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.

Recommended

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.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Long Term Review: Co-Motion Triplet

We've had our Co-Motion Convertible Periscope for more than two and a half years now. With multiple conversions back and forth between triplet and tandem mode, and with a tour under our belts, it's time for a long term review.

It's a human tendency to focus on things that go wrong, rather than things that go right, so before I jump into the review let me state that if you've not ridden with your kids on the back of a tandem, you're missing out. It's been a pleasure to have Bowen grow out of the child seat into the back seat with crank shorteners. I've also had some of his (older) friends ride the back seat before he grew into it. Now his brother can ride the middle seat and hearing them sing and laugh as we ride never gets old. There's no doubt in my mind that while the trailer cycles are cheaper, they're by no means a good substitute --- I don't think we would have even attempted our 350 mile bike tour this summer on anything other than a tandem. We've even done a 25 mile club ride with the bike club in triplet configuration with Boen in the middle.

My biggest disappointment so far has been that the indexing fails when switching between tandem and triplet mode. After every transform, I've had to tweak the derailleur's indexing. My solution now is to replace the right shifter from a Shimano 10 speed shifter to a Rivendell Silver shifter. That way, all I have to do is to get the tension in the derailleur cable to the correct ballpark and then I'll have access to all the gears correctly. (The stops on the derailleur have to be set correctly, of course) By accident, I seem to have found a happy medium by which I no longer have to dick with the anchor bolt between triplet and tandem, so hurray for friction shifters!

In tandem mode, the bike behaves pretty much like you expect a tandem to behave. In triplet mode, the bike becomes quite a bit heavier, and much tougher to maneuver. You certainly can't weave it through a barrier easily the way a tandem could. Climbing is also much much tougher in triplet mode, much more than you expect: 3% grades feel like 6% grades, and 6% grades feel like 12% grades. I made use of the 24x36 drive train, and frequently wished for a 42 or 50 tooth rear cog. I suspect I'll have to build a new wheel for that to happen, so that's not in the cards until I wear out the set of wheels I built for the tandem. In triplet mode, I also have to check the couplers every ride to make sure they're not coming loose. This doesn't happen in tandem mode, so the extra length of the bike is what's creating torsion and loosening up the couplers.

People frequently ask if the kids actually contribute. The bike's slower without the kids than it is with the kids, so yes, they pedal. I also feel it when they fight me on the pedals, so it's not like I'm turning their legs in addition to the wheels.

I haven't tried the tandem in quad mode. Until the kids get older, their friends would need crank shorteners as well. Each set of crank shorteners is $116.26, and I'm not inclined to buy them for other people's kids, so that'll take a little more time. Yes, I'm expecting it to be even tougher, but hopefully, the kids will be stronger and help more as well. I think if I had it to do all over again I wouldn't bother with the quad: it might be fun once or twice, but it's just not practical.

I've actually converted the bike from tandem to triplet and back again a number of times. When I first bought the bike, I expected to keep it in triplet mode most of the time, but what's happened is that for commuting by bike, the tandem mode is faster, delivering Bowen to his school in less time than driving would (because of traffic and the lack of need to deal with the school dropoff craziness). But for weekend rides with the family it's way more fun to have Boen in the middle seat. I've gotten to the point where I can convert the tandem to triplet in about half an hour, and about 15 minutes going the other way.

Finally, transporting the triplet is currently a pain, requiring disassembly and reassembly. It's not difficult, but takes quite a bit of extra time. I need to get a trailer to tow it behind the Honda Fit. I'm not sure how I'm going to get it onto the plane when we finally decide to tour with it: it's going to take a lot of suitcases and quite possibly extra charge.

But for now it's been a pleasure riding it with my 2 kids. It's stupid expensive, and we'll only get to use it for 10 years or so, but it's worth it. If you're in the area and want to borrow the bike for a ride please ask.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Re-read: Stories of Your Life and Others

After watching the movie, Arrival, I had to go back and re-read Story of Your Life. It's a cliche to say that the book is better than the movie, but in this case, the short story is miles better than the movie, and explores philosophical concepts that the movie doesn't (and can't) get into. It's so good that I went back and re-read the entire book, and it blew me away. Of course, the book was previously out of print, and the movie deserves its success simply for putting the book back in print again.

