Act got enacted, and even less detail about how the Koch Brothers keep trying to get the public lands as a gimme. He talks a lot about how the Hunters and Fishing enthusiasts were the ones backing the #KeepItPublic movement, but again, no statistics, no history, and no evidence. I might believe him, but again, why am I reading your book if you're not going to give me evidence and reason to believe me, especially after your attempt at "incompetence literature" destroyed your credibility? There's no mention of how (for instance), the MTB community had to get a seat at the table by threatening to join the "Wise Use" movement after continuously being marginalized by the Sierra Club, something I still don't forgive the Sierra Club for.

I do believe that public lands are a virtue, and obviously I'm raising my kids to enjoy and use that heritage. But the book's shallow approach and exaggeration isn't doing the cause any favors.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

How to Teach Your Kids to Mountain Bike

I'm writing this article because amazingly, there are only classes that teach girls how to ride a mountain bike, and all I have are boys. I have no idea why this is. Maybe boys are just supposed to learn by crashing, which is not a good way to learn at all!

  1. Get a decent bike! This is way obvious, but a surprising number of parents buy a Target/Walmart/Costco bike instead of a decent bike. It's pretty easy: your 30 pound kid shouldn't be riding a 30 pound bike. We choose the Woom, but there are other good manufacturers as well. It's just that Woom's owner's been good about taking feedback from me (and acting on them --- their bikes actually improve year over year), and I'm not about to start over and teach some other manufacturer about my issues.
  2. Start at the local BMX park. Here in the Bay Area, Calabazas Bike Park is great!  It's free, and if you think it's just kids stuff show up there with an adult bike and see how the really good kids can smoke you!
  3. Once they've had a few rounds at the mountain bike park, take them to a local mountain bike park and do the easy trails. Have them repeat the easy ones as much as they like to gain confidence. Teach them to stand up over bumps, and to be courteous to other trail users. Gradually increase the challenge.
  4. Bring food and water. Keep their bike as light as possible. Don't be afraid to push them uphill. Kids bikes don't have as wide a gearing range as adult bikes.
  5. Bring a hammock. I like to arrange one way bike rides with my wife, and then ride back to fetch the car. A backpacking hammock is light enough to bring on a MTB trip, the kids love it and never worry about waiting for you as long as mommy's there to keep an eye on them.
You notice that I'm short on skills. I'm actually a lousy mountain bike rider, so I don't know how to teach people how to do things like jump logs, ride teeter-totters, or ride up stairs on a bike. Which means that yes, I'd be happy to sign my kids up for a mountain bike class or summer camp, but darn, the only ones I've found only cater to girls. Don't ask me why that is. If you find a co-ed or boys only MTB class in the Bay Area let me know.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Review: Schwinn 20x1.95 MTB tire

Since Bowen started riding his bike off-road, I decided to buy some real MTB tires for him. A search on Amazon showed up the Schwinn 20x1.95 ATB tire. An e-mail to the owner of Woom bikes confirmed that his Woom 4 would take 1.95" tires. The owner couldn't help sending me a link to the very intriguing Woom Off series, but Bowen was so closed to being the next size up that we decided to wait until he grew into that size.

Schwinn has a pretty bad reputation for churning out heavy bikes that I wouldn't give my kids to ride, but since Amazon has a great return policy, I decided to try it and see. To my delight, the tires showed up and were easy to install. There's an appreciable improved traction compared with the 1.4" tire that came stock with the bike, though obviously for riding on the road the bike will feel heavier and slower.

Off-road, the improved grip has helped Bowen maintain control even on challenging terrain, and I saw him hop rocks and run over tree roots with confidence, if not grace. The price at under $14 is great too. Because the tires are so easy to install, I don't hesitate to swap the tires in and out for Bowen whenever he asks (it takes about 10 minutes to do both wheels), which means that they'll see more use than otherwise.

