Saturday, October 13, 2018

Hygge

>Hygge is a Danish term that does not translate well to the English language. It is somewhat like coziness, but that is only part of it. It involves relaxing behavior with friends, often with more muted lighting and comfort food. Natural materials are almost always more hygge than modern creations. Hygge, with the comfortable relationships with humans and surroundings is a significant factor in the overall happiness of the Danish people. It can be practiced on an individual basis, but is best with a small group of friends - and even better when all of society understands.

Gratitude

Gratitude is a short work containing a few essays written by Oliver Sacks shortly before he passed away. He takes stake of his life and helps. He details finally taking a trip to Israel after shunning it for a long time, and finding he and his partner were warmly received. The overall work is very short and tends to serve the writer more than the reader.

The March

The March is a historical novel focusing on General Sherman's march through the south. There is some talk of battle, but most of the novel deals with the individual people and their general depravity. We follow the story of some convicts as they are freed on the condition that they fight to defend the south. They bounce around from side to side and serve almost as comic relief. There is a "white negro" girl, the daughter of an illicit liaison with a white plantation owner. She poses at one time as a drummer boy, and struggles with her racial identity, and later enters a relationship with a white boy. There is plenty of depravity among all the parties involved. (Sex, even more so than violence is a vice of war.) Lincoln rises above it and is portrayed in a near deified way. Sherman, on the other hand, is a down to earth tactical genius who loves to be one with his men. The sentiment drifts towards favoring the north, but is fairly sympathetic towards the southerners.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Principles: Life and Work

Ray Dalio earned a fortune building up his investment company and playing the markets. In Principles, he attempts to distill some of the principles that guided him in his life and work. He stresses that these are his principles and that everyone should have their own. The first principle is to embrace reality and deal with it. Being overly concerned with changing parts of the world that you can't control can lead to defeatism. Instead focus on what is real and what you can do. Related to that, don't get too hung up about how you think things should be. This can distract from finding out how things really are. The world is constantly evolving. You need to continue to evolve also.
The book starts with a general biography of his experience. Then he brings out his principals, starting with the personal ones, then going to the specific ones used at a company. (Most of the book is narrated by the author, though a good chunk near the end is by another narrator.) His company (Bridgewater) was extremely open, with most meetings videotaped and nearly everything shared. There were even "baseball cards" created for each employee, showing their strengths and weaknesses. Decisions were made by "idea meritocracy", with the person most able in certain area given more say in a decision. He also stresses the importance of being "radically open-minded". Be willing to understand other people's opinions - especially those that know more than you. It is more important to learn from others than to just share your belief. Meetings should also be limited to a few people. Two people together are often much more productive than two alone. However, 10 people may be less productive.

Friday, October 05, 2018

The Bolds

A human couple vacationing in Africa died as they were bathing. A pair of English speaking Hyenas saw their clothes and passports and decided to pretend to be them and move to England. There, they gradually assimilated into human life, and had two children. However, they had to make sure they hid their tails, especially from the grumpy neighbor Mr. McNumpty. They did sometimes long to be normal hyenas, and were excited when they could visit a safari park and talk "animal" with other hyenas. They end up rescuing an old hyena and trying to acclimate him to "human" life. He struggles, but he does end up befriending Mr. McNumpty and they eventually discover his secret. The book has many periodic illustration, and is filled with "hyena jokes" (they are always laughing.) It is a fun story that pokes fun of both our human ambivalence about our neighbors and failure to observe very obvious differences. On the other hand it is a story of how everyone can live together, adopting some common characteristics, while still being themselves.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

