Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Hunters: Brotherband Chronicles, Book 3

The Hunters concludes the three book arc of Brotherband books. The crew completes the adventure by way of a "ship duel" with the pirate. The author enjoys messing with gender roles. The "girl" is the sharpshooter, while one of the viking warrior knits. The other band members initially make fun of him, but all really want the hats that he makes. There are numerous escapades as they sail down a river, are arrested for murder, break out of jail, burn a corrupt official's boat, sail down rapids, pretend to be pirates, and eventually sink the real pirate's ship in a public duel. It is recounted "elegantly" in a musical saga at the end. This book is filled with adventure after adventure and a nice "mid-end" to the Brotherband books.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Culture of the Fork: A Brief History of Everyday Food and Haute Cuisine in Europe (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History)

Culture of the Fork is a short history of food in Europe (with an emphasis on Italy). The author delves in to the origin of foods, and also traces some as they go from "low class" to "high class". (Caviar, for example, was a poor man's food that became expensive due to shortages.) Transport was very slow, leading to each locality having its own tastes and cuisines. The cities would even become accustomed to "less fresh" food. Vegetables, especially "salad vegetables" had a very low caloric density, and thus were expensive for the nutrition provided. Today, the "old" food is most likely to be found among the poor and rural populations.

The Invaders: Brotherband Chronicles, Book 2

In the second Brotherband book, the boys go through a training regimen before setting off to find the pirates. They happen to run into a girl who is floating away from the village that has just been overtaken by pirates. Of course, she ends up being a sharp-shooter with her unique weapon. (You just knew that had to happen in this series.) They end up teaming up with a group of locals and other Skandians to try to get the treasure back. Alas, the pirates are able to ram a ship and the brotherband save the ship rather than chase the pirates. This leaves us with more possible adventures in the future. Meanwhile the girl is trying to avoid the overtures of the local pompous would-be-leader and joins the boys on their quest. Just as the boys were getting their chemistry down, leave it to a girl to mess things up.

The Outcasts: Brotherband Chronicles, Book 1

The Outcasts is the first of the BrotherBand series. This series is set in the same universe as the Ranger's Apprentice books. However, it focuses on the lives of the Viking "Skandians". Some of the characters are recognizable from the Ranger's apprentice series. However, they don't play a huge role here. The book starts with a quick trip through history to set up the background of some of the characters. The focus is on Hal, a boy raised by his non-Skandian mother after his Skandian father has died. He is an "outcast" because of his mixed parentage. He also becomes friends with Stig - another boy without a father. (However, while Hal's father had died in battle, Stig's had run away after stealing money.)
Eventually, Hal becomes a leader of a group of Brotherband outcasts. They are the crew of boys that nobody else wants. They compete in the events and take advantage of some planning and tickery to win the competition. (Who didn't know that would happen?) But, they blow it in their reward as an important jewel is stolen. At the end they set out on a quest for redemption, having grown much closer together. They are joined by the one-armed, former town drunk - who was also a great fighter for the day. This ties in some of the fun characters from the Ranger's apprentice world in their own adventure. This one is a fairly standard "outcasts coming of age" story. It sets things up for a fun series.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Necromancer: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 4

In this book, Josh and Sophie finally make it home to San Francisco. However, they soon encounter even more adventures. They discover that their vampire Celtic warrior friend has a twin sister. (Twins seem to be common in this series.) There is additional mahem and battles. Historical figures team up with each other (though there are not many new ones that appear in this book.) The twins have more confusion about which side is the "right" side. Josh ends up siding with John Dee, who promises him the ability to wake the dead. However, the others are trying to prevent him from awakening the dark creature that will potentially cause great harm. This is a middle book that really depends on the other books in the series to make sense.

The Looking Glass Wars

Looking Glass Wars uses the story of "Alice and Wonderland" as a starting point for fantasy adventure. Alice actually lived in a place like wonderland. After a rebel takeover she ended up in an orphanage on earth. Nobody believed her adventures in wonderland. The author of Alice and Wonderland did believe her and offered to write her story. However, she was upset that she made it so fantastical that it was not real. Eventually, she adopted to the "normal" world. She was eventually engaged to marry a prince when she got sucked back into a battle in Wonderland. The book is fantastical tale that is continually questioning "what is real?" The author does a great job of weaving together familiar characters and events to make a very accessible fantasy work.

Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick

This is another book that talks about Habits and research into how we act. The author had done a number of studies with Texas A&M students. One of the primary results is that willpower alone is often not sufficient to make a change. Often the best way to make a change in habit is to change the environment so that it is easier to engage in the desired behavior. As a simple example, suppose you want to snack on carrots instead of potato chips. If you have a house full of chips, but need to go to the store to get carrots, you have probably lost. However, if you keep carrots easily accessible, but need to travel to get chips, you will likely snack on carrots. Simply making the "desired" action the "easy" one is one of the best ways to accomplish it.
Changing circumstances can also help change habits. Many drug users during the Vietnam War stopped after they got home. They used drugs to cope with the stress of war and had a ready supply. At home, they no longer had the stress, so didn't have the need. They also did not know where to easily obtain the drugs. This made it easier to break the habit - even with the physical addiction.
The book also gives examples of a few public health efforts that worked and didn't. One campaign encouraged people to eat more fruits and vegetables. Most people surveyed remembered the campaign, but did not alter their produce-consuming behavior. They had the desire to have a better habit, but didn't go through the effort. On the other hand, smoking rates have decreased significantly. Previously smoking could be a default activity. However, now smoking is heavily restricted. Smokers must often travel outside to a designated smoking area to smoke. Smoking has become less accessible and many people no longer smoke.
The trick to making habits stick is to go beyond willpower to make the desired habit the default one.

Who Cares: Are You a Giver, Taker or Watcher?

Who Cares is a self-help audiobook with a decidedly late-90s conservative Christian feel to it. It discusses ways that we should authentically care about others and do things for the greater good. Positive examples are provided in historical figures such as the founder of the Salvation Army, while Bill Clinton's philanderings are among the negative examples. The book has a rapid-fire hodgepodge of advice. Good employees should be focused on the company rather than the perks. Good bosses should focus on the company. There are few nuggets in here, but most of the examples feel dated.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Duel at Araluen: Ranger's Apprentice: The Royal Ranger

Duel at Araluen picks off right where Red Fox Clan left off. The rebels are trying to capture the castle. Meanwhile, Maddie is trying to help back the army from their "trapped" area. She recruits a bunch of Scandians, helps free the army from the area they are trapped, and then brings them back to defeat the rebels. The rebel leader is faced by the entire family, each wanting to get a piece of him. Finally, Maddie returns back to the ranger cabin to meet up with Will. She doesn't mention many of the details. However, Will reads about it in a Ranger communication. He remarks that she has now learned to stay quiet when her hand is stepped on. (That was a problem that caused her to fail a ranger test in the previous book.) He then comments about the defeat of the uprising. Will has now adopted many of the dry traits of his mentor. There does seem to be a lot to work with with the new "princess ranger". It would be nice to see the author continue with more adventures. Perhaps we will see a group of female rangers now.

The Royal Ranger: The Red Fox Clan: Ranger's Apprentice

Red Fox Clan is the first in a two part sequence about a group of rebels trying to take over the kingdom. It also is the second book in the "Royal Ranger" sequence, and one of the later books in the Ranger's Apprentice series. Maddie has now completed most of her ranger training and is returning home to the castle for a short visit. While there, she explores some secret tunnels. We also learn of the "Red Fox Clan" - a group of country bumpkins that think that dynastic succession should only be through the male line. (Maddie and her mother Casandra are female heirs to the throne.) Horrace leads a small group to quash the rebellion. However, they find the army they are chasing is much larger than expected. Maddie sneaks out and discovers the true red foxes as well as their leader.
The story ends on a cliffhanger with the kingdom in balance. The next book picks up right where this left off. The author really enjoys writing from the perspective of youthful characters. His female characters are strong, yet able to put on "dainty" charm when needed.

You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington

The author acknowledges that there are very few biographies of George Washington written by women - and that these often focus on "female issues". Many of the biographies are big thick tomes written by men that go through all the details of Washington's life. There are also others that try to rip apart the "myth" of Washington. She has attempted to provide something different - a short, balanced history of his life. She goes through his entire life. However, the focus is primarily on his "public" life - as a military man and president. She provides context on some easy-to-shatter myths. (Wooden teeth would just not be practical; however, he did have really bad teeth.) Washington had no biological children, thus helping prevent dynastic succession. He was quite wealthy (in part through a familial pattern of marrying in to money.) However, his wealth was primarily tied up into land. He was a slave-holder. However, he advocated abolition of slavery in a "gradual" fashion. A sudden loss of property would devastate the economy. However, a slow freeing seemed feasible. (Personally, he didn't think he could afford to free his slaves during his life. He did grant slaves freedom in his will.)
As a military man, Washington was a rather poor leader at first. Though he gained experience as a British military leader. This probably helped him as he would eventually lead the rebels. As a president, he had wide-spread support among the people and founding fathers. However, his presidency would eventually strain his relations with many of the other founding fathers. And speaking of fathers, he is not known to have fathered any children. Perhaps this was an impact of the many times that he had been sick in his life.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Hand on the Wall: Truly Devious, Book 3