Recommended.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Review: G-Form Pro-X Elbow Pads and Knee Pads

Bowen got it into his head that he wanted to do mountain biking. (I swear it wasn't all those Danny MacAskill videos I showed him when he was small) Now you can buy MTB tandems, but I draw the line there. Off pavement, where there are no hostile motorists waiting to run you over, I'm a big believer that kids will learn how to do appropriate skill assessment, and become better bike handlers if they ride their single bikes.
Of course, Bowen is particularly accident prone, and crashing hurts, so I went shopping for elbow pads and knee pads. By far the most highly recommended body armor for MTB use are the G-Form Pro Elbow Pads and Knee Pads. These are astonishingly expensive, running around $50 a pair on Amazon, and I tried but didn't find any place selling them for less. If there's anything I've learned as an outdoorsman over the past 25 years, however, is that when it comes to outdoor equipment, there's just no point trying to save money.

These are incredibly flexible, and to be honest, Bowen never crashed while wearing them, having perhaps learned (finally!) from his years of crashing bikes that it's not fun. But since his brother started wanting to come along, we gave them to Boen instead since he was still crashing. We finally tested them on Long Ridge, where at one point Boen crashed hard down a gravel road. He cried and screamed as though the sky had fallen on him, but when I turned around and walked him down, I found that he was tapping those pads, surprised that he actually wasn't hurt. (Yes, the little guy was screaming and crying out of habit!)

People who don't have boys keep telling me how girls are more expensive. That's not true. Boys just spend money on different things, such as coast guard rescues and hospital bills. These $50 crash pads might end up saving you $300 on hospital bills, and obviously sparing your kids from pain because they had crash pads that they'll actually wear are a plus for any parent.

After writing this review, I realized that given how bad I am at mountain biking, I bought a set for myself. After all, unlike my kids, I'm unlikely to ever outgrow mine. As you can imagine, that makes this product something I would heartily recommend to anyone.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Review: Tile

I bought a set of 4 Tile Mates at the start of the year because Boen and Bowen would misplace everything from tablets to the PS Vita. The device turned out to be a dud, but worked well enough at the start that I kept it past the return date, which was a mistake. I hope this review keeps you from buying one.

First of all, the Tiles don't come with any easy method to attach to anything other than a key-ring. I've long transitioned to a keyless household for everything except car keys, and I don't normally drive, so the keyring compatibility is a worthless feature to me.

I tried the adhesives, but those didn't work too well either! They wouldn't properly stick to a Kindle case, or a tablet case, or anything at all!  I tried those screw-type rings, and those would work for a PS Vita (barely), but nothing else.

OK, so it's great for the Vita, right? Well, for the first few weeks they would work, but after about 9 months, I tried to use it to find the device, and nope! Zero response. Only recently did the app start warning me that the battery might be dead. Well, that's not useful. Before it goes dead you need to tell me so I can replace the battery.

This thing is a worthless piece of junk. Save your money!

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Review: Superman - Earth One

Superman - Earth One is a series of 3 graphic novels written by J Michael Straczynski. Straczynski's been credited with several good TV shows, none of which I've watched, so I was interested to see his take on Superman, easily one of the most boring superheroes.

Being freed from having to write a continuing series meant that Straczynski could take a completely different approach to classic villains like The Parasite, General Zod or Lex Luthor. His take on the latter is by far the most interesting, and I was sorry that he ended the series on that reveal, indicating that he didn't actually have any further ideas on how to proceed on what was an excellent hook.

The rest of the story is surprisingly free of the common symbology associated with Superman, the comparisons with the the bible, and even the classic motivations that you would associate with the character. Not even the classic relationships are retained, though not without throwing plenty of red herrings one way or another.

Overall, I thought the books were short and worth reading, though perhaps I might not have felt that way if I'd paid real money for them instead of checking them out of the library via my Kindle Fire tablet. It's not up to the quality of superhero comics written  by Alan Moore, for instance. Mildly recommended. I hope Straczynski's fans will tell me that this is the worst writing he's capable of producing!

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Review: Lost in Math

Lost in Math is a book discussing something that was also discussed in Not Even Wrong, which is that lack of progress in theoretical physics, mostly because it's actually very difficult to design theories that are testable while still fitting in within the framework of everything we already know. In particular, after a decade of the LHC, there haven't been new particles discovered (though the Higgs Boson was confirmed) that were predicted by some of the super-symmetry models.

A lot of the problem apparently is that the experiments generate so much data that much of that data gets thrown away if it's not explicitly looked for. That means that you have to know what to look for in advanced, something theoretical physicists get to help out with. But how do you know what to look for? Well, you have to have a theory, and that theory has to make predictions, and you have to persuade the community that they should look for the data that your theory predicts.