The Map and the Territory: Risk, Human Nature, and the Future of Forecasting

The Map and the Territory is Alan Greenspan's look at the Great Recession of 2008 and the impact on the markets. It comes across a bit as "we messed up, but there were problems with our data so it wasn't really our fault." HE does have some interesting insights on entitlement programs (like social security.) Since people are paying into them, they don't think of them as "charity", even when the government provides them much more in benefits than they take out. His analysis also shows that the programs have depressed wages - primarily of lower earning families. However, these are wages that "were never seen", thus they don't have political objections. He also acknowledged that most of the economic models failed to predict the great recession. He is very conservative and finds issue with welfare states. He finds free market capitalism the best tool for raising everybody up. (But he acknowledges that there will be people that suffer from the obsolescence of their previous jobs.) Training programs can help people adapt to new skills needed. However, these programs have often been encumbered by politics. He further laments the extreme political stratification. Washington get-togethers once were balanced between Republicans and Democrats, but now seem to be overwhelmingly one or the other, leaving little cross aisle communication. (This can be seen today with the supreme court confirmation hearings - both sides seem to feel their side has "won", and have little respect for the other side.)

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Is riding a bike good for the environment?

If you normally drive, and then switch to riding a bike, you have just reduced the emissions produced by cars, decrease congestion and the need for a parking space. It seems like a clear win.
But what if you switch from riding the bus to biking? The bus will still run whether you are on it or not. The change in a single rider will probably not cause the addition or subtraction of bus trips. If the bus is already stopping at your stop, your boarding will only add a minuscule amount of time. The extra energy needed to add you to the bus is extremely small. (Would the marginal emissions be smaller than your additional emissions from biking? Almost surely if it is an electric bus powered by hydro. Possibly even for diesel buses.) If it is a school bus or you already have a bus pass then there is not even cost savings. A single day switching from bus to bike may help you get exercise, but not do much to help the environment. Biking may also be a little more costly, but allow for greater flexibility, and be more enjoyable. (And this all assumes you are switching from taking the bus... If the alternative is driving then biking wins hands down.)

Fly Guy

A boy has a bet fly. He calls him Fly Guy. Fly Guy can say the boys name. Buzzz.
A variation of those lines starts most books in the Fly Guy Series by Ted Arnold. Fly Guy is a true pet and "talks" with Buzz, using words that have "ZZZZ" in them. The stories are formulaic, with a few chapters of adventures with Buzz and Fly Guy. Tedd Arnold has a very cartonish style that works well for the books. Beginning readers can make it through some of the short short chapters, while younger children also enjoy the books.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Laws of Medicine

Laws of Medicine is a short work that distills some of the important "laws" of medicine. Medical care as we know it is a very recent phenomenon, only existing in the last century or so. Medicine had to be "cleansed" of the old "bad" ways (like bloodletting) The intermediate "do nothing" period helped pave the way to medicine as we know it. However, properly practicing medicine requires much more than simply understanding the book learning. That is where the "laws" come in. Every person is a little bit different. A study that showed great results with one population may not have any impact on a different group. Understanding the entire person can help provide insights into possible issues. (He gave an example of learning that a man was a drug user providing a risk factor to test for HIV.) Tests are rarely 100% accurate. If we test everybody for a rare condition, we are likely to get more false positives than true positives. However, narrowing down the population to a more susceptible group can get better results. On the other end, a study that only seems to help a single person may actually show a promising cure for people that match that person's characteristics. However, even the most carefully designed studies are subject to human bias. Even the naming of a procedure can influence its popularity even if the data is hidden. A great doctor has the knowledge and the intuition needed to look at the hidden clues. Alas, as medicine becomes more mechanized, we are becoming more reliant on "tests" at the expense of truly resolving issues.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us

The air we breathe consists of so many particles, that there is a possibility that we have inhaled some molecule that was inhaled by Caesar. Caeser's Last Breath uses that as a premise to explore the atmosphere and all its intricacies. We get to travel through the discovery of various elements, attempts at weather forecasting and cloud seeding, and even extra terrestrials. (The "Roswell" cover up was an attempt to hide spy balloons from the general public.) We also pass through many wars. Germans commercialized a method for producing fertilizer - and enabled gas attacks. Priestly and a Lavoisier discovered oxygen, and the later got tangled up in the French revolution. There was also a scientist that managed to invent both cloroflorocarbons and leaded gasoline. Oops! It all made for a great experience in popular science.

