Friday, November 17, 2017

2017 Books of the Year

I read 55 books this year, and then on top of that piled on 20 audio books and 9 comic books, which makes this a bumper year for books read. As usual, non-fiction takes the lead in terms of books worth your time.

My book of the year is How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Whether or not you agree with the premise of the book, it's a different approach to understanding emotions and debunking prior models of emotional intelligence and thinking. It's very much well worth your time to read, and will make you a better person. Other books of note include: Hillbilly Elegy, The Undoing Project, and Einstein.

On the fiction side, I really enjoyed My Sister Rosa.It's an outstanding novel about family dynamics as well as an excellent coming-of-age story. It doesn't have the usual happy ending, but in exchange, it grants you unusual insight into what a high functioning sociopath is (and there are many in society), and how to recognize one. It's well worth a read, and even beats out excellent rereads that I did this year like Stories of Your Life.

For Audio Books, I really enjoyed the Medical School for Everyone series. In particular, Pediatrics Grand Rounds would have saved me a lot of angst when my children were smaller, and I encourage every parent to audit it. The other books in the series: Emergency Medicine and Grand Rounds Cases are by the same lecturer and have no overlap, so if you enjoyed that one, you can pick up the others in the series and not fear any repetition.

Alas, I didn't read any comic books this year really worth recommending.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: Batman - The Long Halloween

The Long Halloween is a story from the early days of Batman. As Batman stories go, it's pretty good. Early Batman means there aren't that many silly things, like sidekicks, Batgirl, and the rest of the Bat  family. It's also an interesting take on Harvey Dent (aka TwoFace), in fact, easily the best Harvey Dent as portrayed in the comics.

The mystery revolves around the Holiday killer, and who it is. The authors kinda cheated in an improbable fashion (I won't spoil it for you, but I think if you read it you'll not be wondering why I consider the solution to the mystery unsatisfying), but it's one-third fair. (To say more would be to give away the mystery)

The rest of it is a bit cookie cutter. Mildly recommended.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review: The Sudden Appearance of Hope

The Sudden Appearance of Hope won the world fantasy award for best novel in 2017. I was surprised to discover that this novel was readily available at the local library for a kindle checkout (despite having only one copy), so I proceeded to check it out.

The premise of the novel is that Hope Arden is a woman who cannot be remembered: if you met her, a few minutes after you can't see her any more, you'll have forgotten the encounter. This seems like such a great gimmick. I imagined a novel where the non-memorable woman is metaphor for all the people whom you pass by during the course of the day whom you'll never give a second thought to. Maybe they're too plain, or in the case of us Asian guys who get mistaken for each other by white people, just not considered interesting enough to make an impression. At the very least, it's a nice change from the plethora of vampire/werewolf/night magic fantasy crap that we see all over the place.

Well, I was wrong. There's some philosophizing in the novel, and there's plenty of angsting to go around, but Claire North has gone for the super-thief approach, complete with a full exposition of the limits of her powers (e.g., cameras can still record her appearance, you can still take a picture of her and write notes to yourself to remind you that you saw her, etc). The protagonist is also said to be beautiful by many she encounters (hey, if you're going to go Hollywood, you need to make sure the casting director can hire a big name star for the lead).

The plot revolves around a smart phone app called "Perfection." Perfection is the ultimate app that Google, Facebook, and Snapchat are evolving towards: the ultimate behavioral control and reprogramming app that changes you towards being perfect, making tons of money in the process. Why it exists, what the goals of the organization that launched are, then becomes the focus of the novel.

My problem with the novel is that long parts of it is pretentious, unreadable drivel barely worth skimming. It references Byron, but does nothing with it. There's plenty of stream of consciousness, some of it hints at a cool statement of what it must take to exist in a world where no one can remember you, but all of the characters in the book have no motivations that make any sense to me. The book never explains Hope's special powers (that's OK, it's fantasy), but Hope's antagonists never come up with more sophisticated approaches to trying to capture her either: e.g., machine-based feature recognition, biometric identification, or even simply tracking her via fingerprints. Since Hope frequently travels in countries where people with dark skin are viewed with suspicion, I would have expected racial profiling at the very least!

I finished the book hoping for an ending that somehow justifies the World Fantasy Award. I came away completely unfulfilled and wishing I had the time I'd put into the novel back.

Not recommended.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review: Batman - The Complete Hush

I finally got around to reading The Complete Hush because of the Kindle Fire. You can download the Hoopla app and with your library, check it out of the library for free. The app does a great job of showing comics and letting you zoom in panel by panel. There's a delay when you switch between horizontal and vertical layouts (the 2-spread pages in comic book pages frequently tempt you into doing this), but otherwise it works great.

The content of the story seemed very familiar. Then I realized that this story was part of what went into the story line for Arkham Knight! I enjoyed the story but it felt a bit rushed and compressed. The weakest part of it was Batman: through the entire story arc, he didn't feel competent and in charge (and that's despite of course his ability to manage Superman). I felt the video game did a better job of portraying Batman than this book did.

Friday, November 10, 2017

First Impressions: Kindle Fire HD8 2016

Kindle Fire HD8 tablets are well known for being cheap. Cheap, however, does not mean good value, and I thought I'd avoid getting the 16GB model since I've had so many struggles with 16GB phones running out of storage. Well, Amazon's currently running a 25% sale on refurbished 2016 Kindle Fire HD8s, which meant I got one for $40. I figured with Amazon's generous return policy I could return it if I didn't like it.

The refurbished model looks indistinguishable from a new one. I booted it up and it was reasonably fast, but what's amazing to me was that when I opened up the storage setting I discovered that it had 12GB free, which was much more than what I'd experienced from similarly sized Android phones. Amazon's done some significant shrinkage on their version of Android.

One of my prior objections to the Kindle Fire tablets were that they didn't have the Google Play store. That's not quite true if you're a technie: there's a well-known way to get the Google Play store on the tablet, and it works just fine. Everything works as you might expect from a tablet.

The shortage of RAM is an issue: these devices come with only 1.5GB of RAM, rather than the 3-4GB that regularly ship with even midrange phones. On the other hand, the device is only driving a 720p display, which meant that even games ran reasonably well. The only times when the device stutters is when you're switching between apps rapidly: garbage collection pauses and app swapping pauses then become apparent.

The reason I bought the tablet was for reading comics: those don't translate well on the Kindle Paperwhite (which I still love, but costs 3X as much as this tablet). Those work great on the Kindle Fire HD8.

Amazon does a better job of integrating SD Card storage than Google does on its phones and tablets. This is important for a consumption tablet that has limited storage. By default, once you install a microSD card, all media gets moved into the card. Not only that, FireOS has retained the old Android feature where apps can also be moved to the external storage, which means that even a 16GB Kindle Fire is usable.

