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Friday, February 22, 2019

Review: Honey Stinger Organic Waffles

Amazon had a $5 special on the Honey Stinger Organic Waffles, so I ordered a box to try. Each box of 16 costs about $20, so these cost quite a bit more than Clif bars, which usually come in at $1/bar. To make up for that, they're lighter, but also have only 150 calories per serving than 200.

Surprisingly, these aren't very sweet. The packaging, however, is finicky. While I can open up a Clif bar and eat one while cycling, I couldn't possibly open up one of these and eat it while cycling. In fact, the waffle is so crumbly that you're almost certainly going to lose a percentage of those precious 150 calories to crumbs falling out of the wrapper when you try to eat it. They're lighter, so it all comes out in the wash since you can carry more of these than Clif bars.

Neither Bowen nor Boen like them as much as Clif bars, or Honey Stinger gels. I don't think I will  buy any more, because of the crumbling problem. I cannot imagine that these will survive any kind of bike tour, or if they have to share a jersey pocket with almost anything else.

Not recommended.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Review: Gatchaman 1994 OVA

I realized that the 1994 Gatchaman OVA was part of the Gatchaman Complete collection. I was pretty sure that the original Gatchaman was a kids show (having grown up with Gatchaman II), but I figured I'd better curate the show before the kids asked to see it.

It turned out that I didn't have to worry. The show is boring. It's clearly aimed at the nostalgia fans, with plenty of long drawn out moments that won't mean anything if you didn't grow up with the show. (Remember the first Star Trek movie where the directors had these massive long drawn out sequences featuring the Enterprise? Those were boring to me, because I didn't care, never having seen the TV show!)

The show consists of 3 episodes, the first being drawn from the first episode of the original TV show. Well, turning a 20 minute episode into a 45 minute TV movie didn't do the plot any favors. The second features Red Impulse, and didn't feature anything worth while. The last episode finally had some action, but had none of the pathos, drama, or even sense of sacrifice the kids show had. Yes, you can allow the kids to watch it, but they wouldn't want to.

Not recommended. Watch the original instead. It's so much better.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Review: The New Childhood

I really wanted to like The New Childhood. Shapiro strikes me as likely to be a great parent (most parents will not be bothered to learn their kids interests, or pick up a controller and play with their kids!), and the NPR interview was great.

I opened the book hoping for studies, statistics, etc, and got none of that. The book does point out several things, including that wide-spread literacy, reading, and penmanship is largely an industrial phenomenon, and the parents who grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons have very little right to complain when their children spend the same amount of time in front of a screen, plus they're interacting, problem solving, and working their way through a rules system that's logical and unyielding, yet demands cooperation and creativity.

But real studies and statistics? Forget it. The book is full of platitudes and raises a ton of questions, but the author presents no answers. There are no suggestions on how parents should guide their kids in the era of fake news, and how to approach education in such a way that kids check their sources before believing everything.

The saving grace of the book is that it's short, and doesn't overstay its welcome. But with that time, you could be reading Brain Rules for Baby instead!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Review: Monsters 2

Monsters 2 is the sequel to Pixeljunk Monsters Ultimate HD. When Bowen learned that this was available for the PS4, he didn't hesitate to dig into his wallet to pull out the $15 to pay for it (and the DLC!). It was written by different developers while using similar concepts and developing similar ideas, but utilizing more modern technologies.

The big change is that the maps are now in 3D. This means that tikiman can jump, and coins and gems can roll down the hill rather than just staying put. That adds a significant challenge in the game, because now not only do you have to move further to pick up your coins and gems, but also the elevation of the tower affects both the damage it does and the range, as well as potentially putting obstacles in.

The other game mechanic that's different is the use of advanced towers. Those now require gems for every single purchase, rather than having to be purchased once and then unlimited purchase. This is balanced by reducing the number of gems required to purchase a tower. The tower mix means that you'll actually use advanced towers less often, with only a few overpowered ones (such as the hive tower) being obvious purchases.

The game is divided into areas of 3 similarly-themed levels, with each area locked by gathering a number of rainbows (which you gain by beating a level without losing any chibis to monsters). Each level has 3 difficulty levels, fun, tricky, and mayhem. Tricky is unlocked by completing the level at "fun" difficulty, but so far we haven't figured out how to unlock mayhem.