With an infinite number of theories to potentially look at, how do you decide which ones are most promising. Sabine Hossenfelder's book is a critique of the idea that mathematical beauty is the most criteria for selection. She asks various physicists what their idea of beauty is, and of course, finds that every person has a different idea of what that beauty entails, as well as what's important in terms of producing a good theory. In particular, I enjoyed her interview with Xiao-Gang Wen who discussed Qubit Field theory with her.

The text of the book is not heavily mathematical, and is full of self-deprecating sentences. It's easy to read and some of the ideas are fun to contemplate. Many of her metaphors for the mathematics behind a field of study are awesome:
To appreciate how bizarre this is, imagine you visit a website where you can order door signs with numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on, all the way up to infinity. Then you can also order an emu, an empty bottle, and the Eiffel Tower. That's how awkwardly the exceptional Lie groups sit beside the orderly infinite families. (Kindle Loc 2634)
The book ends with an exploration into math in Economics, which as she mentions is full of disaster. The question then is obvious: is there any particular reason to believe that nature is going to be simple and easy to describe with math, any more than human societies are? What's wrong with those "fined-tuned" constants anyway? Why should you consider those constants ugly?

It's interesting food for thought. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Review: Bonk

Bonk is Mary Roach's book about the science of sex. It should be a great topic, with lots of fun discoveries, but in reality what we learn is that there's nearly no funding for research on sex (blame puritanism, as well as, nobody in government wants newspaper headlines like: "government funds porn film"). Now you would expect that maybe some of the more open governments in Europe would venture into this territory, but you would be wrong.

As a result, there's actually not much content in this book. About the only thing I learned was:
Stop wearing cologne. Women don’t find it attractive. If you don’t believe me, here is a quote from a press release from the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago: “Men’s colognes actually reduced vaginal blood flow.” Foundation director Al Hirsch hooked women up to a vaginal photoplethysmograph and had them wear surgical masks scented with ten different aromas or combinations of aromas. (To be sure the women weren’t just getting aroused by dressing up in surgical masks, Hirsch put unscented masks onto a control group.) In addition to the smell of cologne, the women were turned off by the scent of cherry and of “charcoal barbeque meat.” At the top of the women’s turn-on list was, mysteriously, a mixture of cucumber and Good ’n’ Plenty candy. It was said to increase vaginal blood flow by 13 percent. (pg. 292)
Hmph! Hardly worth reading an entire book for. Not recommended.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Review: White Industries T11 Rear Hub

After about 15 years (and something like 60,000 miles of cycling), I finally wore out the cones on my Shimano 7700 Dura Ace rear hub. I took them to Cupertino Bike Shop, and they said: "this part is 15 years old. Shimano stopped making replacement parts years ago, your best bet is eBay. So  I gave them a Velocity Aerohead OC rear rim from my stash, and asked them to build up a new rear wheel using a White Industries T11 rear hub, and double butted spokes.

Pardo and I had done an analysis of rear hubs years ago, and I stills stand by that assessment.  If you want strong wheels, the best hubs are the Shimanos. All the other hubs are weaker. But the past 15 years have taught me that the total cost of ownership of Shimanos are very high if you're too incompetent to do your own hub overhaul. Each overhaul costs about $30 in labor, and you pretty much need to do them every year or so. So after 10 years, you've spent $300 more in hub overhauls than you would have if you'd bought say, White Industries or Phil Woods, which more than compensates for the Shimanos being about $100 cheaper than the equivalent White Industries T11 hubs.  Furthermore, the latest Shimano hubs (the FH9000) have changed their wR dimension to 17mm, which is less than the 18mm on the T11 hubs, so now the T11 hubs will actually build to a stronger wheel than the FH9000! (The reduction of the wR dimension is due to the need to accommodate 11 speed cassettes)

Overall, the wheel came out to 10g lighter than my 15 year old wheel. Whoop de doo. In exchange, they're noisy when you freewheel. I don't know why nobody but Shimano prioritizes having quiet freehubs, and the White hubs are less noisy than the infamous Chris Kings, but not by a lot. If you're riding on a bike path the hubs have the advantage of alerting non-headphone using pedestrians on the bike path, but the rest of the time it makes an annoying noise when you coast.