I've often complained that Google's product managers seem to live in a world where internet is everywhere, with unlimited, free bandwidth. Amazon's PMs clearly don't live in that world, which is a great thing for the products. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Review: The Innovators

The Innovators is Walter Isaacson's history of the IT industry. It has two theses it argues for: one is that innovation and breakthroughs don't occur in a vacuum: it takes a team to make revolutionary change in industries, and the team could take the form of a company (startup or traditional research lab) or open-source style collaboration, or a partnership.

The time spent on each individual or team is pretty shallow, since Isaacson's covering huge periods of time (from Charles Babbage through the invention of the transistor to the introduction of the world wide web). As someone who worked in publishing, he had his biases, for instance, choosing to focus on blogger but not say, friendster or Facebook.

The book makes the point that the growth of the social networks and interlinked web is the culmination of the vision laid forth by Vannevar Bush's Memex. I wonder how Bush (or for that matter, Isaacson) would have thought of the current revelations that foreign governments did take advantage of the distributed nature of the web to attack American democracy (not that the stage weren't set by various political movements that came before).

The second thesis of the book is that augmented intelligence has won over artificial intelligence. I actually think that it's too early to say that, especially in the light of recent advances in statistical machine learning.

All in all, the book's not up to the standard set by his biographies of Einstein or Jobs, but it still made for decent reading. Mildly recommended.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Review: Gravity Maze

Rekha and Roberto gave Bowen Gravity Maze for his birthday, and this was immediately the most played toy in his birthday present set this year. Since he liked both Rush Hour and Laser Maze, this was probably predictable.

The idea behind the puzzle game is that you have a source tower and a target location, and a certain number of pieces with which to build a series of connections such that a ball dropped from the source tower will end up in the target location from the correct direction (the target tower is opened on only one side).

The concept is simple, but the game has several flaws that make it less than perfect:

  1. The pieces are finicky, making it easy to dislodge them while placing other pieces. This is true even for an adult, let alone a 6 year old.
  2. Some of the solutions are dependent on the height from which the ball is dropped. This has a couple of problems: first, there exist solutions which occasionally solve the puzzle, but don't do so all the time (an indication that this is not the solution the puzzle maker wants you to reach), but there are also solutions which are finicky, meaning if the pieces are not placed firmly or the ball is dropped a bit too low you will not consistently get the ball to hit the target.
  3. The colors chosen are very annoying if you're partially colorblind, as I am. The orange/green pieces are not distinguishable, and the subtle differences on the printed cards that differentiate purple and black are so subtle that I frequently have to ask Bowen what the colors are whenever he asks me to setup the next puzzle for him. Fortunately, he's soon reaching the age where he can setup puzzles for himself, but some of the setups involve one puzzle tower on top of another, and he doesn't quite have the coordination to do it yet. This is yet another example of how the world of UI designers just doesn't seem to have enough color-blind people for people like me.
Bowen likes the game a lot, and plays with it a lot. But this is one clear case where the user experience would be improved if the physical pieces were all thrown out the window and replaced with a computer simulation/app instead. Computer reality is much more well-behaved than this finicky design. Avoid if you or your child is clumsy, and avoid if you or your child is even a little bit color-blind.

Nevertheless, it's a great concept that maybe someone else will refine and execute better than ThinkFun has.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Review: Little Tikes Jump 'n Slide Bouncer

Someone last year gave us a Little Tikes Jump 'n Slide Bouncer. I'm not normally in the habit of reviewing kid's toys, but this one gave us a ton of use. With a long power cord, the blower for this bouncer still requires a power strip: the reason is because the wall wart is nasty and long, and wouldn't fit into any weather protected wall sockets, so you have to use a power strip for it. Fortunately, the power draw is relatively low (400W maximum). It comes with several stakes for holding down the bounce house on grass/lawn, but since we usually use it on a wooden deck or concrete we rarely use those.

In use, the bounce house mostly works great, but Bowen can reach the roof and pull it down. Similarly, Boen has discovered if he slides against the walls the roof will come down and he can grab it as well. For whatever reason the kids think this is great fun, but so far after a good 6 months of use the toy has still not fallen apart.

For Bowen's birthday party, we decided we'd rent a generator and run this jump house instead of renting a bigger jump house. But renting a generator cost $200, while a Tailgator from harbor freight cost only $109. I tried shopping from Amazon, but because of California's air quality regulations and because most generator companies can't be bothered to present their California certification to Amazon, you can't buy such low end devices from them. Along with the generator, you'll have to get 2 cycle engine oil and fuel stabilizer. Since the Tailgator was good for 700W it was perfectly matched with the bouncer. (Note: the generator has a 25 hour break-in period, during which you're not supposed to exceed 50% of the maximum wattage the generator's supposed to provide, so 400W is about right)

The generator requires more maintenance than you would expect: you're supposed to run it every 3 months for at least 15 minutes, but since one use of it has already paid for itself I'm not too concerned about the longevity.

Most kid's toys get played once or twice and then are left to languish. This one gets used over and over, so I recommend it if you have the room.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Review: Two HandGrinders

Because of my Aeropress review, I received a free sample of the Handground Precision Coffee Grinder for review. This is a large (not really portable) grinder with an easy grinding action. The device oozes high build quality, complete with a warning not to grind with the grinder empty as this could damage the ceramic burr mill.

Unfortunately, I don't think this grinder is very good for Aeropress users. Even when setting the grinder to the finest grind setting, the grounds produced are very coarse, and will not have much flavor unless you use very hot water or leave the grounds in the water for a long time, which defeats the purpose of using the Aeropress. I think this grinder would work very well for those who use the French press.

Not recommended for Aeropress users, and I was quite disappointed as otherwise it's great. I'm back to using my old Cusinart. And yes, that I'm writing a negative review is why I'll never get a free unit again.

By contrast, I bought a cheap Macinino/Bassani Burr Grinder to replace my older Hario Mini Mill, which had died. While nowhere as elegantly designed as either of the alternatives, this one could grinder coffee to powder thin (not that you should do this), which in turn delivered flavorful coffee, much more so than the Handground, and on par with my Cusinart. If you're on a budget, this is the one to get!

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

My prices have gone up!

In recent days, I've had a spate of clients for my compensation negotiation service. In all cases, I've managed to raise my client's pay by at least $10,000, and usually by several multiples of that (in one case, by an order of magnitude). While I would like to help every engineer, it's clear to me that I've been pricing my services too low.

Effective today, my services now run $5,000 per negotiation, with a $1,000 retainer. Even at this price, you will find that I add much more value than my asking price. If you've already engaged me in an active negotiation, rest assured that this increase in price does not apply to you --- you've been grandfathered into the old rate. Keep in mind that most recruiters, etc. work on the other side: for the employer. Google, Facebook, and other companies pay 30% of an engineer's first year's salary in exchange for a head-hunter's services. I'm getting paid a pittance by comparison, but I sleep much better at night working for an individual contributor/engineer than working for a corporation.