The game has couch-coop, which makes each level quite a bit easier, as you now have twice the number of actions to respond to the monsters, and you can break up the duties however you like, for instance with one player chasing coins while the other focuses on building and upgrading towers. This gives your hyperactive kid something to do while you worry about strategy. The game shines here, and we almost never play it except in couch co-op, and it's not nearly as frustrating as say, Overcooked, which we loved the concept of (and enjoyed the first few levels) but couldn't get good enough to finish, as that game was designed to frustrate you.

Monsters 2 is therefore a game I can recommend for parents to enjoy with their children. I wish it supported more players, but the balance is just about perfect as it is right now.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Review: The Longevity Diet

Having recently read a crack-pot diet book, I was wary when I saw The Longevity Diet. To my relief, this is not a crackpot diet book. Valter Longo instead of peppering his text with anecdote after anecdote, refers to clinical trials, and is careful to couch his conclusions with caveats:
Quinn, who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and was about to undergo chemotherapy. Shortly after the story appeared, one of the judge’s friends called me at USC and informed me that Quinn had been fasting for eight days. I was horrified. “That’s crazy,” I said. “Please tell your friend to start eating immediately.” (Loc 1667)
 Similarly, he discusses his theory that too much protein is actually bad for you, especially if it triggers growth hormone:
Although obesity is known to increase one’s risk of diabetes, protein intake may be just as big of a factor. One study following forty thousand men for up to twenty years showed a twofold increased risk for diabetes associated with a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet.7 Those results are consistent with our 2014 study of six thousand people in the United States indicating increased diabetes risk in those with the highest protein intake, although the small population size limited the significance of our results. (Kindle Loc 1957)
Note that he refers to a 6000 person study as a small population size and discusses the difficulty of generalizing from a small sample size to the entire population.

OK, let's look at Dr. Longo's arguments:

  1. It's well known that the Mediterranean diet is good for you, but certain other places in the world (e.g., Okinawa Japan, and Loma Linda, California) also have a history of producing long lived humans
  2. The commonality between the diets of all these places is a high emphasis on plant based diet, low use of processed food, low dependence on animal based protein (and not too much protein at that), and the use of fish as the main source of protein.
  3. Fasting has been a human tradition in the past, including intermittent fasting. Clinical trials indicate that a fast-mimicking diet (FMD) has positive results for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy: reduction in nausea, as well as more effective elimination of cancer cells, and faster recovery.
  4. Diet should vary depending on needs throughout the life cycle. In adult and middle age, a lower calorie diet with less protein is associated with better longevity, while in old age (past 65), increasing protein intake becomes more necessary to preserve muscle and increase weight for better survivability of age-related illness
His recommendations for healthy people is to adopt a traditional diet. The most cranky type of this advice is to eat what your ancestors ate, the reasoning being that your ancestors would have figured out what foods had poor fit for your genotype. This struck me as the most iffy part of the book, indicating that a German person who moved to say, India, shouldn't eat curry, even if that diet was adapted for the region for certain specific reasons.

The diet recommendations are fairly strict: 0.31 to 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. That's about 40-47g of protein per day for a 130 pound person (an 8oz steak, for instance, has 56g of protein, blowing that budget out of the water). The rest of your calorie intake pretty much has to come from complex carbohydrates and "good oils" like olive oil!

One limitation of the book is that the doctor thinks that exercise is an hour of fast walking a day (or fastish cycling), and doesn't factor in diets for people who might be more active (or say, engaged in strength training). The book continually warns that if you're over 65, the fasting protocol is not for you, and that you should try to do it only as part of a clinical trial, etc. and then proceeds to tell you how it works! He does point you at a commercial program called ProLon, but disclaims that he's making any money from it.

The fasting protocol looks doable (1 transition day, 5 days of very little food, and then 1 transition day), so it's the long term diet that would be difficult to maintain, though the book does have a recipe in the back that has recommendations (basically, no animal protein means milks, yogurts, etc have to have plant-based substitutes), with only an occasional egg.