I finally bought new cones for my 7700 hub, and got the bike shop to install and overhaul the rear hub. They're a lot quieter but even with the new parts still aren't nearly as smooth as when they were new, so I'm relegating these to off-pavement work. Overall, I do like the T11 hubs, and hope I can get a good 15 years of use out of them as well!

Friday, November 01, 2019

Review: Range

Range is a book dedicated to the generalists, as opposed to the specialist. In general, society, companies, teachers, coaches and parents generally put pressure on their employees, students, and kids to specialize. The rarity is the liberal arts major, but even that's been going out of fashion of late.

David Epstein points out that the specialist domains like chess, music, and firefighting might be suited for specialization, but many domains do not. Even in music, early specialization might also not be helpful:
When Sloboda and a colleague conducted a study with students at a British boarding school that recruited from around the country—admission rested entirely on an audition—they were surprised to find that the students classified as exceptional by the school came from less musically active families compared to less accomplished students, did not start playing at a younger age, were less likely to have had an instrument in the home at a very young age, had taken fewer lessons prior to entering the school, and had simply practiced less overall before arriving—a lot less. “It seems very clear,” the psychologists wrote, “that sheer amount of lesson or practice time is not a good indicator of exceptionality.” As to structured lessons, every single one of the students who had received a large amount of structured lesson time early in development fell into the “average” skill category, and not one was in the exceptional group. “The strong implication,” the researchers wrote, is “that that too many lessons at a young age may not be helpful.”.. Those children identified as exceptional by [the school] turn out to be those children who distributed their effort more evenly across three instruments.” The less skilled students tended to spend their time on the first instrument they picked up, as if they could not give up a perceived head start. The exceptional students developed more like the figlie del coro. “The modest investment in a third instrument paid off handsomely for the exceptional children,” the scientists concluded... Nearly all of the more accomplished students had played at least three instruments, proportionally much more than the lower-level students, and more than half played four or five. Learning to play classical music is a narrative linchpin for the cult of the head start; as music goes, it is a relatively golflike endeavor. It comes with a blueprint; errors are immediately apparent; it requires repetitive practice of the exact same task until execution becomes automatic and deviation is minimal. How could picking an instrument as early as possible and starting in technical training not be the standard path to success? And yet even classical music defies a simple Tiger story.(Kindle Loc 1007)
And of course, once you wander off the domain of classical music into more improvisational arts like Jazz or Pop Music,  nearly no one is an early specialist! For creative work such as comic books, specialization hurts:
high-repetition workload negatively impacted performance. Years of experience had no impact at all. If not experience, repetition, or resources, what helped creators make better comics on average and innovate? The answer (in addition to not being overworked) was how many of twenty-two different genres a creator had worked in, from comedy and crime, to fantasy, adult, nonfiction, and sci-fi. Where length of experience did not differentiate creators, breadth of experience did. Broad genre experience made creators better on average and more likely to innovate. (Kindle Loc 3140)
The book covers topics as diverse as sports, scientific research, comics, and even describes the early history of Nintendo's foray into electronic toys. While some of these chapters are clearly central to Epstein's thesis, many of them (such as the chapter on Nintendo) fall wildly off the mark.

By far my biggest criticism of the book is that there's no direct comparison. You can pick the best specialists in the world and the best generalists and compare them, but that doesn't mean that one strategy is better than the other. What you need to do is to examine the number of people who pick one strategy, and what percentage of them succeed, and Epstein makes no attempt to examine those trends, and what has changed over time.

My own intuition on the topic is that in a world full of generalists, being a specialist will provide an advantage. In a world full of specialists by contrasts, generalists who can straddle multiple specialties and provide insight that might not occur the the specialists deep in their field will become more valuable because they have so many more places they can contribute. My guess, such as it is, in that in recent years, over-specialization has occurred to the point where it's probably more profitable to be a generalist, but that's speculating. I certainly don't have any numbers to prove it.