If you can't afford $1,000 up front, buying my book is much cheaper and the time spent reading it (provided you're a high quality engineer) would easily make enough money to afford my services at the next go-around.

Thanks to all my clients, past, present and future. I don't like to see engineers short changed, and I'm happy to have helped you out in any way.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Review: The Fifth Season

I maintain that N.K. Jermisin was robbed of her Hugo in 2011 for her amazing work, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Well, her talent has been vindicated as she's won the Hugo in 2016 and 2017 for The Fifth Season and its sequel.

Unfortunately, The Fifth Season is nowhere as good as The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Don't get me wrong, it's still a great novel, and no doubt deserving of its Hugo as it's unlikely that any of the other nominees are anywhere as good. But there are several reasons it's not nearly as good:

  1. It's clearly a setup for two more books in the series. While The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms turned out to be the first book of a trilogy, it told a story and wrapped everything up all in one novel. There was no padding, with reveal after reveal. The Fifth Season, by comparison, takes a more languid pace, with a few mysteries drawn out to novel form where Jemisin in her earlier novels would have dispatched with great prejudice in one quarter the length because that prior novel was full of ideas.
  2. The Fifth Season is trying to be a true science fiction novel. That's not a bad thing, but it's clear that Jemisin had to struggle to work out the science behind the science fiction, and as a result there's major plot devices that don't feel nearly as fantastic. It also feels like she's rationing her ideas, as though they wouldn't last 3 books if she didn't. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a pure fantasy, and Jemisin there ran wild, throwing off ideas with great profligacy.
The story is told in 3 strands, and as is typical of novels with literary pretensions, there's an attempt to provide a mystery as to what ties the 3 strands of narrative together. One of the strands is told in second person, which doesn't quite work, there's nothing in that strand that couldn't have been done better than in 3rd person, other than that it would have given away the common character in all 3 strands too quickly.

The characters are ok, not particularly likable, and rather prone to making major mistakes all the time. The world itself is interesting, though I'm very skeptical that any human society could survive the kind of regular cataclysms Jemisin depicts in the novel, special powers or no.

All in all, the novel turned out to be a fairly mediocre novel. I hope the other novels in the series (and their reveals) are good enough to justify the time I spent reading this one.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Review: The Rise and Fall of DODO

The Rise and Fall of DODO is a collaboration between Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. The novel is about the existence of magic: that magic once existed, but the invention of photography (and the entire enlightenment in general) wiped it out. The story involves two protagonists, Melisande Stokes and Tristan Lyons, who discover away to restore it, and then find out that because of the restricted circumstances under which magic may be used, the way to use it for military purposes is to do time travel.

The time travel premise is surprisingly well-worked out, with interesting consequences for major disruption to the timeline, and the "many worlds" theory requiring multiple trips to be able to effect even relatively minor change. The "made-for-Hollywood" nature of the novel requires these consequences to be huge special-effects-laden events, but that doesn't detract form the well-thought-out nature of the stuff.

The inter-character relationships are less well-done, with the villains being telegraphed almost right from the start, and no explanation of how those villains ended up being where they were. When things go south, we get a lot of rushing about but no real final resolution, in a "made-for-TV-series" ending which leaves all sorts of plot-lines dangling.

Unlike a lot of Stephenson's recent work, the novel itself is compellingly readable and fun. But the flaws more than outweigh the strengths when you get to the end. It's OK reading, and not a complete waste of time, but that's as much praise as I can give it.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Review: Einstein

Einstein is Isaacson's biography of the famous scientist. It covers all aspects of his life, from his birth, the Annus Mirabilis which shaped modern physics, and his personal life, including his relationship with his first and second wife, his two sons, and the strange situation in which a brilliant scientist could not get a job as an academic but instead ended up in the Swiss Patent office.

Along the way, Isaacson debunks many of the myths about Einstein: including that he was a poor student. He was an excellent student, always finishing at the top or near the top of his classes, even in subjects that were not necessarily of interest to him. What caused him to have to scrounge around for a patent office job was his clashes with his teachers at the school that would eventually become ETH.

Things I didn't know included that he contractually gave up his Nobel prize winning to his first wife in exchange for a divorce. He also apparently had a succession of affairs, though Isaacson doesn't delve into details to all of them. I also got a big kick out of recognizing the many places that Einstein and his wife visited where I'd also been to: Heidelberg, Munich, and of course, the Alps, where Einstein took many hiking vacations.

Isaacson does a good job of portraying Einstein's unique approach to science, pointing out that even though Lorentz, Planck, and several other scientists all had the same clues (or earlier access to the same clues) that he had about the nature of relativity, it took Einstein to put it all together. Furthermore, Einstein worked alone much of the time:
He also spoke of the need for solitude. “The monotony of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind,” he said, and he repeated a suggestion he had made when younger that scientists might be employed as lighthouse keepers so they could “devote themselves undisturbed” to thinking. It was a revealing remark. For Einstein, science was a solitary pursuit, and he seemed not to realize that for others it could be far more fruitful when pursued collaboratively. In Copenhagen and elsewhere, the quantum mechanics team had been building on one another’s ideas with a frenzy. But Einstein’s great breakthroughs had been those that could be done, with perhaps just an occasional sounding board and mathematical assistant, by someone in a Bern patent office, the garret of a Berlin apartment, or a lighthouse. (Pg. 423)
Of course, it would be wrong to omit Einstein's politics in a complete biography, and Isaacson does not shy from it, including Einstein's immigration to the USA:
 When he first arrived in Princeton, Einstein had been impressed that America was, or could be, a land free of the rigid class hierarchies and servility in Europe. But what grew to impress him more—and what made him fundamentally such a good American but also a controversial one—was the country’s tolerance of free thought, free speech, and nonconformist beliefs. That had been a touchstone of his science, and now it was a touchstone of his citizenship. (Pg. 479)
When reading biographies, one often is secretly disappointed that his heroes might turn out to have feet of clay. In the case of Einstein, I don't think that's going to happen. I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Swimming: A Parent's Job Begins Where Lessons End

After I taught Bowen how to swim last summer, I nevertheless still had to take him to real swimming lessons to teach him correct stroke form and side breathing so he could be faster in the water. My promise to him is that he can decide to stop swimming lessons when he can show me correct freestyle, breast stroke, and backstroke. I usually take him to the Sunnyvale Swim Center, where I can do a lap swim while he's getting his lessons, but one day, the pool had an event so I had to watch him do his lesson instead.

The other kid in his class had a mom who was obviously a triathlete, since she was sporting a Garmin Triathlon Watch. (Serious athletes have a Garmin, the "fitness" people have smart-watches) She made the statement to me that once her child could learn to swim maybe they could "train" together, swimming in separate lanes.