In any case, I can't dismiss this book as a crack pot diet book, but the program seems challenging and worth investigating if you're trying to lose weight (I'm not), or have some other health issues. The caveat says to not try this if you're already diabetic without medical supervision though!

Friday, February 15, 2019

Reread: A Wizard of Earthsea

I got fed up with the story and decided that I'd stop reading The Girl Who Drank the Moon to Bowen because it just wasn't worth my precious time with my son. I picked up a classic instead: A Wizard of Earthsea. OK, so it's rated as a 7th grade book, but it's actually very short, and the language is so beautiful I was enthusiastic to read it every time. (My wife had to stop me from going on with the book on many nights, because the language was so compelling)

Every word flows, every line reads as though it was meant to be read aloud. When we got to the end, Bowen said, "Wait, that's so short!" And then he asked me to get the next book in the series, The Tombs of Atuan. That's a much darker book, though similarly short, so we'll see if he persists through it.

I've now decided that I'm just going to fill up my reading time with Bowen with classic novels and stories instead of trying to find "modern" books that might not be any good. I'm guessing that after this we'll probably move on to The Sword in the Stone. (He bounced off Prydain, unfortunately!)

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Review: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (Vol 12)

I recently let my subscription to the magazine of fantasy and science fiction lapse, mostly because they had raised the prices, but also because I decided that it was just easier to get one of the Year's Best collections especially since those would go on sale at the end of the year for $0.99.

My pick this year (simply on the basis of price) was The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, edited by Jonathan Strahan.  I've had good luck with his past editions, and since Gardner Dozois passed away, his "industry standard" collections will no longer compete with Mr. Strahan's.

The book consists of 30 stories, with a fair number of really good ones. Good stories include: Zen and the Art of Starship Mainteneance, Probably Still the Chosen One, A Series of Steaks, Carnival Nine, Eminence, Sidewalks, My English Name, The Secret Life of Bots, The Smoke of Gold is Glory, The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine, An Evening with Severyn Grimes, The Worshipful Society of Glovers, and Belladonna Nights. One of those stories (My English Name) I'd already read in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but the others were all new to me. I was surprised by the large number of stories from tor.com (which is a free webzine) and Clarkesworld (which is a fairly recent new magazine), indicating that the major magazines (Analog, Asimov's and F&SF) aren't a major influence on Strahan, though now I'm suspicious that those stories from tor.com were cheaper to reprint than the ones from other magazines.

In any case, a 45% hit rate is pretty decent. Recommended.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Review: Classics of English Literature

In my continuing effort to fill in gaps in my education, I picked the great courses program Classics of English Literature as my next listen. It turned out to be a great listen, and a great survey work of English literature. The emphasis, the lecturer points out isn't "literature in English", but English literature, so American literature is explicitly excluded.

Starting from Chaucer and Shakespeare, and then with lesser known older works by Samuel Johnson (even with a detour through the King James edition of the Bible), the lecturer, John Sutherland evokes the grand landscape of English literature and culture and how it's reflected in English literature. As part of all that, we get biographies of the great authors, Byron, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Austen, the Bronte sisters, E.M. Foster. Wow. All of those biographies were short, context-setting, and stuff I'd never known, not even from say, my visit to Wordsworth's Dove Cottage. We also got a good look at the war poets like Owens and Sassoon. We got multiple views of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness". Even H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle were included as the representatives of genre literature. We get a detailed examination of the rise of the novel, and its commercial requirements, as well as the obligatory examinations of Charles Dickens. Just about the only English literature not touched by Sutherland was of course, the work of the Inklings (Tolkein, Lewis, etc).

The series of lectures even covers why there were no great English plays in the 19th century ("a black hole"). It turns out during that time, all plays had to be approved by the royal chamberlain, which led to a censorship and thereby English theater didn't participate in the grappling of ideas.