Well worth the time. Pick it up and enjoy!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Review: The Invincible Iron Man Epic Collection

When growing up, I remember reading the initial Spiderman and Fantastic Four stories in black and white shrunk-down paperbacks. I'd never read the Iron Man Collection, so when Marvel had a sale I picked it up. I had no idea that Iron Man was launched under Tales of Suspense, rather than having its own titles, and frequently shared a comic with Captain America. Both stories are pretty jingoistic America vs Russia or America vs the Nazi settings, so there is some commonality.

Reading these as an adult, you can see how simple the stories were. They were also very much full of self-promotion, but that probably didn't matter for the audience. What made them stand apart was the consistent melodrama of the characters and their humanity compared to the DC heroes of the same era.

It was kind of fun, and but you can only take so much of Stan Lee's writing at once, so I found myself having to read it in fits and spurts.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review: The Miracle of Dunkirk

The Miracle of Dunkirk is about Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk by the British Expeditionary Force at the start of World War 2 after the rout of the French Marginot line.

The book attempts to do what I think is pretty much an impossible job, a coherent narrative of an event from multiple simultaneous perspectives while providing personal interesting stories and anecdotes. As a result, I came away from the book feeling rather disjointed, as not everything came together.

Compared to the Christopher Nolan film, the book lacks a central cohesive story. But of course, the book provides way more context and ties together actions from the command side as well as the actions of the rank and file. As a matter of fact, I think the film provides a misleading view of the events at Dunkirk.

If you've read the book, the movie makes a lot more sense. If you've watched the movie, I think the book's much better. Recommended.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Long Term Review: CamelBak Kid's 2016 Mini MULE Hydration Pack

Since acquiring the Kid's Camelbak in April, Bowen's traveled to England with the pack, did a walking vacation, then a 10 day bike tour, and finally a backcountry camping trip, all wearing the backpack. He's still not completely grown into the pack --- the shoulder straps still occasionally slip off despite tightening the sternum strap to as short as it can go.

The upper pockets are very convenient, especially the small zippered pockets, which are great for sticking the leggings of his convertible hiking pants so they don't get lost or mixed in with adult stuff. The big pocket always holds a Clif bar or some other snack. The additional weight has actually taught him that he does not need to bring his bunny on the backpacking trip!

We've had one failure, which is that the bite valve died in England after he bit on it extra hard. On short notice, we had to pay absurd English tourist prices for it (we had to find a bike shop that would sell it to us, which was actually not that easy). Since they're $4 a piece in the US via Amazon, you might as well stock up on those before leaving on a trip to an expensive destination.

I still recommend the backpack. It's survived without a lot of damage.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Bowen's first Sierra backcountry camping trip

I don't know where the tradition of "summer camp" for kids come from. As far as I can tell, none of the summer camps I see from Facebook posts actually involve real camping. So when Arturo suggested a real backcountry trip in the Sierra with real camping with Bowen, I of course agreed. We asked Bowen: "2 days or 3 days?" He said, "3 days!"

The location Arturo picked was Hieser and Bull Run Lakes, a trip he had done with other kids before. We left on Sunday morning, stopped in Stockton to picked up a camping bowl, fire starting equipment, and a trowel, and then stopped in Angel Camp for lunch. We arrived at the Mosquito Lakes trailhead at 2:00pm and repacked our backpacks, consolidating all the food into bear canisters, and then started walking.


The weather was warm despite recent rainfall, but Arturo told us we would still see snow. Bowen was happy to find it in the middle of summer, and could not help poking away at it with Arturo's hiking stick.
The hike from the trail head to Heiser Lake was short, not even 3 miles. But the last stretch was an uphill and Bowen hadn't been walking a lot for a while, so we took it at a low pace.
Thunderhead clouds slowly grew ahead of us, however, so towards the end, we had to cajole Bowen into moving a little faster so that we wouldn't be setting up tents in the rain. In the end, we arrived a good half hour before the thunderstorm started, so we had plenty of time to set up our tents and get in before it showed up. "Camping is so fun," said Bowen. "It's so quiet!"
After the storm was over (and we did get to hear thunder and see lighting flashes from inside the tent), Bowen was hungry. He had to wait a bit, however, as Arturo had discovered a leak in his sleeping pad. It took a long time for him to find the leak, but fortunately he multi-tasked, firing up his stove and then starting a campfire in between sessions of patching and debugging.
The purpose of the campfire, of course, was to roast marshmallows, which Bowen happily did, after which we did some star gazing before retiring to bed. Arturo discovered that despite his fixes his mattress was still leaking, and while I thought I had packed more patches, I couldn't find them in the dark.