I thought for a moment and said to her, "No, you should play with her in the water for at least a bit. Because there are some things only a parent can do." After I taught Bowen how to swim, I deliberately arranged a "playtime in the pool with Daddy" session every week for him. Part of it is that some of my fondest memories of my late father were of my 2 brothers and I assaulting him in the pool. Our dad was of course much stronger than we were, and could one at a time, pick one of us up, and throw him away, and by the time one of us swam back, he'd already have similarly disposed of the others, but it was always great fun.

When I think about it now, this deliberate play was extremely valuable to us in terms of water safety: it taught us never to panic or to be scared no matter what happened in the water. As long as we could hold our breath, sooner or later we'd surface and be able to breath again. Even if it was for only a short moment before our Dad would throw us or drag us underwater again, we learned to grab quick gulps of air in between. Because it was our Dad doing this to us, it was always fun and never scary. There are few swimming instructor in the world that can do this for you (the only time I actively saw a swimming instructor playfully throw a kid was at the Sunnyvale Swim Center, so they do exist): and to be honest, that's not their role. Their role is to teach correct swimming form, not prepare your child for the day when he/she falls off a dinghy, sailboat, or grabs a swim ladder only to have it come off in her hand. As a result of this sort of play, Bowen has no problems jumping into an alpine lake, or even coping with difficulties when his mask floods or his googles come off in the pool. He knows to just float up in the water, readjust, and then play on!

The best thing about this kind of practice (which ranges from throwing your kid into the water, to pulling them under the water, flipping them around while in the water, or a "race" where each of you are allowed to pull the other person back from the finish line) is that it creates fond memories and a strong bonding experience. This isn't just anecdotal data, as research in pediatrics note that this is a particularly important role for fathers to play:
Fathers engaged in more roughhouse play, and their involvement in play with preschoolers predicted decreased externalizing and internalizing behavior problems and enhanced social competence. (
  1. Jia R
  2. Kotila LE
  3. Schoppe-Sullivan SJ
Transactional relations between father involvement and preschoolers’ socioemotional adjustment. J Fam Psychol2012;26(6):848857)
I see a lot of parents who seem to think that their role in water safety ends when they drop off their child at swimming lessons. I urge those parents to reconsider: their role really begin when the lessons end. Play with your kids in the water.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Review: On Power

On Power is Robert A Caro's hour and a half lecture about his two Pulitzer prize winning books about Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. He reflects on what political power means, and says that his books weren't really about these two men, but about political power, its use and abuse, and the lives of the people these men affected when they exercised that power.

The lecturer's got a strong New York accent, which you get used to only about halfway through it. It's peppered with stories about how he realized the impact Robert Moses had, as well as the travails of writing the book: it took him multiple years and he ran through his advance rapidly.

His discussion about how he moved into the hill country to live with and interview the people who voted Lyndon Johnson into power was nothing short of stunning. To enable the trust of such people he had to live there, and his statement that these people were all dead now, and there's no one alive who remembers the time before rural electrification is moving and a realization of how rare it is to find someone with political power who could actually do something good.

The lecture makes me want to go find his books and read it (which I suppose is the main goal --- audible did give away the lecture for free), but I'm intimidated by the size and length of those books and will probably never get around to it. In the mean time, this lecture will have to do.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Review: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Audible was giving away The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, so I picked it up. I had run out of things to listen to, so this became a book I listened to while driving.

The book's written in a strange, twisted fashion. In summary, the KonMari method of tidying up is fairly straightforward:

  1. Do your tidying up project all in one go. Don't try to do it incrementally.
  2. Get rid of stuff that doesn't bring you joy. (This one is bizarre, since toilet paper doesn't bring me joy but I'm not getting rid of it from my house, but I get her point --- tidying up must start with getting rid of stuff)
  3. Get rid of stuff in inverse order of difficulty (i.e., easiest stuff first). That means clothes, books/CDs first, then personal effects and momentos last. That's so you don't get distracted, and also because you'll be practiced at throwing out stuff by the time you get to the hard part.
  4. Each person in the family should have their own storage, and all their own storage should be in one place, rather than being scattered in multiple places. This ensures when you're searching for something your'e only searching for it where you are.
  5. Don't tidy for other people. If you want other people in your family to be more tidy, start by being tidy yourself.
  6. Store clothing folded, don't use hangers except for stuff that needs it. Don't rotate clothing in and out of season. Just keep it organized by weather and use case.
  7. In shelves, store things in order of height, with increasing height to the right. ("Up and to the right.")
  8. Throw out documents as soon as you're done with them. For warranties, store everything in one folder and throw out stuff that's out of date. Throw out manuals, boxes, etc. Forget about resale value and reboxing when selling.
  9. Don't worry about throwing out stuff you actually need. You can usually buy it again later if you really need it.
Yup, I just summarized everything in one check list. The rest of the book is bizarre nonsense like her strange statement that if you roll up socks, they won't be properly rested when you next put them on. (WTF!) Then she makes a big deal out of thanking your stuff. Sorry, things are things. I like my bicycles, but I didn't make a big deal out of the frame when it failed. I stripped it, sent it back to the manufacturer, and got a new one.

The book has some nice ideas, but she could have made it much shorter and easier to read and put into practice. In the last chapter she finally admits that despite her prior hyperbole about how tidying will make a massive change in your life, her experience is twisted by selection bias: the kind of people who pay her fees for her assistance in tidying up their house are the kind of people who would be predisposed to attributing all sorts of magic career changes and better health to the KonMari method.

All in all, the book has interesting ideas, but if you'd read this blog post you probably got them all! I just saved you 4 hours of reading/listening.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Lighting for Bicycles in 2017

In the past, I've recommended Exposure Lights for bicycle lighting. In 2017, my recommendation has changed dramatically. Part of it is my dissatisfaction with the Exposure mounting system, the other is that various lights on Amazon have become far better, providing much better value and now charge via USB rather than a proprietary port.

In general, all the bicycle lights on Amazon for around $20 seem to have been made by the same factory, just with different logos and packaged tail-lights. For instance, the Bitzu Gator and the Kernowo lights are essentially identical. For my money, the Kernowo is better as the included tail-light is superior, both brighter and rechargeable by USB.

These lights last only for about an hour or three, depending on what brightness setting you use them at. But if you need to run them for longer, just buy an extra, and use a USB powerbank to charge the lights that aren't in use while you're running the other light. I haven't checked to see if you can use these lights while they're being charged by an external source, but that's also a reasonable solution. You might even be able to run a generator to them and power them that way.

The lights are bright enough to be seen by, and bright enough to light up the road even while riding through a dense redwood forest during the day, so they're good enough for any situation I'd conceivably be in. Because they're charged by USB, I don't have to carry a separate charger on tour, and won't be stuck riding without a light at night.

At prices like these, you can buy a separate light for each bike in the household, and not worry about swapping lights from bike to bike.

