Friday, June 26, 2020

The Ghostfaces: The Brotherband Chronicles, Book 6

The Heron band starts out by sailing away to try to avoid a storm. However, they get stuck in a storm that seems to go on and on. There water supply goes low as they are in the middle of the ocean. They decide to gamble on sailing into the unknown ocean in hope of finding land. They barely do in time.
The end up finding a place. They build a fort and set in for the winter. They also defeat a bear and strike up a relationship with the local inhabitants. (There are a few bits of romantic interest.) They also discover there is another from their land with them. His ship was not as lucky. They run into the "ghost faces" and only one survived. Eventually, the winds shift, the battle the ghost faces and head home. They decide not to share the detailed navigation instructions with others to keep the people at peace.
This seems to be a fictionalized version of Viking incursions into America. Here it is explained as people making friends, but specifically not wanting others to go back there. I guess that is as good an explanation as any for an interesting bit of history with little record.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World

Earning the Rockies is part travelogue, part history of the importance of geography in the growth of geography. History came alive through the experience with his father and the history of Bernard Devoto. He wrote the type of grand "American Exceptionalism" history that is not very popular these days. America was able to adopt a very individualistic culture because it was settled from the east. An individual could fairly easily farm land with their own effort. Even the big southern plantations were somewhat independent. This was compared to Utah which required the communal effort of the Mormon population in order to irrigate a difficult land.
He also explores the homestead of presidents. Buchanan was a "bad" president in part because he was willing to "appease" rather than make the bold moves that Lincoln made.
In the seocnd half of the book, he explores the United States. He notes that a lot of the "unique" parts of the country have become very homogenous. Rest stops used to have (whites only) table service and gourmet food. Now anybody can get unhealthy fast food at rest stops. The same chains are all over the united states. The author explores many of the small towns that are "dying". Wheeling West Virginia was a poster child for the small town decline. There were other cities in the midwest that experience similar population decline. The retail left the city for the exurban malls. The people live a homogenous "lower class" life, different than the "brewpub" life of those in small college towns and big cities. This did have the advantage of giving the local hotel and restaurants a feel that was "different" from the sameness of the hotels and meals throughout the trip.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt

High frequency stock traders will pay enormous amounts to shave small fractions of a seconds off of electronic communication time. Some of this could be beneficial for computer technology if they were willing to contribute back to open source projects. Alas, they like to keep their work very secret. After all, speed helps them to make make money. By being crazy fast they can perform time-base arbitrage, acting on changes in prices in one location before they have changed in another. They even brag about the benefits of ultra-fast speed, even when it does not benefit them. High frequency traders can use the speed to "get in between" a buyer and seller, making near riskless profits.
Flashboys covers a few somewhat related stories. In one, Sergey Aleynikov was arrested by the FBI and tried for "stealing" valuable source code from Goldman Sachs. This was portrayed as an incompetent witch hunt. He had uploaded code to a public SVN repo, with little attempt to hide his activity. (He could have easily walked away with all the code on a USB thumb drive.) The code he had was a mixture of open source code with the code written at the company. There was very little of the "secret sauce" from the company. He had been somewhat disgruntled that he had been unable to contribute back to the open source community. There were multiple attempts to make him an "Example". However, it seemed that there was no real damage done. (Lewis likens his activity to keeping a notebook of meetings at a job.)
The other story is about high frequency trading. There is the story of a cable from Chicago to New York built at great cost to be straighter to save a few fractions of a second off the time it takes a signal to travel. There are a few other stories about people that worked to help colocate near exchanges to be super fast.
The bulk of the story focuses on Brad Katsuyama, his experience at RBC and the people he brought together to create IEX. He gradually "uncovered" some of the oddities of high frequency trading. He got together a bunch of idealists to help create an exchange that would be immune to some HFT trading abuses. He identified some issues, such as high frequency traders taking advantage of the time it takes an order to reach different exchanges. IEX tried to prevent this by adding delays. They identified many of other bits of challenges. One thing they identified was the constant regulation/loophole loop. It seems that abuses in the financial system are enabled by previous regulation. The previous regulation was created to eliminate a previous abuse. And the path keeps going back.
The book doe snot go into great detail explaining high frequency trading. It does mention the great sums of money they are willing to pay for programmers and for speeds. Some have bragged about not ever losing money in a day's trading. The assumption is that they can make a few fractions of a cent in a few fractions of a second and just multiple that into real money without other noticing they have lost.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Secret Financial Life of Food: From Commodities Markets to Supermarkets (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History)