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale is set in a dystopian future in which the ruling class uses pseudo-Christian rhetoric to subjugate women. Sex plays a large role in the novel. Handmaids are used to help counteract a population decline. (The government had declared that no men could be infertile, only women.) The man and his handmaid participate in a "ceremony" (with his wife present) in an attempt to impregnate her. They seem to have predicted that we do the same thing today - only the "ceremony" involves a few layers of scientists and a mixing in test tubes. The novel is told entirely from a female viewpoint, and presents a very dark picture of a society where women are not allowed to read (or even casually speak) and must subtlety show bits of individuality on their own.
At the end, we find the "tale" was found recorded on cassette tapes in Maine. A study of it is being presented as part of a scholarly presentation of the "Gilead Studies" convention. They are unsure of the identification of the narrator or the commander. However, they have some guesses. This ending drastically changed the understanding of the book. The reliability of narrator is called into question, though it is still considered to be fairly authentic. It does open the possibilities of all sorts of other works set in this "historical" period. We also have no idea what happened to the narrator. Was she caught? Did she escape shortly thereafter? We don't know. Though the framing story does seem to give an "excuse" for the graphic nature of the earlier work. After all, it was just unedited thoughts without literary filtration.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

NFL and Unity

Why does the NFL have such a great problem with the National Anthem protests, while the NBA doesn't seem to mind? Pageantry plays part of the role. Football games are once a week, large school community events. The stadiums are huge. Even at the high school level, they attract a large portion of the student body. Cheerleaders cheer, the band plays and various other ceremonies are attached. The "homecoming" event is connected to the football game. Similar pageantry is attached to the college game. The NFL lacks some of these "ceremonies", yet still is a significant community event in a way that is not seen in other sports. The way the game is played also requires unity. The team lines up and executes a number of plays together. There are some chances for individual heroics, but these are usually enabled by many teammates working in precision. (I remember seeing a video of a great Marschawn Lynch run a few years ago. in the run, Ricardo Lockette sprinted out of nowhere to make a great block enabling him to continue scampering. Though Lynch would get the credit for the run, it would not have been possible without that springing and block.) People attend the games to experience unity and be at one with their community and team.
Protests over the national anthem distract from this unity. Instead of unity, we have different people showing their individuality. The Star Spangled Banner is seen as an important unifying event at the game. Most fans are standing during the anthem. Those fans down getting nachos tend to be out of sight. However, the players intentionally taken a knee are plainly visible and appear to break the unity. This lack of "unity" breaks with the ethos and the reason for fans to attend the game. The actual action does not matter so much as the lack of unity. Kneeling is, after all, a form of reverence. I doubt there would be much of an issue if everyone took a knee for the anthem. However, seeing a loner detracts from the experience.
Basketball, on the other hand, is much more of an individual experience. A single player is much more able to do great things on their own. People play regularly play basketball on their own in a way that resembles the pro game. (Pick-up football, on the other hand, is usually of the "touch" variety, and is almost a totally different game than the one watched as a spectator.) Basketball players are visible as individuals, wile football players shed their individuality in full body protective gear. Fans still support their team, but the pageantry is less critical to the experience. The basketball games also happen at much greater frequency. While football is a complex team activity with bursts of individual achievement, basketball is a showcase of individual talents that are enhanced by teamwork and planning. Thus individual protests hurt football, while not impacting basketball.