Because I'm using the Ortlieb Handlebar bag that Pamela gave me, I can't mount the lights on the handlebars on either my single road bike or the tandem. The solution is to run a stub on the rack mount on both bikes. The Origin8 Eyelet Stub is cheap and works well for this purpose.

Are these the absolute best solution? No. But they're more than good enough, and they're cheap. There's no reason to buy anything else unless you're going to go mountain biking on technical singletrack at night.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Review: How Emotions are Made - The Secret Life of the Brain

How Emotions Are Made describes a new theory of how emotions are provoked, evoked, and created in the brain. The classical view, which is that emotions are spontaneously evoked by external stimuli and then provokes uncontrollable muscle twitches and reactions in the face and body language is wrong, writes Lisa Feldman Barrett. This is the approach espoused by Paul Ekman's work on finding out who's lying. Basically, she's saying that all the current work on emotional intelligence, etc. is simply outright incorrect.

Because this is such a big claim, Barrett lays out all the laboratory and field work carefully: she goes through previous studies on the universality of human emotions, and points out how the field workers inadvertently corrupted their results by effectively teaching people of other cultures about western style emotional expression, rather than figuring out whether human facial musculature is involuntarily linked to human emotions. This is ground-breaking work and I find it convincing. In particular, Barrett provides us with a picture and tricks us into thinking what the facial expression is before granting us the context and showing that our perception is completely wrong. She also demonstrates that even when conducting emotion recognition in Western settings, if you eliminate cue words (i.e., disallow multiple choice questionnaires), the ability of most people to recognize emotion correctly drops by a huge amount.
Emotions are not expressed, displayed, or otherwise revealed in the face, body, and voice in any objective way, and anyone who determines innocence, guilt, or punishment needs to know this. You cannot recognize or detect anger, sadness, remorse, or any other emotion in another person—you can only guess, and some guesses are more informed than others. (pg. 244)
As a male of supposedly low emotional intelligence, I've always wondered how other people could so easily guess what others are feeling (there have been times when I've wondered whether I have autism because I was so bad at it). I'm gratified to know that Barrett's work proves that this is purely an illusion: juries are wrong about guilt so often that DNA evidence has exonerated many convicted "criminals." This is huge. It means that when you think someone's angry, they might not be. This is especially true when they come from a different culture with a different set of emotional expressions. Barrett provides evidence that this is even true of professional psychologists, who would guess wrong about their patients' emotional condition!
 To improve at emotion perception, we must all give up the fiction that we know how other people feel. When you and a friend disagree about feelings, don’t assume that your friend is wrong like Dan’s ex-therapist did. Instead think, “We have a disagreement,” and engage your curiosity to learn your friend’s perspective. Being curious about your friend’s experience is more important than being right. (pg. 195)
What new theory should substitute for the classical view, then?  Barrett here agrees with Jeff Hawkins' theory of the mind: that the brain is basically a statistical learning prediction machine. She further elaborates on that theory thus: you grow up with caregivers who teach you what emotional responses are appropriate, and the greater culture around you guide you into reacting the way you do by reflex through practice. Then when you become an adult, you shape the culture and teach your children to behave like you do. This is so built into human culture that we don't question it and think that emotions are a primary aspect of our biology, rather than a construct of our minds:
No scientific innovation will miraculously reveal a biological fingerprint of any emotion. That’s because our emotions aren’t built-in, waiting to be revealed. They are made. By us. We don’t recognize emotions or identify emotions: we construct our own emotional experiences, and our perceptions of others’ emotions, on the spot, as needed, through a complex interplay of systems. Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience. (pg. 40)
This has huge implications for society and its general broken-ness and myths. For instance, the myth that women are more emotional than men (not true, they're not).  It even affects the "science" of psychology:
Many psychologists, for example, do not realize that every psychological concept is social reality. We debate the differences between “will power” and “tenacity” and “grit” as if they were each distinct in nature, rather than constructions shared through collective intentionality. We separate “emotion,” “emotion regulation,” “self-regulation,” “memory,” “imagination,” “perception,” and scores of other mental categories, all of which can be explained as emerging from interoception and sensory input from the world, made meaningful by categorization, with assistance from the control network. These concepts are clearly social reality because not all cultures have them, whereas the brain is the brain is the brain. (pg. 287)
Barrett also points out in an entire chapter that the legal system which distinguishes between crimes of passion and crimes of pre-meditation is just a fiction, with case after case showing that juries can't tell the difference. In one case, a woman identified a man who raped her with utmost certainty, only to discover that he happened to be on TV being interviewed (about the unreliability of human memory --- ironically) while the event took place! Basically, human beings live in a socially-constructed fantasy world without a single resemblance to reality:
 Nobody can completely escape affective realism. Your own perceptions are not like a photograph of the world. They are not even a painting of photographic quality, like a Vermeer. They are more like a Van Gogh or Monet. (Or on a very bad day, perhaps a Jackson Pollock.) (pg. 283)
Whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing with this book, I consider it ground-breaking and well worth the read. As y ou can see from this review, I found myself compelled to highlight quote after quote in the book. It's quite possibly the best book I've read this year. Highly recommended!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Review: The Dispatcher

After giving up on several audio novels, I finally came across The Dispatcher, which for whatever reason was a free audio book on Audible.

It's a John Scalzi novel, so it's breezy and easily read and understood. It's not really science fiction, closer to urban fantasy. Well, not quite urban fantasy either, since my understanding is that the genre incorporates werewolves, vampires, etc., and this isn't quite it.

It's a short novel, based in a world where (for no particular reason) murders would 99.9% of the time simply cause the victim's body to disappear and the victim to recover in bed just seconds later. Scalzi uses this premise to contemplate how society would deal with this. His answer is that you'll end up with people licensed and bonded to murder people in order to salvage a poor surgery outcome, for instance.

He has fun with questions like: "How would the mob actually murder someone so he stays dead?" Overall, there aren't really very many deep questions explored, but as easy light reading (and listening), it succeeds.

Mildly recommended.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Review: The Home Front

I'll admit that I don't manage to get through most Audio Books. Fiction is a non-starter, and most non-fiction books don't work great, with the exception of the Great Courses, which are of course designed to be audio first.

The Home Front is an Amazon special from the Audible branch of Amazon, and it's currently free. It's designed to be audio first, and is great listening. Like a great radio series, it's compelling listening and filled with historical information that you might not know, from the isolationism in the lead up to the war, to personal accounts of people who were there at Pearl Harbor. It's right up there with the best of NPR. Even better, unlike even the best radio series, the episodes are not shoe-horned into a fixed length, so each episode is only as long as it needs to be, and so there is no padding.

Topics covered included the role of women, racism (including the Japanese American internment), the Manhattan project and the use of the first atomic bombs (a very balanced coverage), as well as the postwar period and the rise of the military industrial complex.