The third book in the Truly Devious series finally wraps everything up. The author continues to unfold in between the quest to solve the "new murders." While it sometimes feels you are getting the "answers" too soon, it actually just whets your appetite. You know things that went on in the past before the current characters figure them out. However, there are other parts of the current case that are not tied together yet. This works really well. And of course, being a teen novel, there is plenty of conflicting romance that always seems to get in the way. The ending is both surprising and unexpected, yet very satisfying. The primary characters are complex. Alas, the secondary characters can be flat stereotypes (especially the "evil politician" and "artist"). There are also a few events that just happen to occur at the proper time. Sure it is a mystery, but having luck not play such a role would be nice. Do people really have to show up at just the right time over and over again? Luckily, these are minor faults that don't distract too much from the book.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Notes from The Century Before: A Journal from British Columbia

Notes from the Century Before explores some of the more remote areas of British Columbia. It starts in Telegraph Springs. There towns were built up for the telegraph stations - only to see the need for telegraphs go away. Outwardly, he is exploring some of the land. However, he spends most of his time focused on the people there. They are not "hillbillies", but people that deal with the struggles of isolation in different ways. The Indians also have their experience colored by their history. He also brings his history and longings to the forefront as he uses his experiences with these people to explore his past failings.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

A Torch Against the Night: An Ember in the Ashes, Book 2

A Torch In the Night continues right where the first book leaves off with the two leads running away. There is plenty of violent activity. Many of the characters are conflicted between loyalty towards the imperial oaths and individuals. This book gets a little more "magical" than the first book. The connection between the current world and the afterlife is explored, with somebody gaining some power there. One girl learns to better control her ability to remain invisible. People sacrifice their family for the good of the empire, even though it is obvious that it is in poor leadership. There is plenty of romance on all levels. While some characters are fairly complex, others can be much more black and white in the "good and evil" department. The novel alternates the first person perspective among a number of these characters. Overall the book feels dark with flames burning. "A torch against the night" is an adequate description.

Inheritance: The Inheritance Cycle, Book 4

Inheritance is the final big thick book in the inheritance cycle. More big things happen. We build up to more great battles. The actual defeat of the evil villain seems too easy, and it happened with about 20% of the book still remaining. The end had some political intrigue and explored the "how will we keep this coalition together after our quest is done" area that is often not covered. Eragon continues to show mercy and puts what is best for the world ahead of what may appear to be beneficial to himself. It made the end seem to drag out, but in retrospect, I like it that way.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread

False beliefs have been around for a long time. In long ago times many people believed in the "vegetable lamb", despite it never existing. Why do people believe things that are not true? And why do they not believe things that are true? And how do we know something is true. Misinformation Age explores how scientific wisdom comes about. It is not all cut and dry. Often things appear true despite them being false. More information gradually can lead to the errosion of false beliefs. However, factors such as feedback loops and echo chambers can also amplify false believes. Beysian models can take new information to help correct false beliefs. However, when information is only selectively released (as is often the case in science and the world), it can help promulgate false beliefs. Some of the most shared political articles (on both sides of the spectrum) are "fake" articles. They often seem to be somewhat plausible, while helping to support a held belief. They help to support predispositions and nudge people more in the direction that they already favor. Science is also highly susceptible. Sometimes research can be sponsored to support a particular viewpoint. Other times, simply pointing out doubts in existing research can be enough. Tobacco companies would use legitimate scientific doubt to help undermine the link between smoking and cancer. The ozone hole was initially not noticed because the data was filtered out as "bad data points". Research that does not confirm a hypothesis is often not published, leaving just the the "novel hypothesis" verification work published. This can make the novel look more common than it is. In news, the novel is most interesting, often because it is rare.

An Ember in the Ashes

Ember in the Ashes follows the experiences of a few young adults in a world similar to the Roman Empire. One boy is the illegitimate son of the the commandant. The commandant had tried to abort her pregnancy, but ended up just abandoning him to local people, only to have him come back. He is an aspirant to the emperorship. The other main character (and eventual love interest) is a girl, part of the "scholars" who are involved in a rebellion. She sells herself into slavery in the commandant's house as a means of freeing her brother from prison. There is plenty of double-crossing going on. The two characters eventually fall in love. However, they both also have other good friends with romantic intentions. The "trials" to produce the next emperor force the characters to engage in horrible acts, including the killing of one's own friends. Eventually, the two characters manage to escape. The book ends with their escape, leaving the next book to pick up right there. There is some magic and fantastical elements. However, the book is primarily about psychology and family relations.

