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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.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

2020 Book Reviews

Non-Fiction

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.