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.

Sunday, June 10, 2018


Soonish is a humourous take on the technology we can expect to see in the near future. It focuses on "almost there" technologies (like fusion) and describes how close (or far away) we are from seeing them in our lives. The book is made to be easily accessible and includes plenty of brief cartoons illustrating the points. Each of the sections contains a description of the current state as well as where we will be going and concerns we may have. Each technology appears to be thoroughly researched via literature review as well as personal interviews with key contributors. In addition, the final chapter includes shorter summaries of technologies didn't quite make the cut for the book.
While the focus is on the "optimistic" side of new technology development, the ethical and pessimistic side also comes in play. Programmable matter sounds great when we talk about assembling the tool we need right when we need it. However, if a hacker could cause the matter to suddenly transform into a destructive weapon, we could be in big trouble. Similarly, what if that new "smart limb" could be controlled by an external party. Robotic construction could eliminate many of the good blue collar jobs, leading to greater income inequality. Synthetic biology could result enable all sorts of terrorism opportunities. And interfacing a brain with a computer? Well, it does not take much effort to think of the negative possibilities there. This book would be a great source for all sorts of science fiction scenarios.
Some of the technologies described in the book will probably never become a significant part of our lives, while others will gradually seep into general acceptance. However, guessing which ones will make it is a difficult task. Lets just hope we don't cause a disaster by rushing too fast into the "wrong" technologies.

Friday, June 01, 2018

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

The humble shipping container helped to usher in giant changes in the world economy. Box does an excellent job of presetning the history of the container. However, the writing at times seems to jump around, perhaps attempting to provide too many facts at once. Prior to the adoption of a standard container, the cost of loading and unloading a ship could exceed (in time and expense) the cost of transporting the good across the sea. There was little incentive to use larger or more efficient ships because they would just be bogged down in port. Containerization attempts were started with railroads. However, these ended up getting held back due to regulation. (The railroads were not allowed to charge cheaper rates even though the containers added to economies of scale.)
when a ship arrived in port, a large group of laborers was needed for the work of unloading and loading. However, this work was not very regular, and the wages paid could change based on supply and and demand on both sides. This opened things up to bribes, and later unionization (which was often along ethnic lines.) One union controlled west coast ports, while another controlled the east coast. By having a stranglehold on all port traffic, the unions were able to exert greater control than other unions. When containers threatened to reduce the labor needed for handling ships, the longshoremen negotiated significant benefits for themselves. (In essence they would "share" the benefits of containerization.) It is scary the impact that a single union could have. The unions only reluctantly accepted the progress of the container and had done their best to delay their inevitable.
Railroads too engaged in stupidity at the dawn of the container. They preferred using their boxcars rather than shipping containers. They were ideally situated to transfer containers from the ports to inland locations. However, they did what they could to not get that traffic, thus hampering their own viability and giving significant advantage to long range distance trucks.
The military initially had its own small version of containers. However, the logistic challenge that was Vietnam encouraged them to adopt the standard commercial container.
The container encouraged big container ports, often at the expense of small ones. Instead of smaller ships calling at many ports, a massive container ship would run between a couple ports. In most cases, it was major ports that expanded to be the container behemoths. However, there are some that came out of nowhere to dominate container traffic. One of the most interesting was the port of Fleixstowe in Britain. It was a privately owned backwater port not organized by the union. While the union was busy battling out with London-area port, Flexistowe built up support for container traffic and came to become the prime container port before the unions could work out their differences with the other ports.
Container traffic enabled cheap reliable transportation of good around the world, and thus encouraged just in time manufacturing. I wonder why something similar has not been tried for transportation of humans? What if we got in our pod that then whisked of to the train station, connected us to the airport, flew us across the ocean, and then took us to our destination. We could enjoy the comfortable journey without the slog of transferring between multiple modes. Could we find a way for people transit to work the same way as goods transport?

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran is memoir by Azar Nafisis describing the author's experience reading Lolita and other books of English literature in Iran during the time of the Islamic revolution. She was born in Iran, then educated in the United States and returned to teach in Iran right as the revolution was taking place. At first, the revolution looked like it would be a positive experience. However, it later became more totalitarian, eventually shutting down the university and leading to her leaving the country. She does note that even the participants in the revolution were complex people. (At one time, the more radical Islamists would defend her while the liberals were silent.) She brought with her some western sensibilities that she wanted to live in Iran. Alas, the revolution would spin from crackdown to liberalization leaving the life of a westernized intellectual precarious. (It was interesting that they would use "Switzerland" as the example of a lax moral state.) The youth were often the ones to provide the muscle behind the revolutionary effort. (Hmm... Are the professor shoutdowns the first step of that in the US?)
The history of the revolution is secondary to the life of individual people through literature. The book is divided into four sections, each based on an author or work of literature. The book provides excellent literary criticism by weaving the story of the people studying the work with the characters and themes of the book. Lolita is in part a story of oppression, but also one of willingly taking the "easy path". Forcing everyone to fully cover themselves can be just as offensive as forcing people to not be covered. Great Gatsby superficially glamorizes "immoral" behavior, but deep down it is condemning it. The subtleties are lost on censors. The works are all fiction. They are presenting tales of the conditions of people to help us today.
While the first two sections tended to focus on individual works, the last two where geared more towards authors' as a whole - Henry James and Jane Austen. Nafisi finds parallels in the human condition and subtleties of reaction within the current Iran. Women's rights are greatly restricted in the Islamic republic. Even some devoutly religious find issues with their identity. With everyone forced to adopt the headscarf and covering, the devout no longer are set apart physically. Courtship and marriage takes on a very different meaning. People are not supposed to even look upon the opposite sex, yet they still have the sexual urges. They complain about hypocrisy among those in power, yet are often reluctant to challenge themselves within or without of the confines of the rules. Those in power in Iran are often portrayed as reactionary buffoons. One student sets himself on fire after no knowing how to deal with life after the end of the Iran/Iraq war. In another case, an attempt is made to murder a group of authors by getting them on a bus and driving them off a cliff. However, in spite of this, there is a reference shown to the unifying force of the death of Ayatollah.
In the end, the author leaves Iran to come teach in the US. Many of her friends have also left Iran, while at the same time Iran had made some small steps towards liberalization.