Sunday, October 30, 2016

The End of Normal

The "End of Normal" has plenty of persuasive arguments about why we should pursue liberal economic policies. (Government debt is a good thing because it represents savings that are invested. The debt has negative real rates (it is less than the inflation rate) thus using it is a good idea. Trade deficits are also required because the dollar is a global reserve currency.)
Super low interest rates are argued to be the new normal. The Fed has painted the economy into this corner with its policies and there is little reason for them to be changed. Maybe we wont see the large growth that we are used to.
Some of his ideas didn't seem to be fully thought through. He advocated raising the minimum wage. He saw that having some real cost for the government, but thought that it would be offset by decreased border protection costs, because there wouldn't be as much need for "below-market" labor. Huh? If there is a bigger gap, the cost differential would be even greater, making it even more worthwhile to go to "Black market" labor.
The Soviet collapse was purported to be caused by outdated systems. The USSR had gone on a massive building spree after World War II. These factories and structures were optimized for the industrial environment of the time. However, over time, manufacturing evolved, leaving these structures as poorly maintained, outdated monoliths. The advantage achieved when they were new is now long gone. The laborers are also all trained on the old systems. The cost to move to modernity was too much. The system thus collapsed. We have seen something similar happen in the US in the rust belt. These great steel and auto plants were state of the art at the time. However, the advantages they had are now gone. The local economies have had to reinvent themselves. Will the US or the entire western system suffer under its own weight? Today there are some distinct advantages. Much of the high tech industries rely on virtual infrastructure. It is much easier to shift to a new paradigm. Change can be carried out more quickly. This results in the change producing individual losers, but is less likely to bring about an entire collapse.
Are we in a new system where rates must be kept extremely low? Will a rate increase shock the system? Is the entire capitalistic system on the verge of collapse? We will have to wait and see.

Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do about It

The United States is all for intellectual property - as long as it benefits its businesses. When US businesses benefit significantly from flouting IP, the US is more than willing to ignore other countries' rights. Thus is the state of "fake food" in the US. In Europe names are used to identify food and wine from specific regions that adhere to strict standards. The names are protected to ensure customers are getting what was promised. In the US, these same terms could be slapped on anything. Champagne is a bubbly wine from the eponymous region in France. "Parmesan" is the Anglicization of the name of the cheese made in Parma. Each of these was well known for its excellence. In Europe or many other places in the world, the name is a guarantee of a certain product. In the US, it means just about nothing. A product called "Parmesan" cheese is likely a cheese. But, those green cans barely even make it that far. The wedges at least are a hard cheese - but not up to bar with the real thing. An argument could be made that these names help people identify things similar to what they were seeking. However, by that view, a Russian software house could call something "Microsoft Office" because it is an office productivity suite. The US would have nothing to do with that, but they let food get away with it.
In addition to the intellectual property violations, we also have food faked through more nefarious means. Much of the fish we eat is "faked". In processed fish, cheaper fish is frequently substituted for more expensive fish. (In Seattle, only 18% of fish was found to be different than what it claimed to be - making it the most "accurate" fish city in the US.) Things are especially bad with expensive fish like Red Snapper, which is almost always fake. The US will often ban products from certain countries (such as China.) However, those countries will export them to other countries where they will then be exported legally to the US.
Labeling of food can also be an exercise in trickery. 100% may mean 100% of a specific ingredient, not that the product contains only that ingredient. Packaging can predominantly display secondary ingredients. ("Blueberry Pomegranate Juice" may be primarily apple juice.) Many names like "natural" have no official meaning. Even those with meanings may be different than what we expect them to mean. We really have to research what the real stuff is in order to find things that are not fake. And then, we need to hope that the labeling is in fact accurate. (Even if it isn't, the USDA and FDA are often in no hurry to enforce.) If something is a great deal, it is more than likely to be fake. (Even something as simple as honey may be doctored with additional sweeteners.) Even expensive products can be knockoffs. However, the real stuff is generally pricey - though it also tastes better and is better for you and the environment, making it worth the effort.