Sutherland's enthusiasm about the great works of English literature is infectious (though I'm still not ready to tackle Middlemarch or Wuthering Heights), and intriguing enough. It's also a nice change from the heavy technical reads and listens that I've been otherwise reviewing here on this blog. Recommended.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Review: Human Errors

Human Errors has one of the best premises I'd ever seen for a science book. The idea is that there are plenty of books extolling the wonders of the human body, how well designed it is, how delicately controlled it is, etc. But this is the book that focuses on the bugs in the design of the human body. And boy there are many bugs (as anyone over the age of 40 can attest). For instance, I've always contended that the human nose/sinus system is the worst design anyone can come up with, and this book confirms that:
There are a variety of reasons for why we’re so susceptible to sinus infections, but one of them is that the mucous drainage system is not particularly well designed. Specifically, one of the important drainage-collection pipes is installed near the top of the largest pair of cavities, the maxillary sinuses, located underneath the upper cheeks. Putting the drainage-collection point high within these sinuses is not a good idea because of this pesky thing called gravity. While the sinuses behind the forehead and around the eyes can drain downward, the largest and lowest two cavities must drain upward. Sure, there are cilia to help propel the mucus up, but wouldn’t it be easier to have the drainage below the sinuses rather than above them? What kind of plumber would put a drainpipe anywhere but at the bottom of a chamber? (Pg. 10)
Indeed, the book confirms that other mammals like dogs, horses, and cats simply just don't suffer from the constant respiratory colds that humans do, because their sinuses drain correctly. Our heritage is due to the flattening of our noses (probably a result of sexual selection).

Similarly, nearly every athlete you've met who's an active runner, tennis player, basketball player, or soccer player will have had their knees go wrong. The knee is another badly designed body part:
 In quadrupeds, the strain of running and jumping is spread among four limbs, and the limb muscles absorb most of it. Once our ancestors transitioned to bipedalism, however, the strain was spread over two legs instead of four. This was too much for the muscles by themselves, so our bodies recruited the leg bones to help with the strain. The result was that human legs became straightened so that the bones, rather than the muscles, could bear most of the impact. Compare a standing human with a standing ape: a human’s legs are fairly straight, while an ape’s legs are bowlegged and usually bent. This straight-leg arrangement works out okay for normal walking and running. But for sudden shifts in direction or momentum—when you’re running and then stop short or when you make a sharp turn at high speed—the knees must bear the force of this sudden, intense strain. Sometimes, the ACL is simply not strong enough to hold the leg bones together as they twist or pull away from each other, and it tears. (Pg. 23)
 I book even came up with some human defects that I didn't thin about. Consider the frequent exhortation to eat a variety of foods in order to get all the micro and macro nutrients that we need. Why the heck do we need so many crazy micro-nutrients?
Some people’s diets don’t give them everything they need, and even people who get everything they need can’t always absorb it properly. So sometimes, we need a little boost. That’s why we’re always being told to drink milk, for instance; it gives us the calcium that we need but can’t produce in sufficient quantities ourselves. Now compare our demanding diet with the diet of the cows that produce that milk. Cows can survive on pretty much nothing but grass. They live long and perfectly healthy lives and produce delicious milk and rich meat. How can these cows thrive without a delicate mix of legumes, fruits, fiber, meat, and dairy like humans are told to eat? Forget cows; look at your own cats or dogs. Consider how simple their diets are. Most dog food is nothing more than meat and rice. No vegetables. No fruits. No supplemental vitamins. Dogs do just fine on this diet and, if not overfed, can live long and healthy lives. How do these animals do it? Simple: they are better designed for eating. (Pg. 36)
The book goes on to describe how our vitamin C generation gene is literally broken. It's in our genome, but some mutation disabled it ages ago so now we can't make our own vitamin C.  Similarly, we can't extract iron from vegetables easily, and worse, our intestinal system is so badly designed that our large intestines generate vitamin B12, but only the small intestines can absorb it, so all the vitamin B12 our body creates gets dumped out with our stools. Take that, intelligent design!

I spent the first 50 pages of the book highlighting one great passage after another, and fully expected to give the book nothing less than 5 stars by the time I was done reading it, but after the first 2-3 chapters the book sort of ran into a brick wall. Part of it is that my recent reading of Sex at Dawn has revolutionized my view of human reproduction, so his inveighing of our "lousy" reproduction system rings false to me. (Human fertility simply would not have been an issue in the tribal hunter-gatherer lifestyle, though obviously death from childbirth and infant mortality would have been a big issue, but that's a property we share with all animal life!) Similarly, his analysis of our lifestyle diseases like obesity and cancer again don't seem like design flaws rather than the inevitable trade-off evolution had to make between reproductive fitness and long life.

