Friday, April 30, 2021

How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom

Innovation happens best when people have the means and the hunger. Government often steps in to remedy the excesses. Alas, these remedies often make it easier for the entrenched behemoths to manage, while making it more difficult for the nimble entrepreneurs to grown. When societies focus more on collective comforts and equity, innovation will often stall. While we like to admire the insightful inventor, inventions are often "destined to happen". It is very common for several people to have the same innovation at the same time. This is often due to the environment that existed at the time. Innovations are usually based on incremental changes rather than drastic switches in direction.

It is very difficult to predict what innovation will take place. The first half of the twentieth century was dominated by innovation in transportation. Trains, cars, rockets and airplanes all helped people to move around the world much faster than they previously had. People projected personal rocket travel and flying cars. However, transportation innovation pretty much reached its peak by the end of the 1960s. (In some ways it has even regressed. Back then astronauts landed on the moon and individuals could travel on the supersonic Concorde.) There have been small incremental improvements (such as more high speed rail). Yet, somebody from 1970 would not notice much significant change in speed of moving around today.

The last 50 years have been dominated by innovation in communications and computation. We may predict further innovation here. But has that peeked? What will be the next wave of innovation? We may guess biotech, but that may or may not be wrong. 

Innovation can often solve problems that were caused by previous innovation. Today the amount of "stuff" produced and energy consumed is edging downward. The amount of work required to produce light from an LED light bulb is orders of magnitude less than that previously required to produce the same light from candles. People have responded by using more light. However, even this has tapered off as so much light has been used. Many other areas use less physical stuff than before.

The author is concerned that we may "mess up" the innovation machine. Trying to "plan" innovation can often backfire. Regulation can also cause problems. Even intellectual property rights can have a negative impact on innovation. There is a balance that needs to be struck in providing for the current society and enabling the innovations for the future.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Deep Work has a very simple theoretical base: knowledge workers need "Deep" concentrated work to be the most productive. Many of the things that we spend our time doing in the day distract from this. Email interrupts our chain of thought. We feel the desire to respond immediately to things that come up. We are also consumed with other easy shallow work tasks and activities from booking travel to following news and social media. Many of these bits of "shallow work" are not bad in themselves. However, they do not help us to achieve our goals. The author proposes that instead of evaluating these tasks for "goodness", we instead put a harder criteria. Is this needed for achieving my goals? Is this better use of my time than other things. Many of the shallow tasks we think we need may not be so necessary after all. Responding to emails at all hours is something that is often thought to be important but usually proves not to matter. We can also reign in our availability. Be willing to say no. Give actionable responses to prevent endless back and forth. 

Deep work can be hard and mentally draining. It can also be difficult to find time to do it. There are different strategies that can be used appropriately allocate our time. By being more cognisant of how we are using our time, we can ensure we are making better use of it. We often think we have a shortage of time only to find we spend most of our time multitasking among unimportant tasks. I have had experiences where just planning a few important things to do can be extremely helpful. It becomes easy to accomplish everything with focus. Without the focus, there is a tendency to waffle around  and get distracted - and not accomplish nearly as much. There is still a need to do many of the "shallow" tasks. However, by prioritizing deep work, much more can be accomplished in less time.

The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths

The state should be more involved in the process of innovation. This is the argument in the Entrepreneurial State. The author points to many examples of state-funding basic research that has been appropriated by private companies and made the founders rich. The government typically gets very little from this. Venture Capital firms often rake in money from their investments, but the government often hopes for nothing more than taxes. In these it is often frustrated with companies using various tax havens to avoid taxation. Companies also use things such as stock buybacks to enrich executives and stockholders rather than employees or customers.

Many of these arguments could easily be turned around. Even when company's avoid income tax, the government gets plenty of revenue from the employee's tax - especially the capital gains on stock sales. Most startups give stock liberally to all employees. Increased stock valuations benefit employees (and can be one of the primary source of employee wealth.) Retirement accounts and pension funds are invested primarily in stocks, thus increased stock valuation benefits pretty much everyone.

The question of value creation is more nuanced. The author focuses on Apple. They are, for practical purposes a design company. Apple products rarely have in-house created innovative technology. Instead, Apple typically packs together existing technologies with minor improvements in a unified slick interface that appeals to the public. The author mentioned that the government earned nothing from the Page Rank algorithm that had been partially funded by a government grant. (Stanford, however, did make a nice killing on it.) What is not mentioned is that while the algorithm was extremely popular and served as the base for Google, it was the advertising keywords that turned that into valuable company. 

