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Friday, January 17, 2020

Review: Did you just eat that?

You've probably heard of the 5-second rule, or the story the electric hand dryers spew germs all over the bathroom. Did you just eat that? covers all these personal hygiene topics and more from a scientific point of view, right down to publishing the procedures for replicating their studies.

Ok, most of the stuff is just common sense: yes, eating food off the floor is unsafe even if you picked it up with 1s. They trace the origin of the 5-second rule myth to Julia Child picking food that'd fallen off onto a stove top (not the floor!) and somehow that story turned into a generic rule. Wow.

The stuff that I was surprised by was that yes, electric hand-dryers are really much worse than paper towels for personal hygiene, and that yes, you need to put the toilet seat cover down before you flush or you'll aerosolized any bacteria in your stool! Also, the most bacteria-ridden item in a restaurant? The menu! Definitely wash your hands after touching the menu!

The different types of dip have different anti-bacterial properties, but surprisingly, the mechanical viscosity of the dip matters much more for preventing the spread of germs caused by double-dipping that both chocolate and cheese dips will outperform salsa, despite the salsa's higher acidity.

There are a few questions I have: if you wash your hands for 10s instead of 20s, how much bacteria is left? Those practical questions were not asked or answered in this book.

The book was a quick short read and you'll never look at a restaurant menu the same way again after after reading it. Recommended.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Reread: Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 1

The thing with reading a lot of comic books is that after a while you realize that none of them can hold a candle to Alan Moore's work, or at least, your memory of Alan Moore's work. Not even Neil Gaiman, who can do character development well but couldn't plot his way out of a paper bag.

Saga of the Swamp Thing was Alan Moore's breakthrough opus in the USA. It opens with a bang, but having recently read Miracleman, I realize that there's a parallel that wasn't obvious when I read the two separated by significant amounts of time. Both reveals are followed by the appropriate protagonists becoming extremely incensed to the point of murder. It's quite clear that Moore lifted the Swamp Thing's reveal directly from his work on Miracleman.

The villain, such he is, however, is much more sympathetic than the ones in Miracleman. The setup for the second book takes its time, however, though with the benefit of hindsight one can easily see the foreshadowing happening. The American Gothic series of Swamp Thing comics was very well reviewed, but looking back, I think it's not anywhere close to Alan Moore at his peak. Nevertheless, middle of the pack Alan Moore is still way better than say, J. Michael Straczyinski. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Review: The True Queen

The True Queen is a sequel to Sorceror to the Crown. The events in this novel take place after the events of Zen Cho's earlier novel, but the lead characters are completely different. It revolves a pair of sisters who've lost their memory and are on a quest to understand their past and what caused them to forget who they were.

The novel is written in a transparent prose, and the characters at first seem like outright idiots, making you want to slap their faces for being so willfully stupid. By the middle of the novel, however, the plot becomes obvious and you understand why they had to behave the way they are. In retrospect, you can see the character flaws that caused them to behave the way they did, rather than just having to do what the plot requires.

The characters from the first book show up, but most of them are sideshows rather than main characters. Zen Cho would have made a great DM, because she kept the main characters having to do stuff, because the great heroes of the past are too busy working on other important problems. The reveal when it comes does seem inevitable, and I didn't feel cheated.

The big seams in the world building are that by unifying the magic of the Indonesian islands with that of the English faerie, you end up with a mish-mash of stuff that doesn't quite fit together, and doesn't make thematic sense. On the other hand, you could argue that it's all magic anyway, so why would you get so picky.

All in all, a great book to read while you're sick in bed. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Review: Symphony in C

Symphony in C is Robert Hazen's book about everybody's favorite element, Carbon.  Far from a dry recounting of its properties, Hazen describes not just the creation of carbon in the hearts of stars and its unique place in the periodic table, but the evolution of earth's deep carbon cycle.