By the time we get to the human brain defects (well worn in Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow and obviously not covered as well in this book), I was only reading hoping to get a few more gems out of it, and didn't get it.

In any case, I felt like the first half of the book was awesome, and covered material not covered anywhere else, but the second half of the book was full of padding and material better covered elsewhere. Nevertheless, the book overall is worth reading (especially if you haven't read as widely as I have about prospect theory), and comes recommended.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Review: Science News

It never ceases to amaze me that the cost of print magazine subscriptions is usually less than the cost of digital subscriptions (though many magazines to be fair, bundle it so that a print subscription comes with a web subscription). My biggest issue with the print+digital bundle is that my preferred long form reading is on the Kindle.

For the longest time, I've been looking for a magazine that covers science that's not written for English majors. The New York Times' science coverage, for instance, is frequently shallow, leaves out nuances, and tends to reflect journalistic tendencies to cover "both sides" rather than focus on the science. (One famous example was when one of their journalists covered "both sides" of the evolution/creation story as though both sides had a point!)

Science News turns out to be a $27/year subscription on the Kindle, and $50/year in print. The coverage isn't shallow. For instance, their February issue covers the recent "Vitamin D disappointments" studies in great detail, and includes all the nuances (basically, over a 2 year period, cancer rates are down 25%, but over a longer term the differentiation between the supplement and non-supplement groups narrows, indicating that vitamin D doesn't actually prevent cancer, but might slow it down). As a biweekly, each issue only has 2 "features", which are long, 3000+ word stories that cover a topic in detail. The rest of the issue is full of short updates (e.g., about what the far side lunar rover is doing, or some preliminary study results).

All in all, I'm impressed, both by the price and what you get. Recommended.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Review: Masters of Doom

I usually try to borrow books from the library, but my rule is that if the Kindle edition is $5 or less and the library doesn't have it in Kindle format, I'll buy it. Masters of Doom was a $2 sale and well worth the read.

I actually met both John Carmack and John Romero when I worked on the DOS/Windows RPC tunnel which enabled the DOS version of Quake to talk to the internet. At that time, Quake was pre-release, and the entire Id software team after we'd done getting the code working, would fire up a Quake server, then type in a cheat code to give me all the weapons as a handicap, and then proceed to slice and dice me up with their axes. (I was not then, nor ever a twitch gamer capable of keeping up with anyone who'd spent any amount of time with FPS's)

In any case, I'd met the folks involved, but of course, never knew their backstory, and in fact didn't play any of their games before Doom or after Quake, which made this book a perfect way for me to catch up. (I'd heard about Commander Keen and Daikatana, and certainly Quake Arena, but my involvement in PC games had gone away after that)

As an overview, the book is great. It does spend a lot of time explaining technical detail at a level intended for a non-programmer who might not know who Michael Abrash is (those of us who were PC assembly programmers knew him as a god), but the book is a great way for me to remind myself that yes, I was there at the dawn of eSports, when Carmack first gave away his Ferrari as part of a Quake tournament to Thresh. (I'd even met Thresh in person)

The great part of the book was that it analyzed what made the team of Carmack and Romero so great, and why neither Id nor Ion Storm had great success after the team fell apart. In any case, if you enjoy FPS games, this book is an essential must read. If you're a programmer in the corporate world, it's a great read to remind you that yes, 2 guys in a garage can produce something great without needing all that corporate apparatus around them, and even better, that it is possible to stay small and still be incredibly successful.

Recommended!