There is value in having more knowledge that can then serve as a base for further innovation and products. What is the ideal level of government involvement? Too much and there is little incentive to build on. Not enough and there is nothing that can be used to build. One concern is the huge sums made. If companies can turn people to billionaires, does that mean the government is giving away too much? Should the government collect royalties on technology used? Or perhaps just take a stake in companies as part of the funding.

The government causes the biggest issues when it picks winners. Regulation for something that "seems better" is often stifling. People liked Incandescent lights. The government stepped in to force people to switch to compact fluorescent lights. However, there were a multitude of problems (cost, disposal, etc.) with CFLs. A few years later LEDs came out. They had few of the problems of CFLs and economically made sense. Had the government not jumped in, we would probably still switched to LEDs. 

Significant government innovations often end up having a use outside their original purpose. The internet and GPS both were launched with specific national defense missions in mind. Changes and improvements happened over time. Arpanet was never envisioned as a means to allow kindergartners to attend remote classes. Yet, it gradually expanded to the internet and enabled the myriad of applications we have today. 

Today we often try to jump ahead. Putting a lot of government research in technologies such as solar power or electric vehicles has the danger of "picking winners". (Tesla is profitable only via the multitude of credits and carbon offsets.) Special government support can be difficult to remove, even if it is now detrimental. Fossil fuels, highways, suburban-sprawl and long-distance trucking are all encouraged by government policies while at the same time, the government is funding research and implementing policies to discourage them. Rather than pick winners, the government would be better off focussing on basic research and enact more simple policies.

Government has the advantage of being able to look at the long term. However, it is also subject to short term changes of elected officials. It can be challenging to keep a long term focus. Corporate research labs used to have a long term focus. However, many of these labs have gone away. Ironically, monopolistic power and strength helps justify the existence of these labs. In software development, the open source movement has been a boon. Big companies dedicate significant resources to develop software that is freely available and modifiable by everybody. This is a form of research and development that has been growing significantly and has produced significant innovation.

The author argues that government innovation and support are key for growth. I half buy the argument. In the current state, government tends to be overwhelmed with process and politics. Perhaps the simple solution would be to hand out money and ask smart people to "do stuff". 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Dracula: Starring David Suchet and Tom Hiddleston

A BBC adaptation of a play based on the original Dracula book seems as good way as any to get introduced to Dracula. I was surprised at how little I knew of the original story, but how much I understood of the characters. Many of the "vampire" themes are present in this original book. There is also a distinct "vampire romance" involved. No wonder Twilight and the like of gone so far on the romance. Dracula spreads vampire-dom on other unwittingly. Some people also have managed to discover some of the defenses. The "happy" ending only occurs after great challenge.

Introduction to Graph Theory (Dover Books on Mathematics)

I think I liked the original title, Dots and Lines, better. However, Introduction to Graph Theory was what I was searching for. This book is getting close to 50 years old. However, the basics of graph theory still remain. Perhaps the only part that caught me off guard was the mention that the 4-color problem had not been proved. Alas, when I got to the end, the author corrected this with mention of the proof. (It came out right around the time this book was published.) 

The book targets a more general audience than just mathematicians. However, it does not skimp on rigor. The opening chapter starts with an introduction to "pure mathematics". The author desires that we can find the joy in math that mathematicians find, and not get bogged down with mechanics.  There are plenty of detailed proofs and exercises in the book. At times the book gets pretty deep into the nitty-gritty. However, it will often then bounce back out to more easily acceptable prose. I found it to be a good introduction to graph theory. It contained enough detail to fill in basic understanding gaps and seems to have a good chunk of problems to go through on a re-read.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves

The primary message from Mama's Last Hug is that animals have emotions. The author spent many years studying primates and observed the many examples of emotions. He also provided a multitude of examples in other species. Bonobos and Chimpanzees are considered to be nothing like humans. Yet, our difference from them is similar to the difference between animals that we lump together (such as African and Asian elephants.) We should expect them to have many characteristics similar to us. Mama is this book is a chimpanzee matriarch who had developed a bond with her human observer. The animals had a distinct social order and various ways of interacting that showed emotional responses and delayed gratification. A desire for fairness is often very important. Animals often expect a similar award for similar effort. If they expend the effort but get the same reward as another animal that didn't, they will be upset. The author laments that psychologists have separated human from non-human and have not spent time studying the range of animal psychology and comparisons among different species.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