Consider me impressed. You should go listen to this show. Highly recommended. And it's free!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review: Memoirs of a Theoretical Physicist

I met Joe Polchinski on a bike ride some time back in 2010. We rode together several times but then he dropped off the radar at one point. Then I recently learned that he had brain cancer and had to be operated and was in recovery when he wrote his autobiography.

As you might expect, the book is heavy on physics, and with my under-educated background, there was no way I could keep up with even the non-mathematical wordy descriptions of what he was doing in string theory. But the overall arc of his life is clearly described in non-technical terms, and was interesting to me in terms of how unconventional his approach was (for a while he was famous as the guy who didn't write papers).

The best thing about books written by technical people is that they're very honest. Polchinski doesn't shy away from his struggle with his mood disorders or health, and addresses everything head-on. I think that in itself made the effort to read the book worthwhile. There's also a humility in the book that goes deeper than what you typically find in business-oriented books like Raising the Bar.

It's a difficult book to read (especially for this non-physicist), but it was worth my time. I recommend this book, but be prepared going in that the physics is not going to be easy, and you might have to skim those sections.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Review: Brush On Block SPF 30 Mineral Powder Sunscreen

I was at Costco and they had a 2-pack of Brush On Block SPF 30 Sunscreen on sale. I was really skeptical, but on examining the ingredients decided that it's actually pretty much the only sunscreen that Costco had that doesn't have potentially hazardous chemicals. Plus, it's non greasy, which is great as I have not found a non-greasy sunscreen ever since Lifeguard Sunscreen went out of business.

The package comes in a tube, with a cap for the brush (and a brush saver so you don't mangle the brush when it comes time to stow it away), and a bottle for the dispenser. You dispense it by turning the bottle to "unlock" (past that and the bottle will unscrew so you can buy a refill, which is substantially cheaper than buying the package over), giving the package a quick flick, and then uncapping the brush and applying.

The big disadvantage of the sunscreen as far as I can tell is that it's effectively invisible: I cannot really tell where it's been applied. I probably over-apply the sunscreen as a result, but so far, I've never been burnt and neither have my kids (and we've used it enough to buy a refill!). The packaging is a bit awkward: it's a long tube rather than a short bottle, but it goes into a jersey pocket well enough, and I like that the refills are tiny so I could potentially start a tour with multiple refills. Each refill lasts about a couple of weeks of near daily use.

All in all, this is excellent stuff, and while it feels insanely expensive, the lack of grease makes it about on par with Lifeguard, which also cost about $15 per bottle.


Friday, October 13, 2017

Review: The Body Builders

The Body Builders is an optimistic book about the possibility of improving the human body and brain through engineering. It explores the current state of the art, which to be honest still seems pretty crude by science fiction standards: improved prosthetics from MIT, magic pixie dust limb regeneration, Artificial Synesthesia, and brain-computer interfaces.

Of the lot, improved prosthetics and regeneration seem most magical, potentially providing improved performance for otherwise impaired athletes, and obviously regeneration has wide application across a wide range of medical problems. Brain-computer interfaces seemed the least cooked: at this point doctors are still stuck drilling holes in skulls and planting electrodes: one researcher actually did this to himself only to have to reverse the procedure months later due to infection. Not for the faint of heart.

The obvious avenue of genetic engineer are largely unexplored: it seems like that would be the ultimate hack for the human body, but the human DNA and the accompanying epigenetics still seem much too complex to tackle with what we know today.

Nevertheless, it's a fun book to read and worth the time. Recommended.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review: The Secret Race

I remember once being on a bike ride with a colleague and discussing the doping scandals in professional bicycle racing. "It's a good thing that doping for intellectual performance isn't effective, or we'd all be pressured into doping for work." "How do you know that it isn't being done?" came the response, "Look around you, and look for those people who're not quite normal --- hyper-focused or strange." And of course, I had no ready answer, though I now know that the reason why intellect-based doping isn't an issue is that there are far more important methods of getting ahead at a corporation than any amount of chemical can fix. (Indeed, I recently read a book where a well known Physicist mentioned that Paul Erdos, for instance, wrote all of his 1500 papers under the influence of stimulants, including amphetamines!)

The Secret Race is Tyler Hamilton's tell-all confession about the culture of doping in professional bicycle racing and how he ended up being discovered as a doper. Along the way, it corrected many incorrect ideas I had about doping. For instance, I thought that it would basically give everyone the same boost. It turned out that during the years when there was no test for EPO, the UCI rules basically stated that your hematocrit level couldn't exceed 50%. This meant that those with a naturally high hematocrit level wouldn't benefit from EPO!
Hamilton’s 1997 decision to start using EPO may have been based on an inaccurate assumption about his teammate, Marty Jemison. “That spring, Tyler and I were in the same boat, hanging on by our fingernails,” Jemison says. “I raced clean through the spring. Then in June, just before the Dauphiné, Pedro [Celaya] came to me and said if I was going to make the Tour team, I needed to be healthy. He taught me, he provided everything. So yeah, I did what the others did, starting in June and then in the Tour. But my Liège result was an honest result. I just had a good day.” Jemison, who won the U.S. national championship in 1999, rode just two Tours for Postal, a fact that might be attributed to the way the EPO era changed how teams assessed riders’ potential. “I had a natural hematocrit of 48, so EPO didn’t add that much horsepower to me,” he says. “The longer I was [at Postal], the more I saw that I was no longer being groomed for the A team. Clearly, they were looking for riders who could deliver a whole new level of results.” Jemison left the team after the 2000 season. (Page 62)
 This is a book where you really want to read the footnotes, as they contain the most juicy parts. For instance, it turned out that the doctor that Hamilton was using (Fuentes) had an assistant suffering from dementia, and that assistant had probably mixed up the blood doping blood bags:
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: The thing to realize about Fuentes and all these guys is that they’re doping doctors for a reason. They’re the ones who didn’t make it on the conventional path, so they’re not the most organized people. So when they leave a bag of blood out in the sun because they’re having another glass of wine at the café, it’s predictable. The deadly mistake that Tyler, Floyd, Roberto [Heras], and the rest of them made when they left Postal was to assume that they’d find other doctors who were as professional. But when they got out there, they found—whoops!—there weren’t any others. (Pg. 232)
It was also amazing how easily the system was gamed and the athletes knew how long they had before they could pass a dope test, so they knew exactly when to take the drugs and when to back off.

Hamilton asserts towards the end of the book that the authorities have finally cracked down on doping in cycling, and that the speeds in the 2011 Tour have dropped to reflect that. Ultimately, however, the temptation will always be too high, and all it takes is one person to start and everyone has to join the arms race again. Considering that the next step in doping is genetic engineering of human bodies for high performance, I also have to wonder when chemical doping is just not going to be an issue any more.