The Tetris Effect

Tetris is a fascinating video game. It is simple, yet challenging and very addicting. I remember spending way too many hours playing "Nyet", a Tetris clone on the IBM PC. I managed to justify this as "study" for the computer science class project. (In the end, we implemented an "online" version of Tetris for computer bulletin board systems.) The code is easy to implement. However, if you do it a little bit wrong, the quality of the gameplay can significantly degrade. Do it right, and you have an addicting experience.
The story of Tetris is even more intriguing than the game itself. Tetris was one of the earliest of the "casual games". It has been implemented on just about every platform imaginable. It came out of communist-era Russia, being implemented originally by Alexey Pajitnov in his spare time. It ran only on some ancient Soviet hardware. However, it quickly became popular there. But do to the platform, was somewhat limited in how far it spread. Dmitry Pavlovsky and Vadim Gerasimov then ported it to MS-DOS, and it started to really take off. (The original version can be downloaded from Vadim's site - alas without the source code- at ) The name is a combination of "Tetra" (four) and "Tennis" and really has nothing Russian about it. I had always thought it was a Russian word - especially with the frequent backwards-R version of writing it.
Tetris spread behind the iron curtain where it was discovered by Robert Stein, who was looking for software in Hungary. He had license it to MirrorSoft (owned by the infamous Robert Maxwell) and tried to officially secure the rights from Russia. There was only one catch - Russia had very little understanding of intellectual property rights. Eventually, they were able to have something worked out. However, Henk Rogers was later able to scoop in and snatch the rights away for Nintendo.
The bulk of this book covers the protracted negotiations for the rights to the game. Rogers is portrayed as the "hero" of the negotiations. He originally developed Black Onyx - an early fantasy role playing game. He had branched from development to the business side, and thus was able to connecty well with with Pajitnov. (The two eventually obtained the rights for themselves.) The book waffles on the portrayal of Stein. First he is a great guy, who seems to know how to get through the Soviet system to get the world a great game. Later, however, he is a greedy businessman who doesn't have the charisma to get along with the programmers.
The book clearly has its biases. (For example, Tengen is portrayed as an evil corporate entity that "lost", even though they had the best version of Tetris.) Telling a story a story involving cultural barriers a few decades after it occurred also introduces additional challenges. The book also repeats itself at times and the "bonus" chapters stuck in the middle seem to go on for too long. In spite of these shortcomings, it is a riveting read that is difficult to put down. I just it was easier to come by a good Tetris game.

Death Weavers: Five Kingdoms Book 4

Death Weavers is the 4th book in the five Kingdom's series. Here, our team spends much of their time with "echos". These are "Spirits" of people after they have died, but before they have moved on to a final place. They can spend as much time as they want in the echo world. However, they do hear a call to go down the river to the exit of the world. Music is a powerful force in the echo world. Different beings have music that signals what they are doing. Different people also hear different music at different times. On special occasions, people can go into the world as "bright echos" who are still alive in the regular world.

The characters also make a trip into a cave of memories. There, everybody that enters leaves beyond an "imprint" of themselves. This clone has all their memories up to the time they went in. However, it does not create any new memories. It freely discourses with others that visit. However, it forgets their presence as soon as they leave. It also has no concept of time, and could easily be there for 5 days ro 5 centuries.

There books has a guest appearance from a few characters from the Beyonders series (a displacer and a seed-man.) I wonder if the final book will eventually join the two series. There do seem to be a lot of similarities in the universes of the two.

In this book, they find more about the nature of the "outskirts" world, how it was created and the danger that the powerful shapers can inflict upon it. Most of the novel is spent in the "echo world", but at the end, the finally rejoin their bodies to continue on to the next book.

The echo world is an interesting take on an afterlife, while also providing a basis for the entire universe of the book. This book suffers somewhat from thinks happening "just when they need to". A horse rushes out of nowhere to rescue somebody. Cole seems to always know just what to do when going through a difficult situation. Even when something doesn't turn out right, there always seems to be a warning in advance. We know that something bad will happen, leaving some of the suspense out of the picture.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Crystal Keepers: Five Kingdoms Book 3

Things continue in the Five Kingdom's series. Here they voyage into a kingdom of advanced technology. At one time a computer even managed to assume power. However, this computer was eventually subjugated.

In this book, the protagonists visit a technologically advanced kingdom. Everything is technology driven, with ID cards and money in the form of credits associated with the card. (The Kingdom even had a past history of a computer taking over. Luckily, it was subdued.)

Our heroes have met up with a number of additional "refugees" from our world. Most are here with various powers and living as slaves. Everyone in the "outskirts" has been brought from other worlds. However, many have lived there multiple generations and they now consider this their home.

The technology of this kingdom even has the ability to access the internet of our world. Alas, this leads to the depressing realization that people back home really do forget all about you. People have tried to send emails back (and even go back and visit home), but their closest friends and family have no recollection of them. (The protagonist, Cole, even discovers his older brother in the outskirts - but has no recollection of him, despite seeing him in old family pictures.)

There is plenty of action, including daring escapes and covert break ins. Some of it, however, feels a bit rushed. (They seem to resolve the problem as we are just beginning to understand the gravity of the situation.) Eventually, they reach a conclusion, and we are ready for the next book.