On Grief and Grieving

Dealing with the loss of a loved one can be challenging. It can be tempting to try to second guess the situation and wonder what you could have done. On Grief and Grieving explores many grieving situations and what could be done. Our tendencies in interacting with those that are grieving may not be what people want or need. People may often want some closeness, though they may need things on their own terms to deal with it. Different deaths can cause different responses. An octogenarian dying of cancer is different than a teenager dying of cancer. An accident, a crime, a suicide or a mass event all can result in different responses. Sometimes it helps to go back to the place. Crying can also be helpful. The grief may take a long time to process or it can be quick. There are a lot of different things that people can go through. It is important to accept the differences and let the grieving progress, though also make sure there is a path out. Angels and supernatural experiences may also be real in the experiences of those that are grieving. Past experiences as well as secrets (both good and bad) may also come back up in the grieving process. The practical challenges (such as money or other things that are typically handled by the deceased) can also be challenging. Death tends to come at inopportune times, yet it happens to everyone.

The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet

Aaron Swartz was a social outcast who thought information should be freely available. He was especially concerned with government and scholarly information. Why should companies get rich off data that the public had helped fund. He attempted to download scholarly articles from the MIT network. This resulted in the crashing of Jstor servers. The police came in and threw the book at him for "stealing" the data. He committed suicide rather than face the charges. 

Swartz grew up in a well to do family in the suburbs of Chicago. He preferred interacting with people through computers. He did not like the structure of school, and left high school to learn on his own. He later enrolled at Stanford, but was disillusioned there also. He was credited as a cofounder of Reddit and cashed out well there. He also started early free encyclopedias and participated in other "free information" projects. Swartz seemed to benefit greatly from the openness the well-to-do status of his parents in early life. Without the freedom to explore on his own, he would have not had the opportunities to pursue his passions. 

The book spends a great deal of time covering the history of copyright. The United States was late in the copyright game. However, it has been willing to play catch up. Alas, the corporations that benefit from long copyrights are able to mobilize much better than the public that benefits from having more things in the public domain. Thus, laws like the Sonny Bono copyright extension act have passed extended copyrights well beyond the life of the author. (The justification that this ultra-long-term encourages creativity is very far fetched.) Do we have hope of rationalizing copyright? Or will it keep going in the extension direction?

Far and Wide: Bring That Horizon to Me

The late Neil Peart was not your typical rock star. He eschewed the glamour of the fame and prefers to be by himself. Despite being one of the best drummers around, he took lessons from others to improve his playing. Far and Wide is a book about his experience on Rush's 40th anniversary tour. However, the concerts and music play only a minimal role. His bandmates hardly appear in the narrative. Instead, the focus is on his journey on remote roads and interactions with the sites there.

Peart took advantage of the concert tour to ride his motorcycle from venue to venue. He would ride with a few close friends and tried to avoid the main roads. He preferred to create his route with paper maps and would seek the small and unpaved roads while avoiding interstates. Along the way he explored the small towns and their people. He enjoyed being a random motorcyclists rather than a famous drummer. At times, they would duck under blocking bars or go down single tracks. 

On the trip, they visited many national parks. They also stayed at a motel that was part of a drive in movie theater. The book discusses some history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as he explores historic sites in New York and Missouri. (He fumbles a bit with some of the details, but gets the big picture.) He does wipe out once and gets a flat. He marvels at the kindness of people. Somebody drives him and his bike back after he can't fix a flat. Some a saddlebag is returned to him 10 years later. (The finder had tried to call him immediately, but he accidentally deleted the message.) He freely gives money to beggars. He does not like to pose for pictures with random strangers.  However, he made an exception for a Japanese bicyclists that they befriended. (Peart has also done a large amount of bicycling.)

Though book has just enough Rush information to appeal to fans, it is primarily a story of a journey across America that would appeal to all. I'm not sure that I'd like to tour like he did, but had a great time reading about it.

Death's End (The Three-Body Problem Series, 3)

Cixin Liu's Remembrance of Earth's Past series seemed to end nicely with Dark Forest. Alas, with Death's End, we see that the "end" was not really an end. This book goes way beyond the worries of our mere instance on earth to explore questions of the universe over time periods of millions of years. 

The book primarily focuses on the experiences of a few key figures. They often enter hibernation only to awake in a time that is very different than what they recall. The shifting mores of society can make the heroes of one time period become the villains of another. The earth is in an uneasy truce with TriSolarans. There is a single person that has the ability to trigger the "message" that can lead to the destruction of the solar system if the "invaders" try too much. The two species have gradually become closer, adopting parts of each other's culture and technology. Meanwhile, humans have become effeminate and light on defense. They seek to bring back the few ships that are at the outer reaches of the galaxy to try them for crimes against humanity. There are also attempts to limit technology due to fears. Alas, it is only through some of these that "slip through the cracks" that humanity is able to continue to exist.