The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It

The Quants is the story of some of the key players in the rise of algorithmic trading and the rise of hedge funds. These were people with backgrounds primarily in fields like Math that parlayed their skills into creating complicated models of the financial world to help make obscene riches on wall street. Their models supposedly reduced risk to manageable levels while producing outsize returns. However, they tended to rest on a backbone of people reacting rationally (adhering to Fama's Efficient Markets Hypothesis.) Alas, they often failed to account for some of the "black swans" and human behavior. This lead to catastrophic failure and the great recession of 2007.
The characters in the book come across as much more analytical than those in a book like "Liar's Poker". They are, after all, the nerds rather than the "jocks" of the trading desks. They often glory in the numbers, regardless of what the numbers are attached to. Some were leaders of big companies (like Citadel), while others were more content to exercise their might behind the scenes. Many got there start with gambling, using card counting or other tricks to help beat the odds. Wall Street is viewed as the "biggest casino" out there. (Though many also enjoy a regular game of poker.) When times were good, they made great amounts of money. And when they were not good? Well, there were quite a few companies that went belly up. The book carries on past the great recession crash, and then seems to end suddenly as our "heroes" are exploring new ways to make money.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Cracking the Coding Interview, 6th edition

Cracking the Coding Interview is an interview preparation book that emphasizes coding. It provides some general interview background, then dives deep into programming questions. The questions are organized by category and provide details answers. There is almost enough information there, to eliminate the need to go back to the old algorithms book.
The bulk of the book is the "question" section, with answers. They were divided into a number of different categories, with "C++", "Java" and "Hard problems" towards the end.
The questions seem to vary significantly. Some are nearly trivial, while others have multiple pages of code to answer. (This could be much more extreme than you are expected to find in an interview.) I found myself rushing through some sections as the answers just got to be too far "out there." They also seem to be somewhat dated. Map Reduce is treated as a cutting-edge solution rather than common implementation. There is also a ton of boilerplate (in Java) for many of the questions. It would be nice to explore different languages. Sometimes, the super complex java solution could be much more easily done with a different programming language.

Star Trek: The City on the Edge of Forever

Harlan Ellison wrote a lot of the forward material in the "City on the Edge of Forever". In it, he comes across as a total jerk who is obsessed with the minutia of his work, and rails on others for making trivial mistakes. He is intent on setting the record 100% straight, and in the process seems to burn a lot of bridges. The actual teleplay only takes up a small fraction of the recording. It is well done with a full cast. After listening to the audiobook, I watched the original episode. I have never been much of a Star Trek fan, but it was pretty good. It is tough to see why Ellison was so upset. The filmed episode is missing the "musical drugs" and the space pirates that were in the original script. Both versions follow the same general plot. They find a "time planet" They are able to jump into time. Somebody goes back in time and "changes the flow". Spock and Kirk go back to try to fix history. However, to do it, Edith Keeler must die her natural death, rather than be saved. (If she continued to live, she would lead a "peace" effort that would delay the US entry in to World War II, and thus Germany would develop atomic weapons and dominate the world.) In the original version, it was a rotten drug-dealing crew member that went back. In the filmed version, it was Dr. McCoy who went crazy with a huge overdose of an accidental healing drug. In the original, the "bad guy" ended up getting the supreme punishment of being stuck in a time loop in an exploding star. It also had the "good guys" trying to prevent the "bad guy" from saving the life of a woman. The filmed version has Spock and Kirk discover the situation on their own. In the original version, they had the "time lords" tell them what needed to be done. The story is an interesting "time travel" story. Both the original and filmed version have their merits. Ellison's pride probably made it difficult for him to see past that.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What If? was created by the author if the xcd comic to explore answers to some absurd scientific questions. He tackles questions like "What would happen if there was a 15.0 Earthquake? (earth would probably have blown up.) He also goes off on to tangents with questions like "what would happen if everybody jumped at once?" In the answer he put everyone in Rhode Island. They all jumped at once, and had minimal sound. Then there was the big mess of everybody trying to get home at once. Some questions are not so extreme, but interesting. Virginia is the most common flyover state, in thanks due to flights from Toronto. Delaware has the greatest ratio of flyover to actual landings because of the lack of commercial air traffic. There are many complicated physics questions and lots of things that get blown up. I learned that you could not cook a steak by dropping it form heights. If it got hot enough to be cooked, it would likely sear off the cooked portion. Otherwise it would still be cold. The chapters with actual chapters with "answers" are interspersed with tongue in cheek rapid-fire answers to absurd questions. It all makes for an entertaining quick read.

