Sunday, July 22, 2018

R.I.P. Jamis Aurora

Jamis Aurora recently entered the home of bikes beyond their time. He has been superseded by Jamis Coda. He was born in 2008, living the first part of his life in California. During his lifespan, he has traveled thousands of miles. Strava puts the count at almost 15,000 miles. However, it is missing most of his early life. Actual mileage is probably in the 30,000 - 40,000 mile range. He has added a kickstand and fenders that have lasted his entire life. In his youth, his front wheel was replaced with a dynamo wheel to power some lights that have endured the remainder of his life. His back wheel, however, has gone through multiple iterations, with the current one nearing expiration due to weight and brakes. Tubes and tires have been replaced multiple times. The drive train has also been replaced multiple times. The cranks and bottom bracket recently were all replaced due to a fracture of one crank arm. The seat has been hanging in there despite broken rails. One water bottle cage has passed away. The rack is broken and now tied to another rack. Handlebar tape and plugs have been replaced. Even the frame has a crack (that appears to be related to weld stress.) Brake pads have been replaced multiple times. New cables have also been run. Pedals have been replaced with mismatches. Very little remains in working order from the original: the handlebar, stem, shifters, brakes and derailer. Mr. Aurora had lived a great life on the west coast, climbing many hills and enduring countless headwinds, all while hauling plenty of gear. He had endured numerous attachments and panniers. He would probably have gone through another round of internal replacements had his frame not shown the cracks.
He had superseded Specialized Globe, who was stolen. He was preceded in death by a sister, Schwinn Ten Speed, an uncle Trek, and grandfather Giant and stolen sister Breezer Villager. He is survived by an older brother, Breezer Zag-8, cousins Bakfiets, Bike Friday Triple, Mangoose, Trek, Novara, Specialized, Like-a-bike and Isla.

Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation

What is time? That is a question the Alan Burdick tries to answer in Why Time Flies. Dictionaries often include a somewhat circular definition of time. We know what it is and we can sense its passage, yet it doesn't seem to be a physical sense like touch or smell. It feels that time passes slower when we our younger, but then speeds up as we get older. Some studies have "proven" this, yet there have also been flaws in the studies. "New" events do appear to take longer than repeated events. This may be do to the more resources that are spent processing the newness than are needed for reprocessing the old. The brain also does a lot of "tricks" to make the real world appear as we expect it. When there is a small delay between the time you touch a key and the character appears on a screen, the brain correlates those with being instantaneous events. If a character then appears instantly upon keypress, the brain will interpret that as happened. "Time" may pass in an orderly manner. However, their are a lot of "tricks" that the brain pulls in our interpretation of the passing of events. This book does a good job in investigating many of these tricks and pointing out that the science behind time is still in its infant stage.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole

In Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole, eleven-year-old Stella Rodriquez has been struggling with the loss of her father. She attempts to visit Carl Sagan at Nasa in order to have sounds of her father put on the "golden record". (The book takes place in the 1970s.) However, a small black hole follows her home. She gradually housebreaks the black hole. In the process, she discovers that anything eaten by the black hole is "erased" from ever having existed. She decides to use this to her advantage to remove all the "difficult" things form her life - including the memories of her father. Alas, her new puppy accidentally enters the black hole. She decides to try to rescue him. In the process she finds that bizarre things happen to things in the black hole (like the discarded sweaters coming "alive" and treating her diary as a religious text.) Through this process, she finally comes to peace with her father's death and her relationship with her family.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating without Giving In

Getting to Yes presents "principled negotiation" as a negotiating strategy. Key to the strategy is a focus on interests and objective criteria rather than specific positions. Often "positional bargaining" can bring other sides to dig in and attempt to save face with their position. Instead, a principled negotiator will attempt to separate the person from the problem and acknowledge the common interests and let the solution suggest itself. Key to carrying out the negotiation is knowledge of "Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement". This differs from a "bottom line" in that it allows things to be adapted based on the result of negotiation. New ideas may be discovered during the process of negotiating that lead to solutions that were not intended earlier. Getting to Yes is filled with anecdotes of successful negotiating in action. Keeping your cool and resisting the urge to go into attack mode is an important part of the process. As the opposite party feels respected, they are less likely to come out with guns blazing. They can become more of a willing partner rather than an adversary. However, to succeed, they must also feel that the end result is valuable to them. If you come up with a result that is too beneficial towards you, then you may find yourself operating from a weaker standing in the future.

Pale Fire

Pale Fire is written as a scholarly annotated poem by a dead poet. The "author" (Charles Kinbote) is a scholar neighbor of the dead poet, Shade. It consists of an introduction by the author, the 999 line poem and the commentary of the poem. The introduction gives you a clue that there is something else going on here. The "author" is very full of himself, and feels overly impressed that he is friends with Shade. The poem itself is a very basic, juvenile work. Nothing that would be really "good" on its own.