The earthlings finally try to swap out the "man on the button" with somebody new. Alas, she is not as callus as the man that had been their previously and the Trisolarans take the opportunity to wipe at the signal transmission technology. The Trisolarans then show their "compassion" by given humanity one year to transfer everybody to Australia. Seems an obvious parallel to the "reservations" that conquerors have consigned native populations to. These humans must live a  primitive life with no technology. Due to severe overcrowding, they are also expected to fight each other to the death in order to survive. A few select people are part of a military force that rounds up stragglers on the other parts of the earth. 

Things look bleak for humanity. Luckily one of the ships that was flying away happened to be outside the realm of the Trisolarans communication mechanisms. They see they are about to be overtaken and send out the message, telling the world about the TriSolaran home world (and identify earth.) The TriSolarans immediately give up their hopes of earth. Humanity is given a reprieve. The people that had been "lucky" enough to be on the police force are now tried for crimes against humanity. (This seems to be a recurring theme.)

Now humanity is in a race to build technology to survive after an impending attack. Luckily they get a communication from a human that is embedded with the Trisolarans. He tells a story with hints of requisite plans told a few levels deep in a story. They attempt to decipher it and use it to work on some technology development. However, concepts of slowing light speed or building light-speed travel are shunned in favor of bunkering people near Jupiter. Alas, the attack comes via a different means than expected and light speed travel is the only solution. Luckily, some technology was created (even after it was prohibited.) A few humans escape.

Things jump forward millions of years. We learn that some  people are hidden behind a "Slow light" world that makes them safe, but eliminates outside contact. Beings have been fighting using the laws of physics that ultimately will lead to the destruction of the universe. The dimension-shrinking weapons are used to eliminate threats. Alas, these will eventually shrink the entire universe to smaller dimensions, leading to the destruction of the entire universe. This end seems to be rushed, as it quickly changes the scale of problems.

The underlying assumption is that the universe is a cruel place. Species would rather inhiliate others than attempt to peacefully interact. Humans are also prone to focus on the moment. Long term planning is difficult and politics often force dumb decisions to be made. People are also very prone to judge people of the past, applying standards of today to very different situations in the past. Identity frequently shifts based on needs. When at peace, people splinter off to individual subgroups. When there is a big conflict, people unify. (Though for some reason, hibernating people are still supported through these great upheavals.) Human existence is ephemeral. It is hardly a blip on universal or geological time. Should we be concerned of out lasting legacy?

Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future

Shakespeare has stood the test of time. In early America, some religious traditions were against the Bard and performance of plays. However, by the 19th century, he was greatly admired. (This could have a religious as the language of Shakespeare was very similar to the language of the King James Bible.) Shakespeare in a Divided America explores some instances where Shakespeare has helped to bridge or exacerbate the political divide. 

Lincoln was well read and would often quote some of his favorite passages. However, he rarely included Shakespeare's quotes in his speeches. Lincoln was also an avid theater-goer. That was one of the common sources of entertainment in his day. (Alas, his assassin was also an actor.)

A few decades later, theater was one of the true egalitarian forms of entertainment. In New York City, the rich and poor would all attend a show together. The millionaire set was a little upset with this and tried to enforce standards to keep the riff-raff out of a new upper-crust theater. This did not go over very well and led to riots.

Recently, the staging of Julius Caesar in New York City created controversy. The production attempted to portray the moral conflicts on all sides. It was obvious that Caesar was a Trump figure. (He was even made to look similar.) When he was assassinated, many of the theater-goers saw it as the elimination of an impediment to democracy. However, some were also upset that the production appeared to encourage the assassination of the president. This created great controversy. Alas, lost in the commotion was the conflict that the production was attempting to portray. The death of Caesar did not produce the change that the conspirators hoped for. Instead, it ushered in the future empire and cemented the end of the Republic. Those hoping for the end of Trump would be caught with similar issues.

Many  Shakespeare movies have been made, yet have only had limited success. (Perhaps the most popular were those set in the modern day.) Yet in spite of this, the influence of Shakespeare remains strong.   

New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation

New York has experienced some significant changes in the past four decades. In the 1970s, it was a basket case. The famous headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead" says it all. I like to put a lot of the blame on the shenanigans of Robert Moses as he bulldozed the city to erect more freeways. However, that was just the beginning of the problems. New York had become a "workers paradise". Alas, this was created by dishing out abundant benefits and not expecting much work in return. (Hmmm... Does seem similar to what the US government is trying to do now.)