Friday, September 21, 2018

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos

Twelve Rules for life presents a number of "rules" to help live a better life. The rules have a classical twist to them. He uses biblical and literary stories to help illustrate his points. There was a seeming contradiction as he tends to favor the benefits of "traditions" in society as opposed to "newer ideas." (For example coddling to various smaller and smaller interest groups in the name of diversity is seen as a negative compared to a more unifying society.) However, he also favors our society as it is much less violent than other "older" societies such as hunter gatherers or even ancient Rome. Perhaps this contradiction is justified in an oscillation. We may be on a long term path to a better society. However, to get there, there may be a number of steps that spin us radically in the wrong direction before we continue on the upward path.
Early sections focus on taking responsibility for self. People are notorious for not taking their medication. Even after waiting a long time for an organ transplant, recipients will often not take anti-rejection meds. However, they tend to be very certain to give their dogs their medication. It is important to care for yourself. Even altruistically, if you don't care for yourself, you are not able to care for others as well. People that are week are likely to get bullied and further act in ways that induce further bullying. Merely rising up to good posture can help improve things.
Children must also be disciplined appropriately. We can often be lazy and let our children run over us. This hurts us in the short term (including limiting the social activities that parents can do.) It also hurts the children in the long term. They get behind in their socialization and don't have friends and continue on a negative spiral.
We must not get caught up in attempting to change the world when our own self is in need of change. He identifies the "hidden motives" in many change agents. Marxism sought to embolden the working class. However, it was primarily the intellectuals that used it as a means of fight against the ruling elite. We see that constantly in many of our policies that are carried out "for the benefit of others", such as bus systems that attempt to reduce congestion by getting "other people" to ride the buses.
The author also laments the act of "blaming white males" for many of society's ills. Many roles in society have evolved out of genetic strengths of either sex. Equity of opportunity is fine. However, people will tend to congregate in areas that they can succeed in. Trying to shame groups or force others into roles they do not like only serves to harm society and does not help things. Girls are typically more comfortable doing "boy things" than boys are doing "girl things". As more feminine behaviors come to dominate, that leaves boys out in the cold. (This can in part explain the rise of political figures like trump.)
In providing his "12 rules", Peterson provides a fairly thorough critique of the "accepted" academic political correct beliefs of today. The thesis can be summed up with a few maxims: You can only control yourself. Do the best to do that with what we have learned through history. Long standing cultural norms are there because they work. We can make improvements to them, but don't through them out. Don be the victim. Be what you want to be.

Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen

Affluence Without Abundance is an exploration of the life of the Kalahari Bushmen. They are one of the oldest civilizations still present on earth. They are also very tied to their place, with two different groups not too far apart showing almost no signs of intermixing. Studying them became the "in thing" to do, especially after the realization that their lifestyle truly could be a life of "leisure", with very little "working" time required.

The Bushmen have very little concept of history. They are concerned with the "now". They are also perfectly willing to adapt to the tools and items they have at their disposal. They had developed a means of poisoning animals using the contents of a small "nut" fallen from a tree. This enabled them to kill larger animals with smaller bows. The meat could provide a significant part of their diet. They also gathered various fruits from trees. However, the growth tended to be seasonal. Only a time after the rains would their be abundant fruits to gather. Human agriculture in the area has fenced off many of their roaming areas and finally put an end to a lifestyle that had lasted for millennia.

The bushman had a number of cultural traditions that were needed for their nomadic life. Big meat kills were shared via an orderly means. Gifts were given to help improve relationships. The number of material goods were limited to what they could carry. Their nomadic lifestyle did not dispose themselves to farming and ranching. However have found themselves forced into the the agricultural life, working for white farmers or other African groups.