Interesting stories include:

  • The great oxygenation event affected not just the biosphere, but also minerals, as minerals reacted with the oxygen that was in the air and changed their properties.
  • Coal is formed during the several hundred million years in which nothing could digest cellulose. Once fungi learned to digest cellulose, trees dying no longer made coal. That's why there's a limited amount of coal in the ground.
  • Life on earth will continue despite humans killing themselves by making the climate too hot for primates to survive. The majority of the biosphere are made out of single-cell microbes, and those will do just fine in the absence of humans.
  •  Carbon dating is only useful for dating items in the near past (50K years or so). Once past that, the limits to our C-14 counting methods means that we don't have accuracy any more. Furthermore, modern changes to the atmosphere (from atomic explosions to the dramatic increase in C-12 content created by our burning fossil fuels) means that future generations might not be able to easily use carbon dating to date objects from our era.
There's much more other stuff, including a discussion of various theories of how the first single-celled creatures created, to the creation of Eukaryotes. It's mostly good, though Hazen is all too fond of his "symphony" metaphor and tries to use music terminology throughout, which was annoying at times.

Nevertheless, good stuff and well worth the easy listening (I listened to the audio book edition).


Monday, January 13, 2020

Review: Sorcerer to the Crown

Sorcerer to the Crown is a mash up of Jane Austen with a dash of the Napoleonic wars. The setting is a world in which magic exists, and that England even has a royal sorcerer as an official position. To prevent the world from drifting too far off history, the story has it such that sorcerers on both sides are forsworn from entering the battlefield.

Into this milleu, the plot revolves around a couple of outsiders: an African ex-slave who through a sequence of unlikely events becomes the royal sorcerer, and a child abandoned by her father when he drowns and brought up in a magical finishing school for girls. The two characters meet, interact, and of course have adventures that reveal all their secrets to each other.

The writing was transparent, the plot moves quickly (unlike say, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, where the plot moved at such a glacial pace that I abandoned the book long before my library loan period was up). All the words are spelled English-style, rather than American style, lending the book a nicely English flavor.

Recommended as a light airplane novel. Too many attempts to write fantasy have drowned in recent years due to annoying affectations in the writing style, so it's important to single out transparent prose when you see it.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Review: Talking to Strangers

Talking to Strangers is Malcolm Gladwell's book about making sense of other people, and why we're so easily fooled. Written in his trademark, breezy style, it's a fast and easy read that nevertheless provides some color for some of the famous incidents you might have read about/heard about, while not providing any easy answers.

The story that Gladwell tells is that it's easy for people to fool us because there's a huge penalty for paranoia (the story of Harry Markopolos, who discovered that Bernie Madoff was a fraud but couldn't get the SEC to follow up on it is enlightening --- the poor guy got so paranoid that he ended up carrying a gun and becoming a recluse, convinced that everyone else was in cahoots with Madoff), while there's strong societal pressure to "go along to get along,."

The flip side of it is that if you don't conform to society's idea of how you should behave in certain circumstances (like Amanda Knox, whose roommate was murdered), then you're going to pay a penalty for not behaving that way and people will be suspicious of you no matter what, even if you're perfectly innocent.

Then Gladwell dives off into meandering themes: alcohol (Brock Turner), suicide (Sylvia Plath), and finally policing (Sandra Bland). Gladwell nicely avoids the nice and pat answers (such as the Paul Eckman micro-expression stuff which has by now been well and goodly debunked) and points out that people are so bad at judging facial expressions that a face to face interview is much worse than not meeting someone in person.

Well worth the short time you'll spending reading the book. Recommended.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Review: Permanent Record

Permanent Record is Edward Snowden's account of his career with the CIA and NSA as an independent contractor/employee and how he came to become a whisteblower of mass surveillance. Maybe for someone who hasn't been in Silicon Valley for a while the story about mass surveillance might be a new one, but I think anyone who hasn't lived under a rock over the past decade or so has realized that the private sector is probably the biggest offender of privacy, and that the public in general, is pretty OK with the so-called invasion of privacy.

The deeper story for me, of course, is how much the IT outsourcing of the CIA and NSA to the private sector has probably meant that those organizations have lost control of the critical infrastructure surrounding their work.

In any case, I'm a firm advocate of the Transparent Society view of privacy. I don't think anyone should have any privacy, least of all the rich and powerful.  I think that for all intents and purposes we have already lost privacy, and the right thing to do is to point the same technologies towards the politically/materialistically powerful and hold them accountable for the world we're in.

Did I enjoy the book? It was good reading, but I found Snowden's pontificating tiresome --- at no point did he point out how the alphabet-soup government agencies did anything particularly egregious, compared to what Alphabet/Facebook companies have done. Certainly if my children did what he did, my reaction would be: "What? For what gain? Who have you benefited?"