In the light of the morning I found my patch kit for the mattress and gave them to Arturo. It was a very comfortable morning, and by the time breakfast was over I was removing all the layers. We descended back to the intersection with Bull Run Lake, and walked towards it.
This was a true wilderness experience --- all through the day we would only see 2 other people. We'd had Heiser Lake to ourselves the night before and Arturo had told us that Bull Run Lake was heavily used, so we tempered our expectations.

At lunch, Bowen saw a bear, but neither Arturo nor I were fast enough to see it! Despite the forecast of no rain, we saw thunderheads building against once more, but were quite confident that we would get to Bull Run Lake before it actually rained.
To our surprised, we arrived at Bull Run Lake in sunshine, but Bowen was so tired that he plopped down next to our backpacks while we scouted the area for a good campsite. Having found a very nice one, we talked Bowen into coming along while we put together the tents. It was sunny and warm, and so I suggested we swim before it rained and we changed our minds.
Arturo tried wading in on the shallows, but I knew that it was a mistake. With mountain lakes, you should just jump right in so you don't get a chance for the cold water to change your mind. That's what I did, and after Bowen saw me do it, he followed suit. Well, once the 5-year-old performed the feat, there was no way for Arturo to back out, so he went for a swim too.

In fact, Bowen wanted to do it twice, so I ended up jumping into the lake three times, and Arturo had to do it twice too. As we were finished with our shivering I noticed ripples on the lake surface. The rain was coming! We hurriedly dressed, hung up our swim suit, and got into our tents. The rain was short, only about 15 minutes, after which we went for a walk around the lake to verify that yes, we had the place to ourselves.
When we were done with our walk, it was still early, so Bowen and Arturo played cards while I read a little bit. Then a thunderstorm blew through. This one went on for about an hour, after which Bowen declared he was hungry, and we made dinner. The wood that we had piled up for the campfire had gotten wet, so it took Arturo two tries to start it, but he eventually got a nice fire going and Bowen roasted more marshmallows.

Our last day of hiking was the toughest one. We'd discovered that Arturo's map was wrong about distance and elevation (it must have been made by the Italian members of National Geographic), and it'd be significantly longer than what Arturo had expected.
We said goodbye to Bull Run lake and started the descent. Past the intersection with the highway 4 trail, the trail started descending rapidly and steeply. At the bottom near the river crossings we encountered 2 separate parties heading up to Bull Run Lake. Each was composed of 6 girls and several adult supervisors (some of which were men) but there wasn't a single boy amongst them.
We had lunch after the last river crossing, and finished the gentle climb which turned out to be better than the descent. After that, we hit the parking lot and then headed along the trail to mosquito lake, which would have added 2 miles to the hike if we all were headed straight for the car. But Arturo had a better idea, which was to beat off the trail to the road, whereupon he would run to the car and pick us up. The weather was very warm, so we were glad not to have to do a full 2 more miles: Bowen was already quite tired and was walking slower than his usual skip-and-hop pace. The hike up to the road was actually quite steep, but we made it and soon Arturo picked us up and we headed off to JoMa's Artisan Ice Cream shop for much needed ice cream.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Review: Merrell Men's All Out Blaze Mid Waterproof Hiking Boot

I couldn't find my custom hiking boots for the England trip, so was forced to buy a new pair of hiking boots. The Merrell Men's Blaze Mid was my pick, mostly because it was the lightest shoe available at a decent price when I visited REI. I was nervous about the shoe, since it was my first synthetic waterproof shoe. I've been disappointed in the past by claims of waterproofing on synthetic hiking boots --- they rarely live up to their claim.