New York was a financial basket case. "Machine" mayors had doled out patronage and let infrastructure rot. This left the city in a bad condition. Crime was also escalating. Ed Koch ran to the right of the the establishment candidates and garnered great support, eventually getting Republican and Democratic endorsements. He tried to run a government that got things done without the heavy patronage system and wanted to restore some law and order. Alas, there were still crime issues. 

Koch was followed by David Dinkins, the first black mayor of New York. He was followed by tough-on-crime Republican Rudy Giuliani and then billionaire Republican Michael Bloomberg. Each of these mayors were "outside" the conventional establishment machine. During this time, city finances were brought back in order and crime was brought under control. The wealthy were tapped to helped out by funding things such as parks. Time Square was transformed into the tourist trap it is today and New York became a desirable place to live.

The book does not have much to say about Bill de Blasio. Though what is said is not all that positive. He seems to be a return to the old machine. New York had got itself out of the rut with nonconventional Mayors over the last four decades. Now the city has chosen to go back to the "machine".

Monday, April 12, 2021

Ball Lightning

Ball Lightning is a rarely seen, not very well understood form of lightning-look power. In the book, Cixin Liu creates his own explanation of it. The novel starts with the protagonist's parents getting vaporized before his eyes. This drives him to explore ball lightning. He meets up with others that have interest in the subject. One woman is keen an using in as a weapon. A scientist has an understanding of the phenomenon as in the quantum realm. Those incinerated by ball lightning live in a state of being neither dead nor alive. The whole concept is not understood with our current understanding of physics. The ball lightning effects can be used to wipe out electronics, vaporize specific things or control tornados. Various parts of the research are used as both offense and defense in a war that breaks out. In the end some research foreshadows "others" watching the earth (in the three body problem.) The author has a nice afterward where he explains how he was influenced by other science fiction writers to create this novel. The novel has a fairly "young" feel to it - at times it feels almost like a young adult sci-fi novel. Then it bounces to more detailed scientific explanation. There is warfare and destruction, but it feels like it is more at a distance. It is interesting that there is a progression from the child-focused Supernova Era to the young adult Ball Lightning and then the more dark adult Three Body Problem. 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age

Çatalhöyük,Pompeii,Angkor and Cahokia were both significant cities in their time. They all disappeared for various reasons. 

Pompeii (in modern Italy) was destroyed by volcano a couple millenia ago. The environs were uninhabitable and the area was abonded. This was in important part of the Roman empire at the time and we have contemporary historical records of the time.

Angkor, in modern Cambodia was the base of Khmer empire. It was a vast city with extensive infrastructure. After hundreds of years of strength, the city began to fade until it was sacked a half millennium ago. However, the central area remained a religious shrine. A number of reasons for the decline were speculated, included repeated climatic hits that wore on the region as well as changes in religious practices that changed the power structure. 

Çatalhöyükin modern Turkey flourished around 7000 BC. Much less is understood about this city than others. Most of the understanding is speculated based on the architectural discoveries. These discoveries tend to be heavily influenced by the opinions of the discoverers. It appears very egalitarian with little monumental architecture. However, there could be a hierarchy we just don't understand. 

Cahokia lies near modern St Louis and reached its apex around a millennium ago. It appeared to be a fairly large city at the time. Some people believe it was primarily a religious, rather than a commercial center. The weather conditions may have led to the eventual abandonment. 

The author ends by comparing these cities to the many cities that have changed in society. Cities are often not instantly abandoned, but gradually fade away. There may be many ebbs and flows in the process. After the Dot com bust in 2000, San Francisco looked to be dead. However, it recovered with a vengeance over the next two decades. Perhaps the midwestern cities like Detroit are gradually on their way to nothingness. People have been changing their living conditions for thousands of years and will continue to do so.

The Fascinating World of Graph Theory

The Fascinating World of Graph Theory is an introduction to graph theory that focuses on the interesting puzzles and participants in historical context. It introduces core concepts in graph theory as they are needed to tell the story. In doing so, it also provides the biographical history of the mathematicians that were involved in identifying and solving the problems. It is not quite an "introduction" to graph theory, though it does cover basic concepts. A deep math background is not required to start the book. However, the mathematical details and proof due appear. They can be understood in the context of the book (though I did have to occasionally go back to recall what a certain symbol meant.) I did enjoy reading the brief histories of the problems. These were interspersed with the math. There are plenty of problems that could help this be a "math textbook", while there is also historical information for a "general history of science". However, it doesn't quite fit into either category and instead rests somewhere in between.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art

Breath explores the limited modern science of modern breathing as well as the extensive cultural traditions and practices relating to breathing. There are tales of modern medical practices that have helped aid multiple ailments through breathing practices. The scientific explanations for some breathing practices can be quite interesting. 