Door to Door

Door to Door provides a look at transportation in America. Ample coverage is provided on ports and the movement of freight. (Ironically, most people don't realize the importance of the ports, such as the resident that complained of the port traffic being useless to here because she could just get things at Wal-Mart. Little did she realize how Wal-Mart got its things.) People are reluctant to build roads that would be mostly used by freight. They would prefer to optimize roads for less-efficient single occupancy vehicles.

Freeways tend to induce demand. The story was told of the busy California freeway that was closed for reconstruction and expansion. Calamity was expected when it was closed, with drivers clogging local roads. Instead, drivers simply did not drive. The traffic on other roads was lighter than normal, even with the freeway closed. However, once it was opened with additional lanes, traffic picked up with a vengeance, with times being even slower than they were before the expansion.

Cars are just plain dangerous. Distracted drivers are given a few tons of metal to do what they see fit. Early on, cars were seen for the danger that they were. However, through the careful PR work of the automobile interests, we have the language of "accidents". The incidents are viewed as things that could just as well happen to anybody and need not be punished. The author gives an account of a number of fatal "accidents" that happened in a single day. We have become "immune" to the serious scourge in our society. We demand recalls when small parts have problem in cars, but do very little for the large scale problem we have with cars. Modern "stroads" that combine large multi-lane highway design with strip malls and other attractions are another significant danger of the modern car culture.

The author of the book is very keen on driver-less cars. They are seen as a great help that can improve cities and make the roads safer for everyone involved. The cars can respond instantly to dangers and incursions. They can also be communal taxis, not needing to occupy real estate in dense city centers. Will they catch on? Or will the auto interests find a way to encourage more personal ownership and make roads even more inclusive to automobiles. I have been a driver-less skeptic, but the arguments presented here are quite persuasive. However, the "road bullies" driving their own cars could still be a concern in a driverless world.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America

I had heard of A&P as a small Northeast grocery chain that may have been more important before. However, I did not realize how significant they were. A&P was the Wal-Mart of the early early 20th century. It evolved from a "showmanship" tea company to a cut-throat grocery company. Under the Hartford brothers, A&P expanded from the Tea and sugar business into grocery sales. At the time, most grocery stores were small independent operations that provided deliveries and credit and sold mostly individual items chosen from bulk containers. The quality was often suspect and the touch of clerks was required along the way. A&P created a centralized system with store brands as well as name brands. The stores became more self-service and did away with credit and delivery. They used their scale to give everybody low prices. (They were even concerned about stores becoming too profitable, thereby reducing the benefit to consumers.) The company grew like crazy and expanded throughout the eastern United States. The stores started out super small (as was custom in the day) and gradually grey to be larger and further spaced. There were plenty of legal challenges (including anti-trust suits complaining that prices were too high.) The company was also very conservative, sticking to short term leases and little debt allowing them to be very nimble.
After World War II, the company floundered. The Hartford brothers died, leaving the company to loyal employees. The inbred leadership was very conservative, trying to keep the same path, even as society was changing. New, large supermarkets were going up in custom-built suburban areas. A&P stores were not maintained well, and were small by comparison to supermarkets. The prices were also less competitive as A&P lost its advantages. The Hartford foundation also was sucking money from the company through dividends. Eventually the company went public, leading to even greater scrutiny before its final demise.
"The Great A&P" is very positive in its view of the A&P's legacy. The company was truly innovative. However, it did start the ball rolling on many changes from which we are still recovering. (They sponsored the "chicken of tomorrow" contest that lead to bland meat optimized for production of calories rather than bird health or taste.) Their innovations led to the elimination of many "mom-and-pop" operations, only to have A&P itself fall in favor of more nimble operations. We have seen this repeated with book-stores and other retailers. We do get lower prices and more efficiencies, but we also lose out on some of the personal benefits and product quality. If only we could get the best of both worlds.


Tomatoland is a scathing critique of Florida's industrial tomato agriculture and the many negative impacts. A great deal of time is spent discussing the plight of the farm workers, who are exposed to toxic chemicals and even enslaved. (Often it is "bad immigrants" that have connections to the new workers hometowns that do the enslaving. These guys can threaten both the workers and their families back home.) Activists had worked hard to get workers a penny more per pound from major suppliers. However, most of this remained in escrow with the farmers (who complained they could not easily identify who would receive them.)