Friday, April 10, 2020

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference

Greta Thunberg is a Swedish teenager with Asperger's who sees the climate change issue as "black or white". This book has many of her talks. She sees climate change as "black or white". She would like people to do things to stop climate change, while also maintaining social justice and equity to allow less-developed countries to develop also. She has a great deal of passion. She asks the politicians to "do something", but is not very clear on what needs to be done. Her only source for raising the alarm is the IPCC report that gives us a little over a decade before we are over the edge in irreversible climate change. She seems to be coming against the brick wall of human nature. People are just not very motivated to make changes for something that "might" happen. They want to wait until it is here, then take decisive action. Then they will complain that nobody took action earlier. You see the same thing play out with the covid-19 coronavirus. Countries saw it in China and new in advance it would be coming, but waited until it was already here before making big changes. Earlier changes would have been easier and less draconian, but they would also have been "too earlier" Ciimate change is also challenging in that it deals with models with a near infinite amount of variables. Many of the so-called "solutions" are mere window-dressing. (A Prius doesn't emit as much carbon-dioxide, but it still emits orders of magnitude more than a person walking or biking the same distance.) Most arguments attempt to reduce CO2 emissions, while just expecting the current built up society to remain the same. That also seems to be missing the boat. Our built up infrastructure is just not compatible with the current climate models. Perhaps we are doomed to see climatic changes destroy our society. Or perhaps there are other forces in place that will mitigate climate change. Alas, I doubt we will see strong action until unexpected bad things start to occur. I can see how her passion has led to a strong following, but I wonder if it will accomplish anything.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm: Tales from Alagaƫsia, Volume 1: Eragon

"The Fork" is a series of short stories that take place in the universe of the Inheritance series. The fork story involves a battle using a magic fork. It is a nifty workaround of magic limitation. The other stories involve small bits like sisters battling against worms. It is nice to have "short stories" without the super long books typical of the other inheritance books.

13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown

Thirteen Bankers describes the control that bankers have managed to btain over our current financial system. It begins with a history of banking and moves towards the "innovation" that has occurred in banking. Only a few generations ago, banking was a relatively low paying conservative industry. However, bankers introduced more and more complex instruments that allowed them to make more and more money. Bankers are also heavily involved in the regulation of banking, making it difficult to implement some needed regulation. Big banks have also become "too big to fail" The government's willingness to let institutions fail at the start of the 2009 financial crisis ended up "forcing" the government to bail out the remaining banks. There was a huge liquidity crisis that could not be resolved. The perverse impact was that the big risky banks end up getting bigger, while the small diverse banks were wiped out. "Too big to fail" banks take riskier and riskier bets because they know they can get bailed out.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong

In Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper, Robert Bryce advocates that technology will continue to help us out of any problems that we have. The underlying thesis is that the liberal environmentalists attacks on modern society are the problem. We must use "more energy" to help rise up the poor. He complains about the left's romanticization of the past. However, he then turns around and romanticizing the more recent past, advocating more coal and other fossil fuel use.
I am writing this at the time of a large scale shut down of society due to the Covid-19 Coronavirus. This has exposed the fragility of our current economic system. Things can be made more efficient, but often at the cost of eliminating redundancy. A little crisis exposes the limits of this system.
The key part missed in arguments on all sides is the benefit obtained by the energy consumed. A long car commute consumes energy and makes somebody less happy. However, it does allow them to live in a larger house. There, they spend more energy maintaining the yard to adhere to HOA guidelines. They also spend more energy driving to far away places to complete errands. Without cheap energy, they would not be able to live that way. But, would they actually be more miserable if they did? The author seems to totally miss this key area of density. We can live in a much more dense fashion than we currently do. We have the technology. However, we don't utilize it.
The book does have some good information on advances in technology. However, it suffers from the biases in types of energy. He serves as a cheerleader for coal because it makes electricity. However, he ignores any problems that it causes to the environment or people. On the other hand, wind is castigated because it kills some birds and hurts some rural residents uncomfortable. His arguments would have been much stronger if he just stuck with his basic energy density argument. Wind does require a lot of space to produce energy. That would be a legitimate argument of scaling. Similarly, American ethanol could easily be shot down on basic physics. The political dribble just makes the argument worse. He complains to be somewhat agnostics to the global warming and environment arguments. Alas, he picks his facts to bias himself towards certain side. It is a shame, because he does expose a number of key scientific inconsistencies with many of the environmental arguments.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future

