Friday, January 24, 2020

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia

Sea People explores the unfolding of the Western World's knowledge of Polynesia. It follows the numerous encounters that Europeans have had with Polynesian islands. The book details the evolution in the theories and thoughts of the migrations of the people. It also explores the differences in thinking among the primarily oral Polynesians and the visual (maps and writing) culture of the Europeans. If only the Europeans had taken better notes in their first encounters, we may have a better understanding of the cultures and people.
In the post world war 2 era there have been many theories and "experiments" done. Some postulated they must have floated from south America. A Scandinavian tried sailing on a raft and did manage to make it to an island. Others postulated Polynesians just floated around and happened to stumble into islands. Computer scientists later simulated travel to see where people could have traveled. This refuted some of the "floating randomly" ideas, and showed there must be a degree of intentional behavior. Decades later, there were attempts to revive Polynesian boat making and traditional navigation. They were actually able to navigate throughout the various islands. Modern genetic testing has also helped to present a better picture of where they have come from. However even that is somewhat mudddy. (This may be due to various bottlenecks.)
Currently, the accepted theory is that the Polynesian population came out of Asia, then spent a millenia in Somoa/Tonga before spreading out to the remaining islands. (Rat DNA has been used to help with the analysis.) Moana has helped to further popularize this understanding.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

At All Costs

At All Costs reads like the work of an ardent World War II buff who is trying to unearth some minutia of history. Malta sits on a key trade route, and was deeply coveted by the Axis powers. However, it lacked naturual resources and oil, and was heavily dependent on deliveries of goods and oil. The story in this book is on a convoy that landed in Malta. The books goes into the history of some of the men. (Such as the sailor who was trying desperately to get his wife out of Nazi-occupied Norway) It covers the flagging of the Ohio to the British fleet and the launching of the convoy. Ships were shot down. Many people died. Many others were rescued. Some ships had to be towed to make it to Malta. The allies also benefited from the infighting among the Axis. Germany didn't want to give Italy all the fuel it needed because the Italians seemed to spend most of it just moving around. The book proceeds along the primary narrative, but also pauses numerous times to describe "what happened" to some of the figures mentioned.

The Hunt

The Hunt is a vampire book in reverse. It is told from the perspective of a human who has managed to live incognito in a vampire society. The vampires are people, while humans are seen as primitive "hepers". He had grown up with his human family. However, they were gradually picked off by vampires, leaving him alone. He had learned to behave like a vampire, adopting their peculiar mannerisms, and taking care to groom himself so as not to expose body odor or hair, so that he would not be caught.
One day, they announced a lottery to join a "heper" hunt. He was selected and whisked off. He ended up isolated in his own room, and had to struggle to keep from being discovered. He was shocked to find that the hepers were actually like "people", and not a primitive breed. (He acknowledged the vampire misinformation about humans was probably similar to people's misinformation about vampires.) There is, of course, a girl involved. You can tell there is something different about her. The truth doesn't come out until the end as there is a big battle and some of humans manage to escape, only to find a secret about his family and questions as to what will happen in the future.
The book moves along quickly, and adopts bits of "hunger games" style of battle. It is a refreshing take on the dystopian "vampire" story.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Siege of Macindaw: Ranger's Apprentice, Book Six

Siege of Macindaw picks off right where the previous book left off. As the title implies, it primarily involves an attack on a castle. Will has teamed up with a motley crew of vikings and forest outcasts, along with the rightful heir to the thrown. They must help rescue Alice and save the kingdom from what could be a permanent war from the north. There are plenty of times when the heroes are saved barely in the nick of time. However, the stressful situations usually play themselves out quickly, leaving us rapidly with the happy outcomes we desire. The characters always seem to know exactly what to do, and the good guys almost always win. The young love aspect also gets played up. Will has no problem taking a castle, but dealing with a girl he likes proves to be very difficult.

Call It Courage

Call it Courage is the story of a young Polynesian boy who is initially branded a coward. He then overcomes his fear of the sea to go on a solo voyage. He successfully fends for himself out on the ocean and makes it back home as a brave man. It seems very similar to the story that was later adopted for Disney's Moana.

The Sorcerer of the North: Ranger's Apprentice Series, Book Five

The Ranger's Apprentice books take place in a fantastical world that just happens to look a lot like medieval England. Neighboring countries are typically portrayed in a negative fashion. (Though there does seem to be some affinity towards the Scandinavian vikings.) Book 5 is essentially the first of a two part story. Will becomes a ranger and gets his first assignment. On the way to the remote island, he finds a wounded dog. This dog was owned by a crook who will end up playing a grater role later on. Will uses his past experience to help prevent an invasion and make sure the local army is better prepared. Then he is called upon to perform a secret mission. He travels up north, disguised as a performer in order to figure out what is going on with sorcery and other things. He makes it up there and discovers plenty of weird things going on. Alice comes to join him in disguise also. However, she is captured. He attempts to rescue her, and the book ends in a cliffhanger.