Tomatoes have also become durable green orbs that have been optimized for shipping rather than taste or nutrition. (It is even illegal to export "non-conforming" tomatoes from Florida.) There was a great fight merely to allow the "ugly ripe" tomato to be sold. It is now an extremely profitable tomato that has much of the durability of commercial tomatoes, but sacrifices some of the looks in order to restore some taste. Perhaps we will continue to make progress in producing good tomatoes. The book concludes with some positive experiences of summer operations that focus on locally produced high quality tomatoes produced with well paid labor. Alas, these delicious ones are a minority in the world filled with cheep tomato-like balls of water.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage was the missing "holy grail" of exploration. Many explorers had attempted to make themselves known by finding this illustrious shortcut. Unfortunately, exploration involved traversing the arctic, where ice dominates for much of the year. And when ice was gone, mosquitos took up residence. It is hard to imagine how miserable the conditions must have been on the 1800s sailing ships.
At times the sailors were lauded as great explorers who helped chart the nether reaches of the ocean. The British were most enthusiastic, thought he Americans and Russians did play a role in the exploration. (Though perhaps due to their proximity they realized it was a fools errand.) Enthusiasm eventually died down in Britain. However, the "rescue missions" for missing expeditions incited public interest. Some of these missions were successful while others only turned up the remains of the former sailors.
Initial steamships made matters difficult, but later versions were helpful. In the end, some mariners did manage to make it through the entire passage. However, the high latitude and ice depth made it of little value for navigation. However, with climate change and melting ice, the value may increase as time progresses.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Preadator State

James Galbraith is the economist son of famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith. In Predator State he provides a critique of the Bush administration's economics as well as many modern economic practices from both sides of the political spectrum. His criticisms are sound. However, his alternatives are not as powerful.

He identifies "lucky coincidences" that caused various economic theories to be proven. The oil shock of the 70s had an immediate cause in OPEC's quadrupling of oil prices. However, the price rise was forced due to the devaluation of the US dollar caused by the dropping of Breton Woods. Since commodities were priced in dollars, a less valuable dollar meant lower prices even as the dollar value per barrel remained the same. The weaker dollar was caused by the US no longer being the master exporter.

Following economic booms were caused in part by the fall of Russia and the rise of China. Russia had a surplus of cheap energy it wanted to export. China had great demand for raw materials as well as plenty of cheap good to export. Together, this lead to a global economic boom that would have happened regardless of interest rates or strict government policy.

He is critical of "balanced budgets". The US deficit is caused by the dollar's status as a reserve currency. Other's need dollars, so the US will need to have a deficit. (However, this argument has some flaws. Why are the deficits rising even as countries like China are using a "basket" approach to reserves. And what about the limit to the deficit. If debt payments grow to consume most of the budget, the easy solution would be to devalue currency. However, this would reduce the dollar's value as a reserve currency and upset the US as well as the world.)

Free markets receive the brunt of his criticism. Enron is a prime example of free markets gone amok without noticeable improvement. The health insurance system is also something that has resulted in great costs that would have not been needed with a fully public option. (He wrote this before Obamacare. I'd imagine he would absolutely hate the system that we have in place now.) School vouchers are also on his "naughty" list. He has some sound arguments, but seems to go a little too far. Competition does have its benefits in producing innovation and improvements that could not be made by government fiat. Government programs tend to be overly bureaucratic and slow. The lack of profit motive is often accompanied by a lack of urgency and a desire to "please everybody". A true balance is needed with competition where appropriate and universal "utility" where not. Regulations need to be created for the benefit of society not for the few regulated industries. "Crony Capitalism" that benefits oligarchs is not helpful for the general public.

The book had an interesting discussion of unemployment and equality. Countries like Denmark with low unemployment, low income equality and significant social welfare programs are held up as the vanguard. Unemployment is seen as function of income inequality. When incomes are more equal, unemployment will be lower. High CEO pay is a "rent seeking" activity that does little to benefits companies.

He provides some critique of economics in general and supply-side economics in particular. He desires a more centrally planned solution. However, in his "central planned" solutions he relies too much on the status quo. A cap and trade system is "bad". Instead the government should create elaborate programs to research improvements in automobiles to make them more fuel efficient. However, this dismisses better alternatives like flat carbon tax or a restructuring of our transportation system. In 100 years we terraformed the earth to facilitate people traveling in cages that weigh 10 times as much as they do. Creating a more efficient system for moving people and goods along with an improved allocation of space would do wonders to solve the climate problem. However, spending government capital in one area to improve vehicles, while in an other area to optimize land use for inefficient vehicles doesn't help. The approach needs to be unified. Alas, doing that in a complex government is difficult, especially as many have already adapted to old regulations and would love to sue to maintain them.