Turkey and Iran both have rich histories that separate them from other countries in the Islamic world. They have both been the head of large-scale global empires. They have also been open to the western world and have experimented with democracy. The Turkish democracy was helped along by the US, who saw the Turks as a bulwark against Russian communism. Iranian democracy was quashed because it was viewed to go against the interests of big oil companies. This led to a reign of an ostentatious Shah and the eventual rise of clerical power. The type of Islam dominant in each country also has helped contribute to the current conditions, with Turkey more accepting of rule by secular powers. The author proposes that Europe and the west should be more willing to engage the two countries. Turkey is one of the few countries with relations with all the players in the middle east (including Israel). They are eager to be peace brokers. Having them as an active member of the EU could provide huge benefits to Europe. They have have managed to increase religious freedom and democracy at the same time. Iran also has reached out to the US to increase partnership in the fight against common enemies (such as the Taliban), only to be rebuffed by the US.
America currently partners primarily with Saudi Arabia and Israel in the Middle East. The Israeli relationship is a long-standing sympathy play due in a significant part to the horrors of the holocaust. Saudi Arabia is an odd bedfellow that is really only there because of the oil. The country has a very corrupt, conservative monarchy that seems to go against many of the western values. However, they sit atop one of the largest deposits of fossil fuels in the world.
Peace in the middle east will require some give and take. Palestinians and Israelis will each need to give and take somewhat to achieve their peace. The western world must also better understand everything that is in play. Turkey and Iran are both willing to help. Will we continue to fight against them, or are we willing to let them help us understand the region?

Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies

Companies, organisms and cities all scale using a non-linear power law. As cities increase in population, the benefits will not increase linearly. Instead, there will be economies of scale that allow larger cities to benefit more from their increased population. "Establishments" tend to increase at a linear rate. However, the diversity of the establishment changes as the size of the city increases. Similarly, the distance that people will travel to a given location tends to vary at a similar constant rate. (Though some locations, such as an airport may differ.) Rather than comparing cities on a per-capita basis, they can compared on on an adjusted basis to find those that are really "excelling" based on their size. San Jose continues to excel at patents, but there are other smaller cities that also have outsize patent production.
For organisms, there are also some general rules that apply to their size. There is a fairly constant number of heart beats that an organism will have during their lifespan. Smaller mammals will tend to have a much faster heart rate, while larger ones will have one that beats much slower. Organisms scale at coefficiented exponential rate. There is a rough life span that can be expected of organisms based on their metabolic rate. Some parts (such as a heart) must be much larger to support a larger organism. However, other parts (such as the capillaries) remain the same. (We can see something similar in buildings. The empire state building is much larger than a small walk-up. However, the water faucets in both are still the same size.) Organisms have a limit in how much they can grow as individual components need to be able to support the whole body that is growing at a different rate.
Companies also come and go at a similar regular rate. Profits also grow at a different rates based on the size of the company. Like organisms, "death" is an important part of companies and allows for evolution to take place.
Ecosystems are also significantly impacted by minor changes in climate. The metabolic rate is impacted by temperature. Small changes can benefit different organisms in different ways. Some organisms may have a great benefit. However, they also depend on other organisms that may have a different benefit. (For example, a plant may benefit a certain percentage, but pests that attack it my benefit more, while the predator that consumes the pest may benefit less.) It is extremely difficult to tease out all the changes.
The book has a lot of great content and interesting "theories of everything". However, it suffers from an extremely verbose, academic-trying-to-be-popular style of writing.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Infinite Powers

Infinite Powers explores the evolution of calculus and the important roll that it plays in our lives. Both the concepts of "0" and "infinity" are key to the understanding of the world. However, these were not universally understood concepts in the ancient world. Many mathematicians did understand bits of it, but it wasn't until Newton and Leibniz separately put it all together.
Curves had made things difficult for ancient mathematicians. Calculating the area of a circle just didn't come up with a rational number. Different approaches were used to try to calculate the area (such as making many-sided polygons on the inside and out. However, it took the insight of "subdividing" into infinite strips to really come with a conclusion.
Today the approximations and insights from calculus are used extensively in our world. The radio waves we use for communications and the 3d modelling in digital animation are just two of the many things that are made possible through the insights of calculus. Our modern world would not be possible without managing the power of infinity.