The God's Must Be Crazy showcased the "primitive" bushman life. Some self-appointed critics criticized the inaccurate portrayal of modern Bushmen and the poor salaries they received for the movie. However, the Bushmen themselves liked the movie and found the salary more than enough. (In fact, they found it difficult as the extra income brought with it extra demands from others. There are other bushmen that "dress up" as their primitive ancestors in order to provide a show for tourists. However, for the most part, hunter gathering culture is gone.

Today, the Bushmen hunter-gatherer culture is pretty much gone. The fences put up by farmers and ranchers and the sectioning off of land make that lifestyle nearly impossible. They were only able to endure this long because their unforgiving environment prevented the incursion of agriculture. Now, man has learned to tame even more difficult environments and take over the land. Most of them live in poverty. The knowledge of hunting and gathering has gradually faded. Their lifestyle "was not simply based on their having few needs easily satisfied; it also depending on no one being substantially richer or more powerful than anyone else." With the modern world and mass communication, it would be extremely difficult to recreate this egalitarian affluence. With knowledge and possessions, people desire more. They desire to be relatively more wealthy than others. (Consider the "occupy" movement where people that rank as the top 1% in the history of the world complain they don't have as much as those in the top .01%) To move on the path to the non-abundant affluence, we must "embrace the affluence we have created, and recognize value in things other than our labor."

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Minds Eye

In The Mind's Eye, Oliver Sacks explores some "interesting" cases of vision. Some people have lost the ability to read, while still having the ability to recognize letters and even write. In other cases, people don't have stereoscopic vision and can't make out the richness of the three dimensions. (And sometimes, like those who are color-blind, they may not recognize what they are missing.) Near the end of the book, the author details his own experience losing visual ability. He had cancer in his eye that caused him to lose all but peripheral vision in an eye, before losing everything. Finally, the book ends with "internal vision". Some blind people "see" and think in vivid images, while others that see do not have the "mind" images. Vision loss can also be different for various people. Vision as a whole is not a simple "on or off", but has many different aspects of physical and neurological ability. Since people only tend to know the way that they experience the world, it can be difficult to generalize a common experience.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Edge of the World

The Edge of the World is a long fantasy book. There are two groups that fight each other. Cities get burned. People sail away. Kids are born. There are competing religions. It was tough to keep interested. The parts that stuck out were the mapmakers. They could commit things to their brain and map the known nautical world. However, one of the characters was also taken in by a fraudster to get a "Fake" map of the world. Most interesting was the note from the author. He has created a "prog rock" album to accompany the book. I'll have to give that a listen.

Norse Mythology

Norse mythology is not as well documented as Roman and Greek mythology. Stories were mostly written down in the Christian age in order to help with the understanding of some common expressions. The stories are a little different from the comic book versions. Loki is an integral part of the gods. However, he is a crafty trickster. He often gets into trouble with his trickery. However, he was a way of getting out of trouble also. Thor's hammer came from as a result of his plot to get Thor's wife's hair back. (He tried to make his dwarf crafters lose, but instead they made a "smaller" hammer that Thor ended up loving.) There are also stories that explain why salmon migrate upstream and other bits of "science". Interestingly, the stories had originated in a germanic area. There is a lot that is lot documented, and what we have was only written to help understand some of the Scandinavian sagas.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists

Rethinking Narcissism explores the good and bad of self-absorbed narcissistic behavior. Healthy narcissism has the proper balance of self-esteem and empathy. Echo behavior manifests an "anti-narcissist behavior that can be just bad on its own right. People are actively denigrating themselves and refuse to open up or find joy in others. Extreme narcissism involves being obsessed with oneself and seeing others as mere tools. The conditions often develop in response to experiences. They are methods with coping with stressful environments and can be a means of seeking approval or feelings from others. When raising children it is important to let them know that you care about them, while still setting appropriate rules that must be enforced. Children should feel open about expressing their emotions. For extreme narcissist adults, avoiding is a good approach. However, beyond that, you can compliment the good behavior and try to help nudge them towards the healthy middle end of the spectrum. (However, that can be difficult if they are at the extreme ends.) I can see many of the characteristics on both ends of the spectrum. Getting appropriately in the middle is challenging, but valuable.