In any case, the book makes one exceptionally good point, which is that at no point is it too late to switch fields to see what's over the fence. To continue specializing past the point of diminishing returns is to fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy. That in itself makes it easy for me to recommend this book.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Review: Marvels - The Remastered Edition

It'd been years since Edmond Meinfelder told me to checkout Marvels, so when I saw The Remsastered Edition on sale, I bought it to read on my tablet.

The premise of the book is easy: view the Marvel universe from the point of view of a non-super-powered photo-journalist capturing the heroes as part of his job and reflecting upon a world in which true gods walk the earth leaving not much for humans to do.

The story itself is nothing special: we get the sideways glances at the heroes' life, including an interview with Gwen Stacy, as well as the visits from alien worlds and the Submariner's frequent switches between hero and villain.

The art by Alex Ross, however, is something else, with every page fully painted and looking gorgeous. It's hard to believe that this is work for hire, as it is clearly a labor of love. Just for the art alone the book is worth buying, and the remastered art does stand up to zooming and panning on a 10" tablet.

Make no mistake: this isn't a literary masterpiece like anything Alan Moore or even Neil Gaiman is capable of. It makes no apologies for being about superheroes, and it's in love with superheroes as only a 12-year-old boy can be. But that doesn't detract any from it being a masterpiece. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Review: The Magicians - Alice's Story

The Magicians - Alice's Story is a comic book set in the first novel of the Magicians series. The character designs are based on the books rather than the TV series, as is the plot, which is a retelling of the first book but from Alice's point of view. I watched the TV series more recently than I read the books, so of course it was a shock for me to see Alice Quinn depicted so different, and Penny as well. The retelling was only so-so. Overall, the comic reads a lot more like a teaser for the novel series than a standalone story, but as a summary of the first book it's quite good. If you've already read the book the graphic novel is unfortunately redundant. If you've only seen the TV series, the comic book does make for faster reading and is perhaps more interesting than reading the first novel, which I don't have a high opinion of.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Review: The Language Instinct

I was referred to The Language Instinct by John McWhorter's highly recommended The Story of Human Language. The language instinct is a popular account of Noam Chomsky's theory of language, which is that we have a built in understanding of language grammars at birth, causing human languages to be built a certain way, and why certain new phrases "sound right", even when pedantic newspaper commentators and grammar textbooks indicate otherwise.

The argument comes in several forms, including one that was new to me, which is that children generalized from a paucity of exposure. If you come from machine learning/computer science, you're undoubtedly aware of the huge amount of data required to train a machine in statistical language comprehension. Yet even children in cultures where parents do not regularly speak to their children in childhood (a "no-no" in American/Western culture) pick up language from their peers and are able to generalize a grammar with no formal instruction.

There's a huge long section in the book full of parse trees and exploration of when the human's innate natural language parser breaks down, and how a computer wouldn't have any trouble with the stacking problem, yet cannot disambiguate sentences that humans have no problems with. The section is long, yet also serves to illustrate the point that humans don't think in any particular language, but have to translate thought into human languages through a mechanism. It's intriguing for me to think that there's a "machine language" of the brain, but obviously there's much work that's needed here.

There's a great defense of the idea that that language is born into humans. Pinker debunks all the famous stories about chimpanzees being taught sign language, and provides a plausible mechanism by which the language instinct could have developed evolutionary on a branch unique to humans.

This is a long book, but worth your time. Recommended.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Review: Something Deeply Hidden

Something Deeply Hidden is Sean Carroll's book about the foundations of Quantum Theory. The thesis of the book is that most of the physics community has taken quantum mechanics in an approach known as "shut up and calculate", basically using the tools of quantum mechanics as engineering assets or to develop more experiments and predictions, but without considering the actual meaning of the theory.

The book is about the meaning of the theory, and the competing interpretation of what the existence of quantum mechanics is. Carroll is an unabashed believe of the multiple worlds approach, basically where every quantum event splits into two timelines that cannot share information. He takes pains to note that human decisions are macroscopic events, so there isn't a version of you who decided to skip college and do something more unconventional instead, unless you used the quantum random number generator to make your decisions. The competing approaches, like the hidden variables approach, Caroll claims, are less elegant, positing that there's something deeper than quantum mechanics at work, where the many-worlds approach takes quantum mechanics as face value as the way physics work.