The Secret Life of Food explores the role the futures market plays in the food we consume. The United States once had many different future's markets, some of which had their own specific niches. The markets have since consolidated, with specific commodities coming and going. Successful commodities need to have sufficient uncertainty in their yield as well as a wide variety of participants. The markets define specific standards for the product being produced. Participants include producers (often farmers growing the crops ), consumers (usually large corporations that require the crops as inputs) and speculators (financial players who have no intention of taking delivery.) At times speculators have achieved great gains by cornering the market. (Though there have also been huge loses in failed attempts to corner.) The futures markets are used to help smooth costs, and help prevent wild swings in the processed food products commonly consumed. Significant sustained price swings can often take a year or so to appear in the prices of processed food.
The book provides a fascinating story of how key futures markets, such as corn, wheat, coffee and orange juice work. Equally fascinating is the story of failed markets and ones that don't exist. High Fructose Corn Syrup failed because there were too few participants. Other markets, such as Peking Duck, could be possible, but have not picked up yet. There are a variety of different markets in different countries that trade things important to their population.

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces

Municipal Police are a relative modern innovation. While police did exist in ancient Rome, they fell out of favor in much of the world. They were not really established until decades after the founding of the United States. Prior to that, communities were mostly homogeneous and would carry out their own discipline. Police were needed only after the rise of larger, less homogeneous cities. Different approaches were used for police initially. Some cities made them very local patronage jobs. This had advantages in that they knew the community. However, it also was rife with corruption and discriminated against non-community members. The opposite extreme was a distant non-resident professionalized force. This eliminated the corruption and seemed to provide equal service. However, the police had little "skin in the game" and did not necessarily align with community needs.
An important point of police process is the "castle doctrine". A person's home is a castle and cannot be broached except under extreme circumstances. The third amendment to the constitution alludes to this. This concept was gradually broached as police powers expanded.
Slavery and reconstruction were both used to expand police powers. Ironically, laws used to capture fugitive slaves were later used to enforce rights of freed blacks in reconstruction. The rule of unintended consequences does seem to regularly play a roll in law enforcement.
The 1960s and the war on drugs saw a huge increase in police militarization. SWAT teams were created to help respond to extreme situations. On large police forces, there was often some justification for these teams to respond to some extreme situations. On smaller police forces, these teams were often forced to justify their uses. The police would use the SWAT team in places where it is not needed, simply because they had a team. No-knock search warrants also became favored by SWAT teams in drug raids. Even the "knock" warrant usually was followed quickly by break in, with the fear that drug evidence may be flushed down the toilet. SWAT team members often loved the thrill of the break in. Civil forfeiture laws further encouraged police to go after drugs in order to make money. The police were able to make money and have fun, but did little to help stop the drug trade. There was also collateral damage, with many cases of cops hitting the wrong house or killing innocent people.
The book does a great deal to support many of the "defund the police" arguments. However, there are many complexities that need to be explored. Especially with regards to drug police, there are federal laws that pre-empt some of the state laws. There are some cases where the militarized force is needed. (After all, it was an inability to properly respond to Austin sniper-shootings that helped lead to militarization.) It is a tough challenge.
The book is highly relevant to the current political debate. However, it also identifies some of the political challenges. The "party out of control" often tends to be the one against militarization of police. Thus, democrats seem to be the "saviors" today. However, Biden's name comes up repeatedly in this book as one of the key sponsors of legislation to increase the scope and militarization of police. If he becomes president will it just shift the police to the "left-wing enforces" and leave are country further divided?

Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary is the story of a bored young woman who wants more from her life. She engages in a number of hedonistic activities and a engages in various dishonest behaviors. Eventually things begin to unravel and she takes her own life. It can be a challenge to keep track of what is going on at first. However, it does start to tie together well at the end.