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

In boomerang, Michael Lewis explores some of the sovereign players in the financial markets meltdown of 2009. He plays up the country stereotypes. Iceland is populated by men that do not listen to their wive.s After conquering the fishing industry, they figure they must be naturally gifted at investment banking also. Greek are loners who think everyone else is cheating, so must cheat themselves. The Irish had always suffered, yet they had a rapid economic turnaround. They guaranteed all banks, leaving each long-suffering Irishman with a huge share of debt.
One of the final discussions deal with California and local governments. Arnold Schwarzenegger thought he had a mandate to fix things. However, he discovered that people and politicians simply wanted a lot of services and don't want to pay for them. Thus there is a lot of future debt and a willingness to shift things to local governments. These governments end up spending hugs amounts paying for their current and former employees. Thus cities like San Jose can't afford to staff new community centers. Vallejo couldn't afford anything and ended up bankrupt.
Alas governments are just behaving like individuals who go into debt to pay for things later.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration

Open Borders uses comics to make a compelling case for unrestricted or even "partially restricted" immigration. The authors counteract many of the anti-immigration arguments as either using bad math or scapegoating. They also provide alternatives for those concerned with too rapidly opening the doors. If we are concerned with immigrants consuming too many government benefits, why not charge immigrants for the privilege of coming? (Illegal immigrants pay huge fees to third parties to help smuggle them in. What if these immigrants were made legal and those charges went to the government instead?)
Negative arguments that low-wage workers depress per-capita income are countered with a basketball player example. A group of young children entering a room with NBA basketball players will lower the average height, but no NBA player becomes shorter. Similarly, allowing low-skilled immigrants may lower per-capita income of the new country, even while every individual sees an increase in their income.
Crime and lack of assimilation? Well, immigrants tend to have lower crime rates. (We just hear more about the "unusual"). However, they do assimilate to higher native-born crime rates. They also tend to assimilate into the language and culture, though it will often take a generation or two. The will also tend to come in waves. Puerto Rico has had "free" immigration to the US for decades. At first there were only a small trickle of immigrants. Gradually the numbers increased, before leveling off. Most went to areas where there was already a community.
The focus on the book is immigration to rich countries from poor countries. However, immigration of all types should be supported. People should be able to pick the different structure and services they desire. This has shown to be successful within countries. The United States has had many different waves of immigration. Even the abandonment of small towns provides benefit as it reduces them to a population that can be economically supported. China and India have experienced rapid economic growth coupled with a heavy migration from rural areas to cities. If this provides benefits within countries, why not without? Europe has done much of that with the European Union. I'm still amazed that the US and Canada do not have open borders. (I've got much more grief taking business trips from the US to Canada than to European or Asian companies.) Even the US once had very open borders.
The authors present compelling ethical arguments in favor of free migration. If it is unethical to discriminate against a potential employee on the basis of gender or skin color, why is it ok to discriminate based on where they happen to be born.
Open Borders make just too much sense. Alas, immigrants (especially illegal ones) are such an easy group to scapegoat. Rather than fix the problem with more free immigration, politicians of the left and right keep trying bandaids. They may regret it one day the US becomes like Japan and needs immigrants to prop up the economy, yet is not a desirable destination.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes - and What We Can Learn from Them

Sports has become a huge part of society today. A century ago, excellence in sports could be accomplished individually. Today, there is a whole team involved. Scientists optimize the best training and recovery regime. They mine data for minute improvements. Some bits are only applicable to the most elite athletes. Others are applicable to everyone.
The author also discusses doping and the line between allowed and not allowed substances. In one survey done earlier, many athletes said they would be willing to take a substance that would kill them in order to win at their event. Alas, that has happened, with the case of a rider dying in a grueling tour de france ride after taking amphetamines to improve his performance. Some substances, like steroids can also provide benefit that persists even after the substance has left. Other substances, like EPO can be naturally produced by training at appropriate altitudes. East Germany had a mandatory doping program - and still owns many of the female records.
Athletes can use cameras to analyze minute differences in their activities. Large amounts of data can be crunched to optimize performance of individuals and teams. A pitcher can be told the best way to pitch a player. A basketball team can identify the best way to defend a certain player. Cameras can analyze minute details of a runner's stride.
Gear also plays a role. There is a huge industry that attempts to produce better equipment. However, the governing bodies of sports also have a say so, limiting the equipment (and benefiting and hurting certain participants.) Athletes end up training towards the certain goal.
The science behind athletic performance is also filled with interesting common substances that seem to provide benefit. Baking soda, caffeine and beet juice all help in various ways. Extra sleep has shown to be one of the most effective ways of improving performance. However, much depends on the individual person. The base level of fitness for an athlete and their train-ability help define their maximum success. Time in an individual sport often doesn't matter as much as finding the "right" sport. People with earlier growth sports may get an initial jolt in a sport, but the overall suitableness of their adult body form will be most important for long term success.
The subject of maximum performance. Lactic acid had been seen as a limitation. However, that may have been a side effect. The limit may be simply controlled by the brain. (This can help explain the boost that athletes can produce at the end of a race.) One theory states that this may be based on a body's desire to not kill itself. Somebody that has a stronger desire to "win" may be able to best succeed by using their brain to overpower the pain.
Faster, Higher, Stronger was written by a journalist that has an interest in the topic. As such it is a great read loaded with interesting discussion.

The Sunless Countries: Book Four of Virga

People are unsure of their history. Historians are brought in and out. Some people create fusion "suns". Some aliens come to visit. People have different responses. In the end they realize the group they didn't like is actually a better ally. They had previously decided to create allegiances with sentient beings that seemed most like them. However, that was not the best group. They also discover the nature of their planet.
This is the fourth book in a series. Perhaps reading the previous 3 books would make this book more appealing.