There's an exploration of how the theory came to be, what the difference between particles and fields are, and what the wave function of quantum mechanics mean. There's even a section where a father and daughter discuss quantum mechanics, which makes for great reading. There's an explanation of what the quantum gravity problem is, and where research is taking place in this topic. As a fairly easy to read book on the topic I thought it was well done. Recommended.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Review: Ultralearning

I'm of two minds about Ultralearning. The book as a whole is good. It describes various learning techniques that allow you to learn something quickly and use it right away. Most good programmers are ultra-learners: the profession pretty much requires it. In 2010, for instance, I worked through an Adobe InDesign course in 2 weeks so I could layout and write Independent Cycle Touring.

The issue is, I think he oversells the technique. For instance, his claim to fame was that he went through the MIT CS program in a year, effectively "earning" a degree in CS in one quarter the time an MIT graduate would take. But if you looked carefully at his claims, you'll see that he didn't even come close to doing the curriculum. For instance, he skipped the senior thesis. His definition of "passing" a class was to score 50% or higher. (I don't know about you, but that sounds kinda low --- that would be a C average, and you wouldn't cut it as an engineer in Silicon Valley with a C average) He did programming assignments, but it's doubtful if he did any of the serious projects. He probably wouldn't stack up even with an MIT graduate with a C average.

Having said that, I think there's a lot of be said for the tips and techniques in the book. Yes, it's a good idea to have a learning plan. There's also a lot to be said for the intensity of "ultra-learning", which is that you put into practice what you learned right away (which is what I did when writing Independent Cycle Touring). The references to and analysis of spaced learning and how to attack the highest barrier first make for good reading and is worth pursuing. I think I probably wouldn't even have written the above paragraph criticizing the book if he'd titled it "Just-In-Time learning" rather than Ultra-learning, but then he might not have gotten a book deal out of it.

I hesitate to put the "recommended" tag on this book, but it's readable, actually has good tips, and is short enough that you're likely to extract real value from it.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Review: Victagen Bicycle Light

In 2017, I settled on the Blitzu Gator as the standard solution for all lights in the house. The light was cheap, had a decent mount, and having had a bunch of them in use at one point or another since 2017, very reliable for a cheap product. Since then, the price of the Blitzu Gator has gone down to about $16, but one of our lights was losing battery life. The Blitzu is not repairable when the battery goes (the battery is soldered onto the motherboard), so I went online to see if in 2019, there are better lights.

The victagen is $20, and claims a 1000 lumen top setting with a 12 hour 250 lumen setting. Compared to the Blitzu's 320 lumen claim, it's a brighter light, but it would be a big stretch to call it 3 times brighter. Set against that is the weight: excluding the mount, the victagen's 138g, while the Blitzu's 58g. That means you can have 2 Blitzus for the weight penalty of one vicatgen!

The mounting system on the victagen is better built than the one on the Blitzu: it comes with two rubber washers that can be stacked, and the thumbscrew looks better. The gasket protecting the mini-USB recharging port is also better built --- it looks like it'll survive manhandling than the one protecting the Blitzu, and is in a better place --- on the back instead of under the light, where spray from the wheel will get it gunked up and broken in a hurry if the gasket falls off.

The biggest problem with this light, and the main reason is going back, is that the flashing modes are much worse than the Blitzus. I use the flashing modes in the Blitzus as daytime running lights, and they survive for about 6 hours. The victagen's flashing mode is supposed to last for 12 hours, but they're very annoying, with one high frequency beam that looks like it's designed to cause epileptic seizures in drivers, and one SOS-morse-code pattern that's obviously inappropriate for use. You could use the low beam as a day-time running light, and the battery life would survive, but in addition to the weight penalty however, it was just too much. And for the weight you could just carry a spare Blitzu and swap it out when the battery from the first one goes low. This one's going back to Amazon. I guess 2 years isn't enough for dramatic improvements from the cheap Chinese light manufacturers.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Review: The Years that Matter Most - How College Makes or Breaks Us