The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher's Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient

Stoic Challenge is a short introduction to stoicism. Stoics are not immune to emotion. However, they view setbacks as growing experiences. Stoics acknowledge that we are often more negatively impacted by our response to a setback than the setback itself. We get angry at others that led to our set back - even when there is little that can be done now. If instead, we just take them as a growing experience, we are able to move on much more quickly from the setback. By not wasting effort at getting mad, we can move on more quickly and be happier.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict

The Anatomy of Peace uses a story to illustrate how we can achieve inner peace regardless of what is going on externally. Often our approach is to try to "change others". However, this will usually fail if we are treating them as objects to change rather than as people with particular needs. The book uses a case study to explain the process. An executive and his wife are having struggles with his relapsed drug-addicted son. They send him to a wilderness camp run by an Arab and an Israeli. However, there is a two day parent session at the start where they meet together. In this session they talk about how they have got along and realized their challenges. They had each grown up hating the other's group, in spite of knowing people on "the other side". They had lost family in the conflict and become hardened and desired nothing other than defeating the other side. However, they each meet somebody that helps them make the transition to peace. They find it too late to make amends to their "dropped friends". However, the process of reaching out and attempted to make peace help them. The executive realizes that he has been treating others as "objects" rather than people. His interactions with his son are often done in anger in an attempt to correct him. He doesn't treat him as a person. Their relationship is part of the problem. He also has a similar issue with his employees. His first attempts at making peace with others fails miserably. He requires more effort to try to think of people outside of the box and as real people. He gradually does make changes.
Some of the lessons here are directly applicable to current events. Political discourse and protests today often come with a strong us against them viewpoint. People see a wrong and want other people to change. They see others as objects with the "wrong" viewpoint or actions. Any "changes" that the other side does are often fleeting. They are doing it out of fear, rather than need. The "oppressed" are quickly turning to "oppressing" others when given the chance. Instead, everyone needs to get on the same level and make peace to make a better world. This is much harder, but will make for better results.

Phule Me Twice: Phule's Company, Book 4

The fourth Phule's Company books continues with many of the same sitcom-esque humorous episodes. The General keeps trying to get Phule's Company to fail. The company has been asked to be military advisors to the Zenobians. This time he sends a major out to whip them into shape. However, he ends up going crazy and leaving. There is a robot Phule who is kidnapped from a casino, but ends up on the base. There are a group of people who join an "Elvis church" and alter their appearance to look like Elvis. Even robot-proof camouflage plays a role. In the end Phule makes peace between the Zenobians and a mysterious other species and the general falls flat on his face, all while many funny things happen in the interim.

Too Like the Lightning: Terra Ignota, Book 1

Too Like the Lightening is set in a futuristic world. A general peace is established with various "clans" that have differing views of the world. A high-speed transportation system is available that lets people go just about anywhere. Religion is taboo and having three are more people talk about religion is considered a church. Gender is considered archaic with most people considered gender neutral. Sexual activity is still a thing and the mere concept of gendered talk or dress is often found to be sexually promiscuous. The past is well respected in this world and the story is told often from an 18th century style of language. There are also computer-like people that are more machine than man.
While this utopian dystopia of a future world is built up in great detail, the story itself is somewhat confusion. There is a murderer who kills people in various ways. There are some conflicts between the groups. There are toy soldiers that are animated. Killings of seemingly insignificant people are used to alter the course of world events through their association with others. (In some ways it seems similar to current events.) It gets confusing.

Kitchen Mysteries: Revealing the Science of Cooking (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History)

Kitchen Mysteries is a well done, detailed book on the science behind what we do in the kitchen. Many parts are explained in detail. The author explains the science of letting batter "sit" and of how different leavening helps bread to rise. The details of a microwave cooking are explained as well as areas where it is most beneficial. Hot water freezes faster than cold water. Egg whites are mostly water. Using a cold copper bowl allows them to whip faster. A little yolk will interfere with the whipping, but is not a necessarily death sentence. Opening the oven while baking may kill it. For bread, he even suggests heating the oven to 500 degrees, then turning off after putting it in. (Though since this is a French book, this is probably more for a baguette.) There are some areas where the author admits he doesn't know. There may have been experiments done, but no conclusive results were found.
Cooking "science" is interesting in part because it has been practiced for many years without going through the scientific process. Science has started to catch up. However, many areas have been well established by practice. Most of the practices will have a scientific explanation. However, there are some that may have been established earlier, but are carried out in spite of changes that make them not so relevant. This book was written by a French author, so some of the concerns and details are not as relevant to the American kitchen. (Cakes in particular are quite different.) However, what is there is very thoroughly documented and explained.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History)