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think

A day has 168 hours. How do you spend them? Laura Vanderkam invites you to explore your time usage. People tend to do a poor job estimating where they are spending their time. Often those that claim to work crazy amounts of hours do much less actual work. (Much of the "work" is actually personal or social behavior.) Multitasking can result in little progress in either task. However, "intelligent multipurpose behavior" can be beneficial. (For example, combining service and social work.) Little things like responding to a new email alert can end up sucking a large amount of time before you are able to get back to where you were. Trying to work form home and watch kids at the same time can be a recipe for not doing a good job at either. Finding a job that you truly enjoy makes the work less "work".
The author tends to be more focused on females balancing work and job, though there is material for everyone. It was also written during the "great recession", and thus has plenty of examples of "forced" job changes.
It is important to look at what you are doing and how that accomplishes your goals. Often people will say they would love to have a little more time to do something, but given the time they don't do it. If there is a strong desire to accomplish something, we can often find time to do it. (But alas, we will often spend more time on the phone or TV.) Switching from full time to part time work often does not significantly change the amount of time spent with family. Ironically, stay at home parents only spend a little more interactive time with their children than working parents. (The extra time is often spent doing other activities while the children are on their own.) It is useful to look at our core competencies and considering outsourcing other things. It is fine to do things that we are not great at because we want to. But, even things like laundry may be more efficiently done by others than us.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Attention All Passengers: The Airlines' Dangerous Descent-- and How to Reclaim Our Skies

The author of Attention All Passengers has a serious ax to grind with the airline industry. He had worked there during the glorious heyday, and finds just about everything wrong that he can. Some of his issues are trivial (or represent paranoia), while others do show real issues. He is concerned that deregulation has lead to a race to the bottom. He is willing to heap praise on the airlines when they do something he agrees with. (Southwest's lack of bag fees and customer-centric nature are praised, while American's domestic maintenance is also complimented.) However, with the constant mention of the trivial, it is hard to filter out what is important.
He spent a long time passionately advocated for child restraints. I disagree with his premises, especially with the slippery slope it leads to. (Car booster seats tend to provide no advantage over just using a seat belt. And, since airplanes only have lap belts, there is no advantage. Perhaps we would have seats flying instead of babies.) Currently, passengers can choose to pay for a seat for an infant and use a restraint, or they can hold them. In a rare instant of extreme impact, the unrestrained baby may become a projectile. People have regularly determined that the risk is more than made up for in the value saved by not buying a seat.
He cites a number of whistleblowers that have identified "bad practices." There is also a very strong support for "US-first" labor. Anything done outside of the United States is seen as suspect. I can see justification in requiring all shops to adhere to the same standards to ensure quality and fairness. However, just because it is done in the US does not make it better. He does provide an example of a union group successfully bidding on maintenance work in order to "in-house" the work. This seems like a much more positive approach. Otherwise, we could end up with something like the Jones Act on water which needlessly raises the cost of domestic shipping (and helps support cruise traffic to Victoria and Vancouver.)
Customer service is an area where airlines have nosedived recently. Innovation has primarily been to eek out more revenue while still appearing to have cheap tickets. The yield management formulas provide a huge variety of prices for what is essentially the same thing transportation from A to B. Security has further made the experience more miserable. (And the benefit is questionable as it often responds to the "last" threat rather than new ones.) Airlines have an odd relationship. They have been granted antitrust immunity to code-share with other airlines on certain routes, while at the same time providing identical service on other routes. There is little benefit in having two 50-70 seat regional jets fly the same route at the same time. (While they will be painted in the colors of major airlines, they would be operated by regional carriers.) Having some sharing here could make it better for everyone. A 130 seat plane could have more total capacity, yet operate cheaper, use less fuel and not clog the air traffic control system. Many of the routes served by small planes are small enough that they would be better served by trains. A unified transportation network would be the key. Very few people are traveling from one airport or another. They are usually using a variety of means to travel from point A to point B. An airplane is merely the "big leg" of the journey. Airlines compete on driving the upfront cost of the "big leg". Meanwhile, the airports want parking revenue, the airlines want additional revenue, and the railroad tracks that would go straight from A to B are only occupied by an occasional freight train. The author mentions the example of San Diego to Los Angeles, which is covered by dozens of hour-long regional jet flights each day. High speed rail could easily connect the two cities in that amount of time, providing frequent connections to the airport and downtown. (In China, Nanjing to Shanghai service covers a distance 50 miles greater in about an hour, with trains going to an airport and downtown.)
There are many other areas where the airlines can be improved, such as passenger comfort and contracts of carriage, and simply functioning like service company instead of a utility. Safety is one area where the airlines have done remarkably well (and where they are highly regulated.) Perhaps some regulation would be helpful to prevent some of the waste in the airline route map. Modernization of air traffic control would also be beneficial. (However, if done poorly, it could contribute to more "bad behavior". If the airlines are unwilling to step up to make an efficient multi-modal transportation network, it may be time for some nudges.