The commentary seems to have nothing to do with the poem. The "explicator" uses minor bits of information in the poem to go off an a tangent about something totally different. There are a few main stories. One is about a King that escapes a fictional country. Another is about an assassin that is attempting to kill said King. The third tangent is somewhat more related to the poem and involves the life of Shade and his family and the relationship of Shade to Kinbote. The stories gradually become more intertwined, leading to some possible interrelations. Perhaps Kinbote is actually the King. Perhaps the murderer was trying to kill the King, rather than Shade. Maybe Kinbote is just a crazy stalker who has been much too obsessed with Shade and unable to accomplish significant scholarship on his own.

On one level, the work can be seen as a deep satire of academia. The Kinbote takes himself way too seriously and comes up with detailed interpretations that would be hard to justify based on the merits of the text. (Many long bits of commentary are related only in that Shade had written bits of the poem at the same time another event happened.) Even sections that may be somewhat justified are more highly influenced by the life of the commentator than the actual poet.

On another level, the use of a poem provides an innovative way to tell a "hypertext" story. Different sections can be followed back and forth to unearth the intertwined tales. They are a fiction wrapped in another fiction, making it open to many possible interpretations. I am not sure weather the fictional country is "real" in the universe of the story or if it is in fact made up in the mind of the "author." This opens many possible interpretations of the work.

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life

The Nordic countries tend to show up near the top of well-being surveys. What can we learn from them for our own culture? As a big fan of Nordic culture, I expected to buy into everything in this book. Alas, I found myself being extra critical. Some of the ideas seem pretty clear, if counter intuitive. You want to increase women's pay gap relative to men? Provide for better paternity leave.
Education was a little more questionable. It seems everybody likes to pick the part of the Finnish education success that best suits them. The author claims Finnish education was reformed primarily around equity. All schools were high quality and everybody had access to the highest level of education. (Even "private" schools would fall closely under the similar government scheme.) Alas, much of that is missed in the US. Seattle schools are obsessed with equity. Yet, the implementation method often involves lowering the bar. There is also the matter of private schools. If the public school district provides an equally bad experience for all, yet there are abundant, high cost, high quality private offerings is that really equitable? The author also noted some problems with "school choice" in other Scandinavian countries. Public school advocates will use this to fight against vouchers and charter schools. However, the school districts get into the same game with open enrollment, option schools and magnet schools. It is just school choice controlled by the education bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is the real difference. US schools have a significantly greater number of administrators per student. They also rely extensively on standardized tests. The antagonistic union situation results in teachers being treated more as cogs in a system rather than skilled professionals as they are in Scandinavia. School districts are also fragmented and rely on a local property tax base for funding. Nordic countries tend to be fairly homogeneous populations, however, there are plenty of states that are similar in population and homogeneity to Nordic countries. They could likely reform their education system to have similar success, but there will be big fights from both the parents and schools in order to get there.
The book lauds the social welfare benefits of the Nordic countries, while lamenting the lack of high cost of medicine and lack of social benefits in the United States. Taxes, however, are not too different in both. What gives? The United States often tries to do "socialism on the cheap". Rather than give a benefit like healthcare to everybody, it is only given out to a certain population under an income threshold. There are also a large number of tax breaks for different behaviors or activities. This makes for a highly complex system that is in many ways highly restrictive in behavior. You arguably have a choice in health plans in the United States. However, medicaid is only for the poor, medicare for the elderly, VA for veterans. There is a huge tax subsidy for private health insurance plans - but only if purchased through an employer. If you want to purchase insurance on your own, you lose out on most government largess (and tend to pay higher rates on top of that.) And this just gets you insurance which may or may not let you see the doctor you want. (And there is no guarantee that you can even purchase a policy that will let you see them.)
The Nordic model of benefits provides similar benefits to everyone. Anybody has access to the same health care at the same cost. Education, parental leave, unemployment and other benefits are provided by the government. This frees companies and citizens to focus on adding value rather that entrepreneurial risks will leave their family on the street. These benefits are covered by taxes. However, the tax rates are mostly flat, instead of highly graduated. They are still somewhat progressive, but not obsessively so as in the United States. In the US, it seems too much effort is spent on making a "progressive" tax system and then limiting benefits to those that are "in need". Then the tax code is filled with a bazillion loopholes to prevent these high taxes from negatively impacting "special interests". The result is a lower class that receives a large amount of benefits and pays no taxes and an upper class that can spend the effort to legally avoid taxes. This leaves a middle class that earns to much to qualify for benefits, yet doesn't have the resources to avoid taxes and thus pays away a large portion of their income. Public benefits tend to be stigmatized and associated with the "poor". (However, tax breaks carry no such stigma - even though they are essentially just another "payment" from the government. Would removing income validation change things? (It could also reduce some incentives for "reducing" income and working under the table to qualify for benefits.)
The book ends with the author becoming a US citizen. She was willing to sacrifice the Nordic safety net after falling in love with an American. Despite the challenges, there are advantages of the US way. I had met a Dane who was similarly desirous to move to the US due to the more dynamic start up culture. There may be something in the lack of safety net that pushes people to work harder. (Though there may also be the advantage of a much larger market.) There are many places in the US that would love to have a similar social welfare system. However, attempts often fall victim to entrenched interests (such as insurance companies and government agencies.) How can the United States keep the entrepreneurial spirit and move beyond third-world social welfare?