Early in the book, the author recounts his experience in a Stanford study. At the start, he could only breathe through his mouth. Then he could breathe through his nose. Restricting to just mouth breathing caused all sorts of negative health outcomes (such as high blood pressure and snoring) Nsala breathing helped fix these problems. The author also describes some healthy native cultures that tried to encourage everyone to breathe through the nose.

There has been a distinctive change in skulls and mouths since the industrial revolution. This is said to be related to the processed food. We just don't need to exercise our mouths like we used to. The highly processed soft food does not require us to chew very much. This leads to a reshaping of our mouth and crooked teeth. This also can cause problems with breathing.

Many ancient religions and cultures have religious practices that encourage varied breathing regimes. 5.5 seconds in, 5.5 seconds out for 5.5 breaths per minute seems to be a good pattern. This slow breathing helps to improve health. There were also anecdotes given of athletes that helped improve performance by limiting breathing. (This was something similar to "high altitude" training performed at low altitudes.) Our lungs and diaphragm can be exercised. We also tend to have a surplus, with only a fraction of the air breathed in actually being used.  Carbon Dioxide is also posited to have a significant role in health. Some people have focussed on looking at CO2's role. Breathing in pure CO2 can also stimulate fear responses. 

The book has some simple breathing exercises that can be done (such as breathing through the nose as well as slow breathing.) It also discusses some of the more advanced breathing regimens that require professional assistance. Breathing has been anecdotally shown to improve outcomes for various conditions, however, it is not a cure-all for everything. 

Friday, April 09, 2021

To Hold Up the Sky

To Hold Up the Sky is a collection of short stories written between 1999 and 2017 and recently translated to English. The audiobook is narrated by various narrators and very well down. The stories include:
"Full Spectrum Barrage Jamming"
"The Village Teacher"
"Fire in the Earth"
"Time Migration"
"Ode to Joy"
"Sea of Dreams"
"Cloud of Poems"
"The Thinker"

The stories explore some interesting science fiction scenarios. In one story, the a village teacher hopes to impart some knowledge to students in a remote Chinese village. Right before he dies, he teaches them Newton's laws. A group of aliens grabs a sample of life forms from earth to determine if they are sentient. It just so happens that the students are chosen and some of the questions are on basic mechanics. Their correct answers save the earth.

Another story has the expansion of the universe turn to a contraction. This leads to time running backwards. (However, it just seems "normal" to people living there.)

There are plenty of interesting things to think about in the stories. In general, the stories are fairly "hard" science fiction, dealing with scientific concepts. The author clearly has experience with western science fiction. Sometimes it feels as if he is an American writer that has set his science fiction in China. However, he does delve just a little deeper into the Chinese culture than would a western writer.

Sporting Gender: The History, Science, and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes

The title pretty much tells it all. This book is an exploration of transgender and intersex athletics by a transgender author. She has a very intimate knowledge of the topic and fills the books with many details and personal experiences. Alas, it often gets bogged down with too much detail and lacks a strong narrative.

One of the key points boils down to the question of why we segregate sport by gender. The author has some strong views that make a lot of sense. At younger ages and lower levels, it makes sense to let athletes compete with whatever group they identify. Prepubescents are fairly similar in ability. Older athletes may have some masculine advantage, but it likely is not significant enough to impact women's participation. At higher levels, the concept of "athletic gender" comes in to place. Testosterone levels are often a good way to judge appropriate "athletic gender". Many intersex athletes identify as female, yet have male testosterone levels and competitive ability. Allowing them to compete as female limits the ability of other females to compete. For transgender females, hormone therapy that brings them in to the female range is often accompanied by female levels of competitiveness.

The author has spent some time studying running times of athletes that had transitioned. She found that trans females typically see their times drop after transition. This drop often leaves their times in the same female age-based percentile as their previous male age-based percentile. Other sports may have different impacts. Trans females retain height advantages they had. They do typically lose muscle mass, but still may maintain some small advantages in strength-based sports.

While people are primarily concerned with transgender females competing as women, there are also transgender males that compete in sports. They have greater challenges to overcome, but have competed at some levels. The high school level has had some interesting cases. In Texas, transgender athletes are required to complete as their birth gender. This resulted in the case of a transgender male dominating the girls in wrestling. Connecticut had controversy from the opposite side as transgender females competed without going through hormonal transition and won. 