In recent years it's been fashionable in Silicon Valley to denigrate the value of a college education. The Years that Matter Most isn't just a book that argues that yes, college has value. It also explores the difficulty the mostly private college system have in balancing revenue, fairness, prestige, and offering a leg up to the underprivileged. As I read the book, I found myself highlighting page after page of fantastic data:
High-prestige colleges do pay off for the students who attend them, and in fact they pay off in a big way. According to Hoxby’s data, if you attend a highly selective college where incoming freshmen have average SAT scores above about 1400 on a 1600-point scale (or about 30 on the ACT), your future lifetime earnings are likely to be more than $7 million—and that’s about $2 million more than you’ll earn if you take the identical skill set to a nonselective college. If you attend an even more elite college—one with average incoming SAT scores cresting 1500 (33 on the ACT)—the extra value that particular college will contribute to your lifetime earnings, on average, will be even higher, approaching a bonus of $3 million. (pg 34)
 Average-selectivity colleges spend between about $10,000 and $20,000 per student per year. The higher you climb on the rungs of the selectivity ladder, the faster institutional spending rises. Schools with a 1400 median incoming SAT score (like the University of Maryland) spend about $100,000 educating each student each year, and schools with a 1500 SAT score (like Washington University) spend about $150,000—far more than they charge in tuition. (pg. 35)
The school’s take soon hit $7 billion, and then $8 billion, and then $9 billion. Harvard’s fundraisers were operating at this point a little like the cartoon character Scrooge McDuck, searching desperately for a spare corner in the giant money bin in which to stash the latest billion. “We’re running out of professors to be endowed,” one fundraiser told Harvard’s student newspaper, the Crimson. When the five-year campaign concluded in the summer of 2018, the total haul was announced: $9.6 billion. And as Harvard grew steadily richer, so did its freshman classes. The Crimson surveys Harvard’s incoming freshmen each year, and its surveys from 2013 to 2017 showed that each new class was slightly more affluent than the previous one. In 2013, 15 percent of Harvard’s incoming freshman class came from families with incomes under $40,000, and 14 percent came from the families in the wealthiest category, those with incomes over $500,000. Four years later, the proportion of the incoming class from the under-$40,000 cohort had fallen to 12 percent, while 17 percent of freshmen now came from the ultra-affluent group. (pg. 37) 
So it makes far more economic sense to go to a higher university than to a lower tier one.  They simply are far better values!  The book discusses the SAT and describes the situation today: SAT scores tend to favor the privileged, who have access to test preparation, and whose SAT scores tend to be higher than their high school GPA would predict.

What about admissions for blacks. What's impressive is that all the Ivy league schools have gotten together and colluded on an "acceptable percentage" of black students admitted, about 8%.
Shaun Harper, executive director of the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California, made a rather dramatic charge. He suggested that Ivy League colleges were essentially colluding with one another to keep their black student populations at exactly the same level. “It’s just too much of a coincidence,” Harper said in his NACAC speech. “You mean to tell me that the exact same number of black folks applied to Dartmouth and to Stanford and to MIT and to Yale and to Princeton, and they all landed at the same place in terms of their enrollment? It just seems to me that there has been some determination about how many black students are worthy of admission to these institutions. It’s just too similar.” At this litigious moment in the history of affirmative action, admissions officers at those colleges would be anxious to assure you that they do not collude, especially on matters of admissions and race. But when you look at the data, it is hard to refute Harper’s point. The numbers really are startlingly consistent. About 15 percent of American high school graduates are black, according to the federal education department. But Princeton’s student body is 8 percent black. Cornell’s is 8 percent black. Brown’s is 8 percent black. Yale’s is 8 percent black. Harvard’s is 8 percent black. The pattern is hard to miss. (pg. 123)
What's impressive, however, is that even that level of collusion isn't sufficient.  The sub-population of the black students admitted is also skewed towards a particular demographic, that of first and second-generation immigrants:
Nationally, somewhere between 9 and 13 percent of the total population of black American eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds are immigrants or the children of immigrants. But at the highly selective colleges that Massey surveyed, 27 percent of black students were immigrants or the children of immigrants. At Ivy League colleges, the figure was 41 percent. (pg. 122)
This reason for this skewing is fairly obvious:
students descended from voluntary immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean are more likely to have attended private school than students descended from Africans brought to the United States in slavery. They are more likely to come from intact two-parent households. Their fathers are much more likely to have graduated from college and to hold an advanced degree. And their SAT scores are, on average, more than fifty points higher. Admitting those students, instead of students like KiKi, solves two problems at once for Princeton’s admissions department. Princeton can hit its 8 percent black-student target (if, indeed, it does have a target), while still admitting students who, in every way but their race, have backgrounds a lot like the rest of Princeton’s student body. (pg. 125)
So those places that were taken away from say, Asian applicants and given to black students aren't even going to the under-privileged. They're going to people every bit as privileged (or even more privileged) as the Asians who were rejected.

