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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.


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.