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Daisy Miller

After the discussions of Henry James in Reading Lolita in Tehran, I decided to try out some more Henry James. Daisy Miller looked like a short work. It has a super simple plot. An American girl meets an American guy in Europe. They develop something of a friend/romantic relationship. The girl also meets with other local guys. She tells the American she was engaged. She later dies from a fever after a late-night rendezvous with a European guy. However, before she died, she wanted to make sure the American knew she was not really engaged. Surprisingly, the story is good and well written. Daisy comes across as a striving flirt among a "moderate new money" crowd. She is not part of the "upper" ex-pat crowd in Europe and she knows it. Yet, she also knows she is quite pretty and will use her charm on men to get what she wants. There are "rules" of societal engagement in the late nineteenth century America that she likes to flout. She takes advantage of her position in Europe to be different and try to live her life as she sees fit. You get the sense she is striving to move up the social ladder, but is not quite ready to commit. Eventually her behavior catches up with her, leading to her untimely death. The male interest, Winterbourne seems nearly passive in this experience. While initially taking an active role in the introduction to Daisy, he later seems to be a passive participant.
Despite being written almost 140 years ago, Daisy Miller reflects some of the "American Elitism" that is seen today. Despite spending extended time in Europe, the Miller's still view Schenectady, New York as the source of everything great. Even far away from home, the American norms are expected to apply.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Moby Dick

At times Moby Dick reads as a history of all things whaling. There are long descriptions of the different types of whales, the accuracy of whale's portrayal in art, the common procedures of whaling vessels and more. (He was convincing in saying that the whale should be considered a fish, even though it has lungs. This goes against are modern way of classifying, but is not made in ignorance, so much as a "sea-centric" means of grouping.
In addition to history, the novel explores human relations. Whaling was a true multi-cultural affair, long before "multi-cultural" was a thing. The novel begins with the narrator sharing lodging with a "cannibal", and goes to describe encounters with many others of diverse backgrounds. While the narrator is initially afraid of these different characters, he gradually treats them as respected crew members (though not necessarily as close friends.)
Even when the book gets into the "action sequences" as they are hunting wales, the author takes time to go into exquisite detail of how they process the whale onboard the ship and the intricacies of the "law of the sea" for who gets to complete a capture of whale.
It is not until the final few chapters of the novel that the focus is truly on being a novel. Now the ship and crew is enduring a typhoon and trying valiantly to battle Moby Dick. Ahab truly will stop at nothing (including his own demise) to help defeat the great whale Moby Dick. The action is intense. You could make a good abridgement by taken bits and pieces of the first 100 chapters and including the last few in their entirety.

Ace the Programming Interview

Ace the Programming Interview is the "coding interview" book that always seems to be available at the library. I have never seen it recommended by a big tech company for interview prep. It was written by a European and has more of a British Focus. It also feels dated.
The first section of the book deals with general interview preparation. It talks about preparing a resume, going through the phone and in person interviews and even negotiating the offer. It also covers general preparation and pitfalls. Their is advice here both for interviewers and interviewees. The author points out some of the pitfalls that we we run into in interviews. Some times and interviewer will ask questions that are too specific, or expect a candidate to be able to provide the same type of answer that they have implemented for a given problem.
The questions and answers are interspersed with the review of CS fundamentals. The author seems to be moth experienced with windows technologies. However, others are also mentioned. The sections cover common things such as big O notation, as well as such topics ans choosing the appropriate tools.
Other interviews tend to focus more on the practical programming questions. This book has some of that. It also attempts to provide more coverage of language-specific programming questions. (Alas, that can make it quickly dated as languages evolve or go out of favor.) However, it shines more in the general theoretical questions. Why are software projects usually late? Why do programmers do certain things? It provides good insight for preparing for a general programming interview, but wont necessarily prepare you for the grind of Google or Amazon technical questions.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World

Empathy is a key to raising a child today. How do we help children to develop empathy? The book provides a number of anecdotes (often in a classroom setting) showing how the research on empathy can be put in practice. Empathetic Children have a moral compass and think of "us" instead of "Them". They work for the betterment of everyone. Alas, there is a great tendency of children to focus on themselves and seek after their own personal desire fulfillment. It can require a lot of work to help teach them empathy.
The Epilogue contained a few points that had proven successful for teaching empathy.
  • Be friendly
  • Break Down Barriers
  • Give Kids a Voice
  • Play Chess and Unplugged Games
  • Create Parent Support Networks
  • Build Caring Relationships
  • Don't Give Up.
Working towards increasing empathy is a long process. Different children may respond differently. (Though how they respond may be surprising. A baby can help bring out empathy in groups that you would not expect.) This book provides some research and toolbox to help achieve greater empathy.