In any case, the book's a fun and entertaining read and well-written to boot. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: Your Name

I rarely review movies, but Your Name is an exception. It was Japan's highest grossing movie in 2016 and was apparently a hit in China as well. Traditionally animated, beautifully scored, and with a script that defies genre classification, it's worth your while to seek out.

I missed the movie while it was playing in the theaters, and now I don't think that's a bad thing, since I managed to get a DVD with both English and Chinese subtitles with the original Japanese voice acting rather than a dub.

The plot begins simply enough as a body-swap between two teenagers separated by a huge distance: one lives in Tokyo while the other lives in the country-side. The plot picks up dramatically when the swapping stops, and suddenly little details that originally seemed meaningless become important. There's a science fictional element in the plot (beyond the body-swapping), but the story focuses mostly on the characters and never bothers to explain the mechanism, which is a good thing, as no explanation would have been satisfying.

Ultimately, we learn to care about the characters and their tenuous connection with each other. Along the way we get some exposure to Japanese culture in a good way. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review: English Grammar Boot Camp

It took me several tries to finish English Grammar Boot Camp. This isn't because Professor Curzan's a boring lecturer, or because the topic itself is boring. On the contrary, her lectures are fun and easy to listen to, and what's more, rather than telling you "do this, don't do that," she frequently digresses into the history of a particular part of speech or grammar rule, and how it's evolved over time, giving you context as well as interesting stories with which to hang her points and ideas on.

Part of the problem with the lecture series is that it's mis-named. It's really not much of a boot camp. For instance, she immediately jumps into using grammatical lingo (such as noun phrase, etc) without defining them. As a result, I'd listen through a lecture and then be confused and unable to actually understand part of it without having to stop and resort to a google search on various grammatical constructions. This is a problem for an audio course, because the tendency is to listen to those while you're in the car or somewhere where a google search is not easily achieved.

I finally made progress when I stopped trying to learn from the audio course, but instead, treated it as entertainment, like a talk show. At that point, I could make progress and it was fun. But if I'd bought it expecting to learn English grammar from the basics I would have been disappointed. It's recommended, but as entertainment, not education.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Review: The Jungle Book

I started reading The Jungle Book to Bowen, interspersed with viewing the recent movie, which once he had read the book, made him realize that books and movies are usually very different (which was great). But when we got to the end of Mowgli's story, I realized that there was still 2/3rds of the book left, and so we just kept going story after story until we finally got to the end.

The language of the book shows its age: Kipling still used "thee, thy, and thou", but fortunately those were easy enough for Bowen that he never even stopped the reading to ask questions. The Riki Tiki the mongoose story was a lot of fun for him, though I'm afraid the last story just went over his head.

I'd never read The Jungle Book before, and found my first reading of it to be worth the time. It shows its age, but it's not bad. Recommended.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Review: Kingsman The Secret Service

I saw an ad for the Kingsman movie, and since it was based on a comic book, I went for the comic book at the library to see if it was actually any good. Written by Mark Millar and drawn by Dave Gibbons, the art is impeccable and stylish. Online reviews had led me to believe that the series was written tongue-in-check, with over-the-top send-ups of the superspy genre, but if anything the book seemed to take everything quite seriously.

There's a bit of sex, blood, and gore, so this isn't a book to leave lying around for your kids to read. I can see how it could potentially be more interesting than the typical superspy movie, but based on the first book I'm not sure I'd bother checking out the rest from the library. Even the movie's better, being quite a bit more coherent.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Review: The Genius Dialogs

The Genius Dialogues is a series of interviews by Bob Garfield of various MacArthur Fellows, the winners of the so-called genius prize. I picked up the series for free. Surprisingly, I'd only heard of the work of two of the interviewees: Luis von Ahn (who built ReCaptcha) and James Randi, the magician and skeptic. The others were new to me and I was pleased to be introduced to their work.

I'm of two minds about the series. First, most of the interviews are interesting and introduce you to something that you might not have known about. That's a huge plus. But the format is horrible and the interviewer, Bob Garfield seems a bit full of himself. Seriously? You're going to ask a MacArthur Award winner "How much of your $625,000 prize money did you squander on cheap hootch and fast cars?" None of the winners spent any money on alcohol or cars (even if someone did it was unlikely they'd admit it in an interview). It was a total waste of a question (not to mention on-air time) and should have been edited out.

Recommended, but please, Amazon, pick a better interviewer next time!

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Reread: The Player of Games

I started reading The Player of Games to Bowen at some point during our bike trip, because I thought he might find it interesting, since he loves board games. Midway through the book, he abandoned it because he got distracted by The Jungle Book instead. But I was already on a roll, so I just plowed on and kept going.

On a re-read, this is clearly one of the lesser Culture Novels that Iain M. Banks wrote. The setup is fairly simple and straight-forward, and who the drone narrator was is set up as a mystery but in retrospect seemed really obvious. The obvious implications of a machine intelligence based civilization are glossed over, though unlike say, Accelerando, it posits a much more positive view of post-scarcity civilization than most contemporary science fiction authors. It assumes that the organic civilization (which in later novels are explained to not be humans) has successfully transited to machine intelligence in such a way that the Minds running everything still consider human autonomy to be desirable and worth utilizing, if only to provide a sense of purpose to said organic beings.

It's a gateway to more challenging Iain M. Banks' novels because of it's simple nature, but it's not one of his more interesting works. Nevertheless, it's worth reading. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Review: The Health of Nations

The Health of Nations is a book about the history (and present) of disease eradication programs. I’d heard of the eradication of smallpox, of course, and remember when Google hired Larry Brilliant to help it’s non-profit arm. (As far as I can tell, nothing happened from that effort worth noting) My impression was that after smallpox, efforts on disease eradication basically stopped or were stymied either from lack of will, lack of funding, or the difficulty of working in the tropics. 

To my surprise, this book disabused me of that! It acknowledges that polio eradication had stalled but recently, donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have stepped up and revived and refunded effort into tropical diseases like Malaria and Polio. The current hope is that in 2016, we’ll have seen the last case of polio anywhere in the world, and by 2019, the WHO would have identified the last child in the world to have caught the disease. Wow. 

The history of disease eradication has been intense and to a large extent controversial. Apparently, because the efforts usually originated from wealthy countries, particularly the US, these efforts have also been driven by the ideological needs of the countries. That meant that the approaches were largely technological, and worked very hard to avoid trying to improve the health infrastructures of the countries involved. The author points out that this is a mistake, since many situations (such as the Ebola outbreak of 2014) can derail your eradication efforts if the existing health infrastructure isn’t improved. 