It is among the intersex that greatest controversy arises at the elite levels. In many cases, intersex athletes are at an athletic disadvantage. However, in some cases, they have both male and female features. They may be identified as female since birth, yet produce male levels of testosterone. There have been many attempts to ensure that they don't have an advantage. Visual tests, chromosome tests, required surgery and analysis of testosterone levels have all been used. The current state admits that this does discriminate, but that this allows others to compete. Those that have elevated hormones may compete as men.  

We are probably have some time to go before we have a balanced field where everybody is happy. There is a balance needed on allowing everybody to fairly compete. Testosterone levels seem like a good indicator. But what about other biological advantages? And what will happen if a trans female does succeed at the highest levels of sport?

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Practicing the Power of Now: Essential Teachings, Meditations, and Exercises from the Power of Now

This is a short audiobook about ways to experience the "power of now". The theme is to focus on Now, not the past or the future. It includes a lot of imagery from religions such as Christianity. (There is talk of parallels to crucifixion and giving up things for the better.) His voice on the book sounds like a German New Age philosopher. It feels like a New Age adaptation of religious principals.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Supernova Era

A distant store has gone supernova. This has sent particles to earth that cause chromosome damage. All adults will die within a year. However, children are able to repair their chromosomes and will continue to live. The earth needs to plan for children quickly taking over.

The adults detonate all the nuclear warheads and plan for themselves to drive out to caves and remote areas to end their lives and launch the children-led era of utopia.

The utopia is short lived. Immediately after the adults leave, many of the little children start freaking out. The leadership command center is inundated with calls. They eventually get things under control. The climate also causes issues. Sea levels rise, flooding some land.

The US leadership decides the world needs to play a "real" wargame. The other countries think this is a bad idea, but they play along. The games will take place in Antarctica. This begins the "Lord of Flies" phase of the book. (It even acknowledges "Lord of the Flies".) Eventually, the USA keeps upping the ante, settling on nuclear warheads. They seem to have a small stash that were not destroyed. Nobody comes to China's aid. However, it turns out some special observers had codes for the Chinese nuclear missile. The games finally end as the missile is launched. A large number of children do still remain on Antarctica, however, they need to vacate once the earth rapidly cools back to a more "normal" temperature.

As a final action, the USA and China agree to switch land. The book then ends with an epilogue.

It is an interesting story, though it feels somewhat underdeveloped. It is an interesting concept of the children being fully in control that would have a lot of ways to explore. The implication is that they managed to continue a society, but we just see a few small glimpses of what happened. 

Saturday, April 03, 2021


William Stoner grows up on a farm in rural Missouri. He is expected to continue working there. However, his father things it will be valuable for him to study agriculture at the university. He goes off to school does acceptable in his classes, but then takes the required English class. He struggles in the class. However, he eventually comes to appreciate the liberal arts and begins his life in academia.

World War I leads many students to enlist in the military. Two of Stoner's best "friends" enlist. Stoner, does not feel the call and instead desires to stay teaching on campus. One of the friends dies in battle. The other is able to supercharge is career by taking classes at Columbia.

He lives a life as a rather unremarkable academic. He gets married, but his wife is fairly distant. They do have a brief spurt of intense intimacy to have a child. However, his wife is initially uninterested in raising her. Stoner's father dies, but his mother just wants to remain on the farm with the hired help. His wife changes after his father commits suicide. She tries to "claim" their daughter and seeks to express herself with artistic friends. This further distances Stoner from his family and leads him to dedicate more to his work. He engages in an affair with an instructor who had audited one of his classes. This actually improved the relationship with his wife. However, it created conflicts in the department, and they ended the relationship. She would move away and later dedicate her book to him.

Stoner gets involved with academic political conflict. He flunks a student who is a "pet" PhD candidate of another professor. He later denies passing this student in the PhD orals. The professor goes nuclear on him for this. This professor becomes department head, making life miserable for Stoner by giving him a spaced out schedule of Freshman classes. Stoner eventually started teaching his graduate class content to Freshman, helping him to "win" a good schedule.

His life ended in a mediocre fashion. His daughter got pregnant. She married the boy and moved off with his parents. He enlisted in the military and died shortly after. She became an alcoholic and did not spend much time with her parents. Shortly before he reached retirement age, he discovered he had cancer. He was able to retire and then died shortly thereafter. His personal and professional lives were both a sad case of might have beens. 

As he is approaching retirement age, Stoner discovers he has cancer. 

Friday, April 02, 2021

The Road Ahead

In the mid-90s, Bill Gates saw the dawning of the "internet age", and put forth his predictions on what would happen. He also drew on his experience with the start of the microcomputer age and how some big companies failed, while small companies like Microsoft were able to succeed.

