Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Auto Biography

Auto Biography interweaves the history of the 57 Chevy with the life of Tommy Arney. Among other things, Arney had a car yard with plenty of "project cars." One car was a 57 Chevy that had the complete lineage available. The author goes through the lives of each of the owners and their experience with the car, combining that with the history of the car. Tommy's biography is much more complex. He was an elementary school dropout who grew up very rough with a strong temper. He lived a very vulgar, violent youth. He was regularly getting in fights, and would try to seek out vengeance for any perceived wrongs. He later discovered cars and eventually built up a "redneck empire" including a car lot, gogo bar, restaurant and various properties. However, he did that by taking loans from a bank. The bank was perhaps a little too liberal with the money, and he eventually plead guilty to defrauding the public (by taking loans to pay off loans) and had to serve time in jail. he also had regular run ins with the local authorities who wanted his property to have proper "bushes" and other landscaping features.
The restoration of the 57 Chevy takes a long time, and thus gets interleaved with many events in the book. Part of the length is simply the need to take time to work on it. Other projects come in and out in the process. However, finding the parts and doing the work also take a singificant amount of time. Parts need to be found from various other parts. Missing chunks of metal need to be replaced. Everything needed to be smoothed and sanded. The frame and body needed to be worked on independently. The total restoration cost much more than the value of the car. However, it did make for a nice car. The author then attempted to invite all possible previous owners to view the restored masterpiece. Many of the later owners did not recognize it. (The portion with the VIN is still the same, but much of the rest had been replaced.)

Monday, October 29, 2018

AgeProof: Living Longer Without Running Out of Money or Breaking a Hip

Age Proof is written in a way that treats the audience like three year olds, and then asks them to behave like millionaires. Are they writing to people living paycheck to paycheck? Or are they writing to people that employee a cadre of assistants while they eat caviar on the beach? It is unclear. However, they do seem to feel they are above the audience they are writing to. (But what do you expect when one of the credentials is an expert on a TV show?)
They site the study where people preferred to have $50k when everyone else had $25k rather than $100k when everybody else had $200k. Their explanation was that people would rather "keep up with the Jonses". However, perhaps they just understand money as a relative indicator of value. $200 million zimbabwe dollars sounds a like a big number, but would be worth a lot less than $1 US dollar.
The advice seems to a be a hodge podge of various health and finance advice that is in fashion today. Much of the advice is justified by "science". However, many of the studies are of fairly preliminary nature. It attempts to be very prescriptive with specific bits of advice that are not necessarily compatible with each other. It would be interesting to see how this "advice" pans out in the long run. There are some good bits in there, but also plenty of things that will likely be proved detrimental in the future.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning

Louder Than Words provides a brief overview of the philosophy and physiology of language. The human concept of language is more advanced than anything in the animal kingdom. Humans are often creating "mental images" of the language as they are hearing it. Athletes can improve heir performance by visualizing their activity because it is the same part of the brain that activates. People also process the language as they hear it, even guessing the remainder of a partially uttered word. The grammatical structures of various language do, however, influence how they are processed.
The book contains a mixture of interesting information about language, but reads more like a research summary than a book.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Seth Grahame-Smith had visited a book store and it seemed every book was either about vampires or Abraham Lincoln. All that was missing was a book that incorporated both. Hence, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The books is presented as a the story derived from Lincoln's secret journals. Vampires had come to the new world to escape the persecution in Europe. The slave trade provided an easy source of "blood" for the vampires. After Lincoln discovered vampires had killed his family members, he vowed revenge. In the process, he meets a "good" vampire who helps him out in the battle against the "bad ones." The bad vampires are very concerned about a possible end of slavery and want to do all they can to keep the institution alive. Lincoln and the "good" vampires are working to overthrow slavery and the domination of the "bad vampires".
The book weaves actual historical events and figures together with the fictional vampire stories to provide a well written historical narrative.

Close Encounters with Humankind

Close Encounters with Humankind is a book of paleoanthropologic essays that originally appeared in a Korean magazine. The explore the evolution of man and the nearest relatives. Man is unique among other animals in that language is used extensively to pass on long term knowledge. The role of fathers and grandparents also sets humans apart from other animals. With most animals, mothers tend to have sole responsibility for raising the young. However, human fathers stay around. Longer lifespans have also allowed grandparents to continue to play a role.
Evolution and culture have worked together to help bring about change among humans. Tightly packed cities have allowed for greater sharing of knowledge and talents. It has also allowed greater numbers of diseases to spread. Agriculture has been arguable one of the greatest and worst things to happen to humankind. It allowed the growth of culture and cities. It allowed or a rapid population boom. It also allowed for property ownership, war and disease. Similar to the transportation and communication improvements of today, there are great costs of the great advancements.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for A Better Future

Usually, I like the "about the book" introductory material even better than the book. Hieroglyph is the exception. The intro goes on much too long and pontificates so much, I was about to stop reading the book. However, once it was through, the stories were fairly good. The first story was about building a 20 kilometer tall tower. There are plenty of engineering problems. However navigating the politics of it proves to be just as challenging. Other stories talk about a border wall controlled by corporate security, a solar powered machine for fabricating building materials in the desert (and the moon), a "biological city", a criminal that "becomes" his victims and a hotel in Antarctica. The stories ran the gamut of "storyness". The one about building materials from sand was a true story that happened to have an interesting premise. The "biological city" was essentially an essay that tried to wrap itself in a story. Overall, the emphasis was more on the "science" than the fiction. The stories tend to feel a little too full of themselves. They want to provide profound insights on the future of technology. However, that often makes them come across as week science fiction stories. The best stories spend a lot of time on the human and less time on trying to provide insights. The result is something in between essays and stories. They are more insightful than dry essays on the subject, but not as entertaining as true stories.

Saturday, October 13, 2018


>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 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.