Mozart's Starling


What is a Starling? They appear to be a bird that is native to Europe that was imported to North America, only to reproduce excessively. They are seen more often as a pest, and can freely "disposed of". However, they reproduce so rapidly, that event hunting them will not significantly impact the population. However, they also have musical ability, and can attempt to mimic human sounds. Mozart had heard one that appeared to be singing one of his to-be-published compositions. He decided he had to have it, and adopted it as a member of his family, even giving it a complete funeral when it passed away.
Mozart's Starling is part history of starlings and part history of the life of Mozart. The author had adopted a starling, and watched it grow. She also studied the history of Mozart and his playful personality. The two seemed to go together well. Mozart had fun with his craft and could be a jokester. The starling may have been a great companion. Mozart's former apartment building remains a housing block in Vienna today. (Though other areas in his life have been paved over.) The book provides an interesting history of Mozart's life. Though it is by no means exhaustive. (The focus is, after all, on the relationship with the bird.)

Gold, Hard Money and Finance


Gold, Hard Money and Finance contains a few dramatized accounts of investing history. The first part focuses on the rise of the investment newsletter. There are a ton of newsletters that purport to help people to do the research that they do not have time to do themselves. Some have shown great success. However, much of that is retrospective. (If everyone did invest in the recommendations early on, it may not have had the same peak.) There is plenty of good advice out there, but there is also dumb luck masquerading as good.
The Gold Bug story has more drama. I didn't realize that FDR had outlawed holding of personal gold supplies (with the exception of coins.) It wasn't until the Nixon presidency that this restriction was removed. (And this was after the dollar was removed from the cold standard.) There are plenty of hard core Gold Bugs that feel gold is the only viable investment that will maintain its wealth. (Alas, the markets have not been too kind to gold in recent history.)

Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You're So Tired

Internal Time divides the discussion of time into 24 chapters. It presents a number of fictional and semi-factual stories of people in various "odd time" situations as it discusses how time impacts us in our lives. The human clock is almost set to 24 hours. However, there are slight differences, and the body relies on external queues (sunrise) to guide us on the daily schedule. Teenagers tend to arise later, and gradually arise earlier each year until late middle age. (Women actually start this schedule a little ahead of men.) Birds use an internal clock in order to guide their long migrations. Some people may have conditions that cause them to wake up much earlier than normal. Without sensory perceptions, it can be hard to accurately keep track of time.
Time is quite an interesting phenomenon. Mammals may have even evolved to dominate the night (since the air, sea and land were already taken.) Being warm blooded allowed them to be active when other cold blooded animals lacked energy. Later, mammals went back to the day time. However, man was still created innovations like houses and light to continue to dominate the night.