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Review: Sex At Dawn

Sex At Dawn is a book with an argument, so let me summarize the argument in the book:

Traditional views on the evolutionary nature of sex in humans are that humans are a naturally monogamous species, with rampant cheating. This view does not line up with the following evidence:

  • Human male-female dimorphism is about 20% (men are about 20% larger than women on average), making us more like Chimpanzees and Bonobos than like Gorillas and Gibbons.
  • Human male sexual organs display signs of having been evolved for sperm competition, rather than monogamy/harem-like structures: these includes testicles hanging outside the body in vulnerable locations, high sperm count, with coupious amounts of seminal fluid (which can actually vary depending on how recently the male has seen its mate), and preference.
  • Human females also display signs of having evolved for non-monogamous mating: human females are the louder of the couple when having sex (i.e., issuing calls for more mates to join in the sperm competition), human females can keep having orgasms far longer than a single male can keep it up, and human females also do not display any overt signs of ovulation but remain sexually active throughout the month.
  • Studies of humans in hunter-gatherer societies that are nomadic show that extreme egalitarianism is practiced: this includes sharing of food, and even rituals of observed sex and group rearing of children, contrary to the "selfish-gene" hypothesis where time, energy, and resources spent raising kids that don't carry your genes are considered "wasted." In practice, entire tribes would raise the children collectively, with men not necessarily knowing whose child is whose. Children in such societies experience a much more stable childhood life than the traditional "nuclear family" with a high chance of divorce.
There's lots of evidence in the book hammering in the details of each of the arguments made above, but that's the gist of the argument. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, and much time in the book is spent on both producing evidence (some of it cultural and observational: at one point they mention the famous "fake orgasm" scene in "When Harry Met Sally" wouldn't have been funny if it was Harry who was faking it), and pointing out that the traditional view of human monogamy doesn't have nearly as much evidence supporting it as previously supposed.

One interesting observation the authors make is that these traditional forager societies tend to be female oriented rather than male dominated, and they hypothesize that the creation of agriculture was what drove the current patriarchal society we see in the modern world. The book ends with a call to action for families to explore alternative structures rather than live unhappily in (sexual or otherwise) frustration. There are a few examples, but they do observe that children of 2 parent households do better by far than children of divorced households, and plead for parents to use their understanding of this book to design better (or at least less frustrating) lives for themselves.

I thought the book was very well argued and the evidence in favor of their view of human sexuality compelling. The book has revolutionized my thinking about human reproduction and evolution, and definitely makes many other books I've read about human sexuality that rely on the traditional, male-oriented patriarchy model of family formation obsolete. It also explains many phenomenon that might have puzzled you or me, such as why are relationships so hard, even between couples that really like each other, and why human fertility seems to be decreasing. Highly Recommended. I wouldn't be surprised if at the end of this year I named this book to be the book of the year.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Review: Rogue Heroes - The History of the SAS

After reading the brilliant The Spy and the Traitor, I went back and picked up Rogue Heroes from the library, hoping for another great read. After all, the SAS was the first "special-forces" unit anywhere in the world, and some of its original members might still be alive and available for interviews.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Macintyre's research this time came mostly from the War Dairies, the log and and action reports from service officers and NCOs. The kind of people who volunteer for special forces service aren't the introspective types and were unlikely to be the types to write well. Now, most of WW2's war fighters were conscripts, so early on in the war there were professors of Philosophy amongst the troops. One of them wrote a poem which became known as the "Paratrooper's Prayer":
Martin came across a notebook, in which Zirnheld had written a poem. It has since become known as the “paratroopers’ prayer,” and was adopted as the official poem of French airborne forces. I ask you, O Lord, to give me What I cannot obtain for myself. Give me, my Lord, what you have left. Give me what no one asks of you. I do not ask for repose Nor for tranquillity Of body or soul. I ask not for riches, Nor success, nor even health. My Lord, you are asked for such things so much That you cannot have any more of them. Give me, my God, what you have left. Give me what others don’t want. I want uncertainty and doubt. I want torment and battle. And give them to me absolutely, O Lord, So that I can be sure of having them always. For I will not always have the courage To ask for them from you. Give me, my God, what you have left. Give me what others do not want. But give me also the bravery, And the strength and the faith. For these are the things, O Lord, That only you can give. (Kindle Loc. 2471)
 Aside from occasional gems like this, unfortunately, the rest of the narrative is bone dry, without much tension. Many of the SAS's early strikes were fiascos, including a "reflective-of-bad-judgement" parachute drop in the middle of a thunderstorm which resulted in unnecessary death and no impact on the enemy. The SAS, ironically, ended up getting driven to their attack sites by the Long Range Desert Group instead for their early success.