These shoes, however, were very comfortable. So much so that I brought them to England as my only walking shoes (during my bike tour I wore cycling shoes). I wore them while driving, which I never would have done with my traditional hiking boots. While I had occasional soreness, those were usually addressed by lacing the shoe differently rather than hoping that the shoe would break in properly.

I finally tested them on waterproofing during a recent backcountry camping trip. They are indeed waterproof. Recommended.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Long Term Review: Vivoactive HR

The Vivoactive HR proved itself all through England, the BVI, and a recent hiking/camping trip. The battery life has stayed incredibly good, mostly because I only have to charge it every 3 days or so, rather than nearly after every activity. That's because at half charge, I know I can still do a 4 hour bike ride and not run the battery down. It also charges insanely fast, which is great for a device that should be on your wrist for you to get the most out of it.

The Achilles' heel however, is insect repellent. Both DEET and Picaridin will break down the seals in the watch, causing water intrusion and rapid failure. Both Arturo and I suffered the same failure, so it's likely a design "feature" of the Vivoactive HR, rather than a manufacturing error.

I would still recommend the unit --- it's very reliable, just keep it away from insect repellent of any sort!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Review: REI Sahara Convertible Hiking Pants (Boys)

I will admit that like many men, I let my wife do my shopping for kids clothing. This is usually for the best: not only am I red-green color blind, I also have zero fashion sense. But when it came to the England walking and cycling trip, I had to get my act together. Hiking and cycling clothing can't be made out of cotton, but Bowen's wardrobe was mostly cotton. Cotton kills in cold or rainy weather.

During a sale, I visited REI with Bowen, but found (perhaps I shouldn't be surprised) that they didn't have any boy's clothing to try on. I settled for Bowen trying out the girl's version, and then went home and ordered the Boy's REI Sahara Convertible Hiking Pants from the website. It wasn't until we owned them and used them for the hiking trip, cycling trip, and backcountry camping trip that we realized how good these are.

For starters, there are belt loops, but you don't ever have to use them. Inside the pants are a set of elastic bands that are controlled by buttons. You essentially can adjust how tight a fit the waist band of the pants are by adjusting where the buttons are on the elastic bands. Totally awesome.

Then, on the days when I had to remove the leggings to turn them into shorts, I was flabbergasted. The left and right pant legs are color coded on the zippers: red on the right and blue on the left. So when you need to turn the shorts back to the pants there's no fumbling on left and right. But wait, what's this? Each leg piece has a second zipper down the middle, and when you unzip them, they undo and come off the leg without the kid having to take off their shoes! I wish my adult convertible pants had these features!

The pants come with a full complement of pockets, unlike most kids pants. Bowen can stick a cliff bar in one, though we tend to use his camelbak for that.

On sale, these pants are about $22. If it were up to me, I'd replace every pair of pants Bowen has with these. They are the best pants ever. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review: The Telomare Effect

The Telomare Effect has 2 outstanding authors, including a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine. I expected a detailed explanation of the process of discovery, at least some high quality speculation on how telomares get shortened or lengthened due to lifestyle changes, and then practical advice.

Instead, it was long on the latter, and short on the former. In particular, all the things that you already know to be healthy lifestyles (eat good food, avoid processed food, exercise, meditate and live mindfully) lengthen telomares. All the things you know to be bad for you shorten telomares. Drugs that lengthen telomares appear to cause cancer, so unfortunately lifestyle changes are the only way to do this.

If you didn't already know all this, the book would be a great read. But for me, it was a big disappointment. I got very little science and a huge dose of what I already knew.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review: Parable of the Talents

Parable of the Talents is the sequel to Parable of the Sowers, Octavia Butler's novel about a post-apocalyptic America. Let me remind you that the special thing about the novel is how real it seems, because the cause of the apocalypse isn't some weird disease or nuclear war, but global climate change and religious fanaticism in American society, both forces that we see in play today in our current disastrous administration. 

In many ways Butler's optimistic—the book implies that the USA as a whole survives this apocalypse, with the exception of Alaska seceding from the union. But the novel takes the characters through some pretty dark places, including a first hand look at slavery. There were sections where I wanted to stop reading because it was all so horrifying, made worse by the versimilitude of the novel as a whole to present day circumstances. 