Eating history is a collection of 30 vignettes covering key points in the evolution of American food. Each story also includes a brief "where are they now" postscript. Many of the "change artists" became rich and had companies that outlasted them, while some did not.
Early advancements in milling helped transform flour production from a purely local operation to something that could be handled in a centralized location. The Erie canal helped usher in improved transportation. This further consolidated milling. Technology for preserving and canning food also improved. By the time of the civil war canned food was one of the primary rations. This also led to a more general homogenization of American cuisine. Interestingly, the south earlier had a very diverse cuisine due in part to slavery. The slaves were given plots of land to grow crops to supplant their rations. They also did a lot of the cooking for their masters. This led to them bringing some flavors from their homeland.
Innovations like the reaper, fertilizer and genetic engineering helped encourage large scale industrial farms. On the other hand, muckrakers like Upton Sinclair and organic advocates like Rodale pushed back on food industrialization. Cook books and cooking shows have become very popular, spawning "celebrity chefs". Today there is also a great deal of consolidation in the food production world.
The thirty points do a great job of covering food history. There are probably many other key figures and events that could be included, but these are sufficient to paint a good picture of where we are now.

A Phule and His Money: Phule's Company Series, Book 3

In A Phule and His Money, Phule's company continues to work on the casino. They face many forces trying to break them down. They also get new recruits. Then they are given a new assignment to help help keep peace is in a civil conflict. This just happened to be the place where Phule caused problems early in his career. The planet was a former mining colony that now is known for roller costers. With Phule's help, they develop two great roller coaster parks and resolve the conflict. It is interesting how the "space future" was viewed in 1999. Simple things that we take for granted (like cell phones) would have made significant changes in how events would have unfolded.

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

Egypt has a long history. It existed as a continuous political entity for millennia before being absorbed by Rome a little over two thousand years ago. The kingdom generally confined itself to the Nile region. The "upper" and "lower" parts of Egypt would occasionally be separated, but would often be together. The Greeks came in and started ruling near the "end". However, they would adopt many of the Egyptian customs and continue ruling Egypt as Egypt. It was not until time time of Caesar that Rome eventually took over Egpyt and ended the period of self-rule.
Toby Wilkinson presents the history of Egypt as a chronological narrative. The focus is on Egypt and the leaders. Those that we know more about are covered in greater detail. Otherwise, the narrative may skip a few hundred years of history we know little about. The narrative does a good job of bringing in the key events that connect to the outside world. I liked the way the Rosetta stone popped out. The results of a minor campaign just happened to be inscribed in multiple languages, giving us a translation key. For the biblical Exodus, there was no specific Egyptian record. However, the author posits that a period of heavy imported labor may have been when it occurred.
The leaders of Egypt engaged in one-upmanship, building different large tombs and monuments. They were sometimes viewed as gods, while other times they were anointed by gods. Lines were generally hereditary, until they were not. Leaders were mostly men, except when they were women. There was a strong cult of the afterlife, leading to elaborate funeral practices (including mummies and pyramids.) However, it was also common for rulers to dismantle previous structures for their own monuments.
Egypt was a fascinating place. We know very little about the long history. Yet, we probably know more than we know of many other places so long ago.

Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and on Us

Ingredients takes a popular scientific approach to analyzing what we eat. A good deal of the text analyzing the vexing question of why there is so much "garbage" out there about nutrition. It seems every day there is press coverage of some food being surprisingly healthy or unhealthy. This is often a result of the process of research. Subjects are often asked to recall what they had to eat and memories are not fully accurate. Even portions and exact contents may differ from person to person. There is also the matter of correlation. There are many different foods and lifestyle factors that contribute to overall health. A high fiber diet may be correlated with cancer simply because older people are more likely to be on a high fiber diet and have cancer. This does not mean that the diet causes cancer. The variables would need to be separated and controlled to get a more accurate picture.
Another problem is the nature of research. Publishing a study that says "chocolate doesn't protect against cancer" would not get much press coverage. However, one that found a connection would. Scientists are more likely to publish the novel findings. The nature of human populations and statistical flukes mean many of these findings could be found "significant" but not necessarily "real".
An ideal study would be tightly controlled. However, these are very difficult to do and may have ethical concerns. There have been some attempts. In one study, people brought groups of people into a hospital setting and fed some processed food and others unprocessed food. Then the diet was switched. The groups could eat as much as they wanted of each, and the food was set to be a somewhat similar caloric density. The participants claimed that each diet was equally tasty. However, those eating the processed food tended to eat more and gain more wait. This seems to say that processed food will cause us to gain weight. However, there could be other factors missed. If both tasted the same, why did they eat more of the processed food? Was there a "halo" effect involved? Was there something about the participants that made it less applicable?
All food contains chemicals. More processed foods often tend to be similar in structure. We need to eat chemicals to survive. Understanding what is best is a complex question. Simply avoiding one thing or another may be useful for one person, while detrimental to another. Food science is hard.