The book also goes into great lengths with regards to what happens when students graduated and how the recruiting from the high paying jobs on Wall Street and consulting firms went:
The criterion they chose for this second screen was surprising to Rivera. It wasn’t college GPA. It wasn’t relevant work experience. It was the extracurricular activities, especially athletics, that candidates pursued in high school and in college. Students who merely studied hard and learned a lot—like the Doubly Disadvantaged students who told Tony Jack that the responsible thing to do in college was focus on “the work”—were seen by recruiters as “bookworms” or “nerds” and frequently passed over....Recruiters were mostly unimpressed by students who took part, even at a high level, in easily accessible sports like wrestling or basketball or soccer. Instead, they preferred candidates who played sports with a high barrier to entry, either because of specialized equipment or expensive club fees or both—sports like lacrosse, field hockey, tennis, squash, and rowing. Of course, these sports, as Rivera notes, are played almost exclusively by rich and upper-middle-class white kids. They generally require a serious commitment in time and money, not just from students but from parents as well, often beginning in middle school or even earlier. This created a system that was apparently open and meritocratic but that actually strongly favored young people from high socioeconomic backgrounds and eliminated the rest from consideration...“less affluent students are more likely to enter campus with the belief that it is achievement in the classroom rather than on the field or in the concert hall that matters for future success, and they tend to focus their energies accordingly.” They still believed in “the work,” in other words, in the version of the American meritocracy they had been taught as children to respect and put their faith in. And their chances to land a lucrative job after college suffered as a result. (pg. 140-142)
I've always wondered about the prevalence of sports like lacrosse at the elite universities. Now I no longer wonder.  It's a class/status signifier.

Are universities then cursed to maintain the status quo and make the rich richer? Tough has one big idea in this book, which is to eliminate the use of tests like SAT and rely more on high school GPA. Even more interestingly, he points to the UT system as one that actually created more diversity:
Despite fears among some on the left that the Fifth Circuit’s decision would put an end to diversity at UT Austin, the introduction of the Top 10 Percent Rule actually made the campus more diverse than it had been under race-based affirmative action. And the university’s new diversity was not just racial. In the decade after the law went into effect, minority enrollment at UT did increase, but at the same time, so did enrollment from rural communities and from schools statewide with high-poverty populations. Meanwhile, enrollment went down among students from suburban schools and from “feeder” schools that had, in the past, sent a lot of students to UT Austin. In 1996, before the Top 10 Percent Rule, the university admitted students from fewer than seven hundred different Texas high schools; by 2007, UT was admitting students from more than nine hundred high schools across the state. (pg. 207)
The book ends by comparing the rise of free public high schools and what could be free public colleges by shifting the lens with which we view higher education:
There is plenty of evidence that Americans believe in the transformative power of education just as much as they did a century ago. What is different today is that we tend to consider that transformation in individual terms rather than collective ones. Over the last few decades, we have come to think of higher education principally as a competitive marketplace, one where our natural goal is to get the best that we can for ourselves or our children or our institution, even at the expense of others. When college educations are redefined as private goods, rather than public ones, the fact that they are so unequally distributed seems less jarring. Not everyone gets a big house or a sports car; not everyone gets a high-quality college education. But at other moments in our nation’s history, including the period of the high school movement and the GI Bill era, Americans have thought about the education of our young people very differently. And so we made decisions about higher education that promoted equality and shared mobility over competition and the hoarding of opportunity. (pg. 328)
As a parent of kids who hopefully will one day be college bound, I consider this book excellent reading.If you're a tiger parent (or maybe even if you're not), the book has a great list of sports that your kids should engage in, and a big explanation of why rich parents spend huge sums of money on college prep schools --- it's not just about academics, it's also about learning how to fit into the incredibly wealthy culture at the elite universities. Highly recommended.