In parallel, we also get to see the start of a new religion, Earthseed, which acts as a counter-point to the fanatical Christian ideology that drove the apocalypse in the novel. 

The biggest sticking point of the novel for me is the wrap up. It feels like the author ran out of paper to write more pages, and so she hurries through the ending. I felt like Earthseed went from a twinkling in someone's eye to a huge success overnight, though of course, what happened was that Butler compressed time scale so much in the last few pages that I could not keep up. 

I enjoyed the novel enough to recommend it. I should go read more Butler. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Day 14: York Train Museum

We checked out of the hotel in the morning after eating in the room, and then walked over to the train museum, which was free! The kiddie rides weren't available, though there was a turntable demonstration. Bowen and Boen spent most of their time in the play area rather than the exhibits, but the museum itself was very well done and well worth a visit.

From York to Manchester Airport was a 2 hour drive direct, but 2 hours and 20 minutes if we drove through the Peak district. We did the latter, but it was so windy that we didn't really stop for pictures, and I noted that there weren't many places along the main highway where you could stop anyway for pictures. It was pretty, but there was nothing wrong in being checked into the hotel early so Xiaoqin and Boen could rest for their flight the next morning, so that's what we did.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Day 13: Osmotherly and York

I noticed that Osmotherly was right in between Hartlepool and York, and I remember it being part of the coast to coast walk, so we drove there, bought a pamphlet from the village store, and started a hike. The hike started out nicely, with Xiaoqin and Bowen picking raspberries from alongside the trail and eating as we went along.
Then on top of a ridge the instructions started making no sense. We asked someone and they pointed out the rest of the route to us, but by the time we finished, I knew that the situation and paths must have changed between when the pamphlet was printed and when we did the walk. This is not unusual in England, and the fact that footpaths are usually unsigned by destination or trail names made situations worse.
Nevertheless, it was a fun, easy walk, and we had lunch in town, after which we visited the local playground before driving on to York. In York, we settled in and then walked over to the Pakistani restaurant Scarlet had picked out, which featured a family sized Naan that was indeed huge.
After dinner, we walked along the York City wall for a while, itself an enjoyable diversion.



Thursday, September 07, 2017

Day 12: Scarborough and Robin Hood's Bay

The night before, we'd booked an AirBnB via Instant Book. But this morning I had a message from the owner cancelling us! She obviously couldn't figure out how AirBnB worked. So it was back to booking.com, and we found a place at the Melbourne House Hotel in Hartlepool. It wasn't a super long drive, but it was annoying. What was worse was that we'd counted on the AirBnB's laundry service, so now the morning was spent scrambling for a laundry machine. The nearest one turned out to be in Scarborough, so off we went.
Scarborough was very touristy, we got some cotton candy and walked to the lighthouse, and tried a few rides in the arcade before picking up the laundry and going to Robin Hood's Bay to meet Scarlet. My last visit to Robin Hood's Bay was on foot. Driving there, I realized how much harder it was to go there by car: there was no parking in town, and when I tried, the road was so narrow I quickly realized it was my mistake. Yet there was no way to turn, so I tried to back the car up, whereupon it complained that the transmission was over-heating. (The 30% grade meant that all the transmission oil pooled up at the wrong end of the car which was leading to the over heating) I ended up doing a 3-point turn in a very tight spot and then driving to the out of town parking lot with my face drenched with sweat.
Once on foot, Robin Hood's Bay was gorgeous and very pretty. We walked through town but missed Scarlet, having been an hour late. But as we ate lunch Boen started screaming like he was two years old, and Scarlet had heard it from the other side of town and came over, surmising that was us. She was not wrong.
We got a selfie since we met in Scotland in 1995, about 22 years ago, and were in the same area purely by coincidence! We both had gray hair now, and were toting along sons. We exchanged notes and realized we were going to be in York at the same day, so we agreed to do dinner together then.
We then did a walk along the coast to Boggle Hole, and then back to the car for the drive to Hartlepool.
Hartlepool was not all that exciting, though the hotel we stayed at, the Melbourne House Hotel, was impressively new and well appointed, with everything obviously renovated.