Yes, there’s plenty of description of gory and scary tropical diseases, including Ebola. There’s also some hand-wringing about the successor to polio eradication, assuming it succeeds (there’s a statement in the book from a health worker that polio eradication will never happen because too many health workers are making way above the prevailing wages of their native countries because of the funding behind it). Much of the hard work of disease eradication, for instance, is focused around reaching difficult to reach children in order to vaccinate them against the disease, and without sustaining funding, it’s quite possible to imagine that the expertise and networks of health workers that have been built up will disappear. 

The book also covers the history of vaccination and the anti-vaccine movement (which are as old as the history of vaccination, not surprisingly). The author is surprisingly sympathetic to the anti-vaccine movement, pointing out that in the past, shared needles and people-to-people transmission of the attenuated vaccine caused serious problems. The fact that one of the two polio vaccines in common use utilized the live virus also increased the danger of the vaccine causing the disease. Nevertheless, she points out that the disneyland measles outbreak wasn’t caused by a vaccine, but by having large pockets of unvaccinated children in a fairly crowded environment. 

This book covers a huge amount of ground, and provides great insight into the various issues around vaccination, disease eradication, as well as, “Why do we not have a cure for these nasty tropical diseases yet?!” Highly recommended. It was well worth my time.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Review: My Favorite Universe

My Favorite Universe is Neil deGrasee Tyson's collection of essays (turned into lectures by The Teaching Company) that were originally columns from a magazine. It's available as a video download or audio only, and I picked up the audio only version during a sale.

Apparently, the video includes a lot of pictures that would be missing when you only audit the lectures, which is a pity. On the other hand, if you've watched Cosmos, you probably have seen similar imagery.

The huge difference between Cosmos and this lecture series is that Cosmos is much better written.  Tyson has a lecture style that frequently pauses (occasionally I would check to see if my phone had stopped playing audio, only to discover that he was simply pausing), and he likes to repeat words for emphasis. None of those verbal tics showed up in Cosmos, which meant that better editing and scripting made the other title much better viewing and listening.

Overall, the show covers many astrophysics topics but is subject to a bit too much hyperbole from Tyson. I didn't think it was a complete waste of time, but I think it could have been much better written and edited, and make its key points in much less time and with less repetition. Go watch Cosmos instead.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Review: The Scientist in the Crib

I had heard about The Scientist in the Crib years ago on NPR, but upon checking it out from the library was surprised to find that it's a 2009 book, which meant that I'd most likely read about its topics elsewhere. Indeed, it took until the middle of the book before I found a passage that finally sold me on the book:
Some children, though, especially younger siblings, take quite a different route toward grammar. Rather than starting out with a bunch of individual words and gradually combining them into more complex sentences, these babies seem to take the opposite approach. They seem to get hold of whole sentences and then take them apart into separate words. They start out by grasping the intonation patterns of whole adult sentences, and they babble in a way that mimics those intonation patterns. Often it sounds as if they're quite fluent in a language their parents just don't happen to know, like Klingon or Vulcan. (pg. 118, Harper-Collins paperback edition)
Wow, that completely described Boen! It's a piece of insight and research that I hadn't encountered anywhere else, and would have been useful to know 6 months ago.

The rest of the book put together the thesis behind various developmental stages of a child: why the terrible twos are so terrible: the kid's experimenting on you, to see what reactions you'll have towards the things he/she does.

In many places, the book could use an update: our machine intelligence and machine learning algorithms have gotten a lot better since 2009, as have our speech recognition algorithms, though they're not perfect (but neither are many human's). It's also great to read the insight the authors have about how and why children were not considered worthy of research and study until recently. It's because academia has not until recently allowed women into their halls, and no one thought babies and infants worthy of studies until women entered the field and the introduction of video cameras made it so that no one could deny the evidence!

The book comes recommended and I wish I'd read it a couple of years earlier.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Review: Uncertainty

Uncertainty is a book about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. The opening of the book is great, setting the stage for the people involved in the development of Quantum Mechanics: Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg.

The initial chapters of the book were great, providing exposition through a historical recounting of the papers and interactions between the people responsible for the theory. Lindley's approach is good because he points out that the issue was an analysis of what an atom was, and how it was configured.

Where the book fails is in the last few chapters, where instead of discussing the practical implications of Quantum theory, instead we get a philosophical discussion of its implications, which to my mind is much less interesting. As a result I came away from the book somewhat disappointed, and not feeling as enlightened as I hoped.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Review: Code Your Own Games!

Bowen's been playing a number of computer games during the summer, and would frequently ask questions like: "How come this boss monster could change his shape?" That sort of thinking led me to believe that he was ready for the next step: learning to program a computer so he could make his own games.

I had originally thought of building a "game construction kit" out of something like Unity, but a few attempts at the tutorial made me realize that this was way too complex. I'd heard about Scratch before, but the online tutorials left me cold. It wasn't that I couldn't figure out the programming language, it was that I was bereft of ideas as to what to do with it that would make interesting projects for Bowen that wouldn't bore him to death. (For whatever reason, it takes a heck of a lot more than "Hello World" to interest a kid used to modern computer graphics!)

I bought Code Your Own Games! with relatively little expectation that it would actually be good. It's relatively cheap, and was spiral bound so it would lay flat, and with Amazon purchases I figured returns are easy if it's a piece of junk. When the book arrived, Bowen picked it up, and with the alacrity of a child flipped past the "introduction to scratch" page and jumped straight to the first project.

My heart sank when I saw that the book was simply of the format: "Step 1: draw this sprite. Step 2: drag this code to the script tab". Then I noticed that each piece of code was explained with text (not that Bowen would bother reading those!). The projects immediately always did something fun, and half of the project would involve drawing rather than coding (which is about right when it comes to modern game implementation). What was interesting to me was that Bowen didn't learn so much from the book's coding, but from finding "bugs" in the resultant game behavior and modifying the project so the game behaved the way he wanted it to!

For instance, in project 8 (Catch the Donut), he noticed that even when the game was over, you could keep clicking on the donut and score points. So this became an opportunity for him to learn how to implement boolean flags in a language that didn't have them, and how to use those flags. In project 4 (Drive me Crazy), he didn't like that the car would move when the throttle wasn't pressed down, so he fixed the code so that the throttle would have to be down for the sprite to keep moving.

The language is never formally taught. It's used and the child's expected to pick it up (which is great, that's how programming languages should be taught). Scratch is an object-oriented language with event-driven features, and the unstructured nature of the "drag and drop" code tab gets kids used to the idea that multiple things could be happening at the same time for a sprite. The environment is kind of crude, with copy/paste, etc not really implemented well, but it works. Everything happens online, but you have to manually do your own saves and backups, and more than once Bowen lost some work because he forgot to manually save.

Overall, for a 5 year old, this is not a book you can just give to him and expect him to solve major problems. You'll have to help and coach him (including teaching him to make backups), and lead him through some of the problems. But for $7.12, this is a great introduction to programming, doesn't require a powerful computer, and has shown Bowen that the only thing more addictive than a video game is writing one. Highly recommended.