The organizational history behind the SAS is also interesting, basically with David Stirling being one of the aristocrats using his connections so he could do whatever he liked. An examination of his merits probably would have had someone else running the show, but the British military sociology at that time (and quite possibly even now) being what it is, it would take someone in the upper class to be able to get the remit to form an out-of-the-box unit anyway. Stirling would get himself captured in an operation and spent much of the war as a POW, though he was apparently the POW with the most number of escape attempts. True to form, he escaped a lot, but staying escaped was apparently not his strong suit.

The book covers the entire WW2 campaign, including the work in Italy, France, and Germany. The travails the men of the SAS suffered was nothing short of astounding, and the casualties and betrays are described in detail, but with none of the verve in Macintyre's previous books. The book doesn't cover how the SAS approach led to modern day special forces, though it does mention the formation of Delta Force as a result of an exchange program with the US.

I'd still recommend the book as it does make good reading. Just don't expect the level of quality that's in Macintyre's other books. Macintyre's first love is espionage, and it clearly shows.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

How Alexa captured me as a customer and dragged me into the post smartphone era

I can clearly remember when I knew I'd been captured by Garmin as a customer: it was when I bought their stupendously expensive Smart Scale, which I still use every day. I had a similar epiphany last week, when I started using Alexa on my Moto X4 instead of Google Assistant.

Here's what happened. During Prime Day, I snagged an Audible membership for about $5/month for 3 months. I used it to buy several audio books, all of which were quite long. Google Assistant can start Audible, but for whatever reason it's unable to tell it to resume playing the last book I was listening to. Alexa on the Moto X4, however, not only can do that, but can also fetch the book I want to listen to by title and resume at the last known point. I took a look at the app and to my surprise, what the Alexa app on Android phone doesn't do is to start Audible and start the book, but instead, directly streams the audio from Amazon's server by itself without starting that app! Not only does this mean I don't need to have the Audible app (I do anyway so that I can cache books on the SD card), the latency is also much lower than having Google Assistant start the Google Music app and have it start playing. I haven't tried, but I'm pretty sure the Alexa app also streams music directly without starting the Amazon music app.

I shouldn't have been surprised, but because of my history working for Google and using Google products, I knew that in a million years, no Google product manager would take this approach. I systematically broke down how I ended up with no less than 3 Alexa products in regular use: the Fire TV Cube, the Echo Dot, and now my Moto X4. The Echo Dot was the easiest to explain: it was so Bowen could listen to audio books (again, from Audible).

The Fire TV Cube turned out to be a great entertainment center control device, and now replaces our Logitech Harmony Smart Control Hub, which I sold. Google doesn't have an equivalent unit, because to have one would be to acknowledge that other devices exist outside the Google eco-system, which apparently is a no-no, leading to the elimination of the headphone jack/audio output port from not just Google's phones, but also the Google Home smart speaker series of devices. Which meant that the nice speakers in the living room are now "owned" by Alexa, and so my wife added an Amazon Music subscription, even though all my personal music was sync'd to Google Music. Doubling down on higher end audio, Amazon is even launching an amplifier that supports Alexa.

Similarly, I ended up using Amazon Photos for RAW photo backup, because it was already folded into the Amazon Prime subscription, which bundled in TV shows for the kids that are turning out to be very good. And because of that Prime subscription (as well as the huge collection of books on Amazon), we now have 2 Fire HD8 tablets that the kids use as general purpose Android tablets as well as just video streaming.

I scratched my head as to how Amazon ended up with me as a loyal customer despite my background, and I realized that this was where Amazon's product design/product managers trumped Google's superior engineering. Sure, Alexa is not bilingual, while Google Home/Voice Assistant is. But since all that speech recognition is done in the cloud anyway, I'm comfortable waiting for Amazon to implement it eventually (or if it doesn't, we've learned to live with the limitations). But not having a device that can hook up to our entertainment system meant that Google Home speakers was never in the running for the living room. You can't upgrade hardware that doesn't have the proper I/O channels, while you can easily upgrade software in the cloud!