Rogue Knight: Five Kingdoms Book 2

The Rogue Knight continues where the first book in the Five Kingdom series left off. The "gang" goes on the quest to find the master shaper and work to "save the world". In the process they run into more people that had come from Earth, including some that our protagonist knew, as well as others that had disappeared at separate times. However, other than mentioning these other "earthlings", there is no connection to the real world.

The actual quest blurs into other works by Mull. (Some of the names sounded like those that were in the Beyonders series.) We are introduced to confidence lounges where everyone is in a disguise, and thus can freely share information. One of the bits of information that is shared is the story of the "Rogue Knight". This knight goes around challenging guardians to a duels and winning, thereby claiming their land for his rulership. He promptly lets the land free. We also meet a powerful being that can communicate through mind reading, but is trapped in this world from another world. He ends up providing the heroes some aid after they complete a quest.

The story held my interest, but had a few too many loose strands. The daughter of the high king is trying to find her sisters so they can get their power back. The boy from Mesa is trying to find his friends to get home. Another "kid" is trying to free his homeland. They are all tied together in this. However, to a reader, it feels like too many reasons, and not something that is barely important enough to care about.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Madness, Betrayal and the Lash: The Epic Voyage of Captain George Vancouver

The Pacific Northwest is filled with "Vancouvers". There is a big island, the largest city in British Columbia and a large city in southern Washington. But, who was this person they were named after? I do not recall learning much about him during studies of the age of exploration. It turns out that I am not alone. Vancouver led a voyage that produced detailed maps of the pacific Northwest. However, he also managed to annoy a few members of high-society that were "forced" on his cruise. They led a smear campaign when he returned to Britain, causing him to be all but ignored from the history books. However, his names for many of the features in the region still stick. (Could you guess that there was a Mr. Puget on his voyage?)

Madness, Betrayal and the Lash portrays Vancouver as a dedicated mariner who wants to do everything right, yet lacks the charisma to navigate through difficult people issues. He often relies on following the "letter of the law". This leads him to lash noble crew members and create enemies. However, his attention to duty also led him to complete detailed charts of the Pacific Northwest and to engage in mostly friendly relationships with the residents of the area. (Alas, the friendliness did not necessarily extend to the crew. This book portrays Vancouver as the lonely commander who is isolated from the other officers. He manages to further alienate the crew by prohibiting them from partaking of the "festivities" while they are wintering in Hawaii.)

Vancouver completed his mission, but came home to be ignored and demonized by his countrymen (especially Thomas Pitt). He devoted his time to publishing details of his voyage and died shortly after completing it. Would Vancouver's experience had been different if he hadn't had Thomas Pitt thrust upon his voyage? We may never know. Pitt ended up dead before he was thirty, while Vancouver did live to the ripe old age of 40. His voyage showed us that charisma is perhaps more important than technical merit in establishing the immediate legacy of explorers. (And it makes me wonder what other great explorers had been ignored because they were not in with the proper crowds.)

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Chasing the Prophecy (Beyonders Book 3)

Chasing the Prophecy is the conclusion of the Beyonders series. It is non-stop action, with the heroes finally completing their quest. There are plenty of twists and turns. However, some parts stretch credulity (Would somebody thousands of years ago really be able to see the name and baseball affinity of a boy from another world?) Other key points seem to occur suddenly without much buildup. (They seem to instantly realize how to destroy a "substance changing" monster.)

Perhaps my biggest issue was with the "badness" of the bad guy. They really did not like the world that he created. However, the world did not seem to be all that bad. Travel restrictions seemed to be the biggest negative for the common people. (And how many people really would care to travel?) I would be mortified that maps were restricted, but many people would probably be perfectly fine in the world. The chaos after the defeat of the "evil one" could even make matters worse. (Now instead of one wizard, there could be many people competing with wizardly powers.)

The end does nicely wrap up the story. However, it also keeps things open for possible additional adventures in this world.

Your Food is Fooling You

It seemed like an interesting book. However, "Your Food is Fooling You" is not much more than a grade school diet book. Today's food has a bunch of chemicals in it to make us like it, eat more and get fat. That's about all there is to it. After spending an hour, I was halfway through and decided to give up. It was small, yet didn't say much. He wrote a longer book that is more worth reading.

Ancient Places: People and Landscape in the Emerging Northwest

Ancient places is a series of essays related to the Pacific Northwest. There are essays on giant meteors, the formation of landscapes, biscuit-root, ants and an amateur anthropologist. This is not a broad history, but an in-depth look at minor areas. At times the essays can be engaging, but most of the time I found myself trying skimming quickly to get to the point. (Alas, there usually wasn't one.) I enjoyed finding out a few more details of the inland Northwest, but would not spend a lot of time on the book.