Some predictions seem to be spot on. He predicted that people would watch a lot of video once bandwidth increased. The success of Youtube, Netflix and countless other streaming services attest to that point. Others are not so accurate. He envisioned a scheme where people would be totally anonymous, but have ads tailored to them based on filling out surveys. Instead, companies have collected a lot of information about users without the need for surveys. This has led to privacy concerns, but may just be thought of as "automating" the surveys.

He was quite optimistic about education. We do have teachers grabbing clip art for power point presentations. However, education is still largely stuck in the past. Even in the time of covid-required remote learning, teachers largely taught like they did in decades past, just using a screen instead of a chalkboard. There are remote classes and sites like Kahn Academy. However, education has largely failed to reach its potential. Though desires for more information can be fulfilled by searching Wikipedia rather than a CD Rom.

He talked about how Lakeside school gave students emails and they use it to communicate. Free webmail services took over from that. Now kids hardly email because there are so many other services available. The "closed garden" of services rather than the open internet has an aspect that he did not foresee.

This book was written before Google, Facebook or Netflix were founded. OSX, iOS and Android did not yet exist. Some of the big early internet companies are just a shell of themselves (Yahoo, AOL). Others, such as Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are behemoths. IBM has largely left the PC business. Compaq is pretty much gone. Even Intel is struggling today. Big companies that were not able to pivot largely failed.

Gates did come close to predicting the rise of mobile devices. He thought of them as pocket PCs. He even envisioned a mobile boarding pass. Mobile phones were still largely a niche item. It was hard to envision them pivoting to becoming the primary computing device for people. However, many of the uses were similar. 

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas

Alexi Pappas lost her mom to suicide at a young age. She was raised with her brother by her father and a succession of Au Pairs. She sought out other for "help", desiring independent "mothering", but being upset when moms would "force" mothering upon her. She was always a fast runner. However, in high school, her coach wanted her to focus exclusively on running. She didn't want to. This may have helped her to go through puberty more "normally". (She believes that a lot of the training regimes are focussed on men and not so useful for female athletes.) 

She attended Dartmouth, distance running for the school. She acknowledged that there was always some pain when running hard. (However, running while hungover made things much worse.) She also had dreams of writing and filmmaking. However, she decided to go to Oregon instead and run. Eventually, she ran in the olympics (for Greece) and had show sponsorship. However, she hit a low after the olympics and lost most everything before bouncing back with the help of friends and professionals. The rebirth of her running career was coming back and running the Chicago marathon. However, her body was not fully recovered. Rather than drop out, she decided to keep going at a slow pace and finish.

Her focus (with her husband) has now been on filmmaking. She had some bad first reviews, but decided to stick with it. The book ends with a focus on general life experiences. She believes people can achieve big goals with hard work. However, most people have trouble keeping the motivation. (She gives examples of athletes who go for help with injuries, yet don't do all the rehab needed and end up returning again for the same injury.) She also has great respect for the work of single parents and for quality mental health professionals that help treat "illness".  (Her mother has a high achieving computer professional in days when women didn't do that. Alas, friends of her mother also committed suicide.) The book ends with typical advice.

The Dark Forest

The population of earth now knows that the Tri-Solarans are approaching and will arrive within a few centuries. Some people initially plan on fleeing. However, that plan is quashed. The earth instead is focussing on plans to battle the invaders. Many of these plans rely on the people of earth taking advantage of not-yet-invented technology. The Tri-Solarans have sophons on earth that allow instant access to all human communications. However, their society doesn't have a difference between "thinking" and "saying". Can this help the humans?

Part of the plan is to have "wallfacers" who are given the power to do whatever they want. The hope is that they can create some plans to defeat the aliens without communicating it out loud. The Tri-solaran allies have "wall-breakers" that attempt to find the wallfacer plan. The wallfacers come up with some interesting plans - sometimes based on their particular interests.

The novel focusses primarily on a few periods of time. One is shortly after the earth knew about the impending invasion. Many of the main characters then enter hibernation and come back over a hundred years later. The earth has gone through a great catastrophe. However, now everyone is much more optimistic about the prospects of humankind. There is a large space fleet that humanity thinks will easily dispose of the invading force. Alas, things do not go according to plan and humanity becomes pessimistic. (We also wonder the role of a wallfacer innovation that can "imprint" beliefs on people - even something like "water is bad" can become a deeply held belief.)

In the end, it is social science that becomes the deciding factor. One planet is "cursed" and then later found to be destroyed. While this appeared to be magical, it just took advantage of interplanetary sociology. Social relationships also contribute to the fall of the Earth space fleet and the eventual fate of the earth. The vast amount of technology have their role, but without the understanding of how beings work together, they are of minimal use.