Similarly, not having a decent e-book reader meant that the default e-book reader of choice was always the Amazon Kindle, which has superb integration for my favorite book vendor of choice, the local library. And ever since Google abandoned the low end Nexus 7 tablets in pursuit of Apple-like prices (and presumably profit-margins) for Android tablets, that meant that the tablets would default to Amazon's ecosystem as well, since no one else is selling decent tablets at $50 each.

What would I do if I was a Google product manager trying to counter this onslaught? There are probably some things Google will never do, like produce a decent e-reader, so that's probably out. But bringing back a decent low-end Android tablet is probably something Google can do, since it has done so in the past. I'd bundle Google's services: Google shopping express, Youtube Red (or whatever it's called), Google Drive storage/Google Docs should all be bundled in together in one price. Put out a Fire TV Cube equivalent with sufficient control for other devices in the living room (an I/R blaster is enough) Even all that might not be enough, but at least it would make it feel like Google is trying. As it is, it definitely feels like Google doesn't have a coherent, integrated strategy where everything fits together, while Amazon does (and at a very high value to price ratio!). Google's strategy feels like a company that's chasing after Apple's customers, but with none of the integration, social prestige, and marketing prowess that Apple puts into its efforts.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Reread: Alan Moore's Miracleman

I rarely re-read books, and comic books, in particular, don't age well, with very few exceptions. The most notable of all exceptions, of course, is anything written by Alan Moore. Boen recently saw my old issues of Miracleman, and asked me to read them to him. I was happy to oblige, though I noted that he quickly drifted away after I started. The themes might be a bit too mature for him. In the years since my precious copies were bagged, the legal issues surrounding the book appear to have been resolved, and you can now buy them on the Kindle or on paper. You need to buy and read them in the following order:

  1. A Dream of Flying
  2. The Red King Syndrome
  3. Olympus
  4. The Golden Age (by Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham)
Re-reading them as an adult, these are stunning. A Dream of Flying, for instance, does a massive ret-con on the original Marvelman Family series. (For those who don't know, Marvelman was a rip-off of the Shazam series, complete with Young Marvelman saying the word "Marvelman" as his transformation mantra) In 5 short issues, we get a full explanation of where those powers really come from, what those chintzy stories from the 50s really meant, and no, it wasn't really just "all a dream."

From here on, you get an unrolling of the implications of what a world full of superheroes is like. And sure, Watchmen might be more nuanced and full of symbology and all sorts of English-major goodness, but Miracleman really tells the story of what a true, honest-to-goodness superman type superhero would actually do to the planet, and shows the true devastation inherent in an honest-to-goodness superhero brawl in a metropolitan area like London would be. The images are unlike anything you've seen anywhere else, and they put other comic books to shame.

Other, lesser writers and artists have tried to retread the same themes, most notably The Authority. But for literacy, a sweeping introduction of alien races, etc. in just a few pages, Alan Moore is the master of the medium, and these comic books, written at the height of his maturity in the later issues are amazing. Sure, there are a few plot holes (though Gaiman backfills some of them), for instance,
Dr. Gargunza's plot to take over Winter's body couldn't have worked and he would have realized that once Winter's eyes opened to look at him from the womb.  Furthermore, why didn't they try the safety override word that Dr. Gargunza use on Kid Miracleman?

But those are minor nitpicks. This is a stunningly great series, and well worth the time I spent to re-read them, and the money spent buying the issues that were missing from my collection to read. Highly recommended. If you don't read any other comic books, read the ones by Alan Moore!

Friday, February 01, 2019

Review: The Girl Who Drank the Moon

The Girl Who Drank the Moon is the 2017 Newberry Award winner and has won many book awards for 5-7th grade readers. I checked out the book from the library for Bowen to read, but got curious and read to the finish before he did.

Unfortunately, the book is mostly padding. While there are a great many psychological plot points (grandmother setting up a spell that would end her life? deep and tough), the book never does anything with them and has very little pay-off.

Certainly, nothing that can be compared with A Wizard of Earthsea. Disappointing. I switched Bowen's reading back to A Wizard of Earthsea, and I was astounded by how much more enthusiastic I was when I was reading to him. Lesson learned: there's plenty of classics. The more modern award winners seem more driven by prize-related politics than by actual quality writing.