Friday, July 30, 2021


Piranesi is a weird book. It centers around a character that is living in a labyrinth. He has very little understanding of the world around, but a great deal of empathy for people. There are numerous "current events" that happen in our recent past as well as books and bits of history. At one point, I had thought I slipped into a historical "how this book came about" section. (Nope - it was just part of the book.) Characters are often given a numerical label or called something like "old one". It is an interesting story of a different mind. 

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It

The voice in our had is regularly chattering with us. Sometimes it is telling us how good we are. Other times it is making us worry. It may rehash past events or do many things. Often this chatter can negatively impact us. An example is given of a promising baseball pitcher who mentally fell apart and could not pitch on target any more. The mental "chatter" did him in. Being able to harness the inner voice can help us to better control our experiences.

Interestingly, the ability to rapidly make public that inner voice through digital technologies tends to make matters worse. Social media can be an especially bad trap for wellbeing. Scrolling through it, we get highlights of the "good parts" of other's lives. Posting our struggles can also cause them to remain longer and be rehashed in our mind longer. Even sharing traumatic situations with others can lengthen the time it takes to heal.

The brain is very complex. It can act in ways that we are only beginning to understand. The placebo effect can be very real. In on study, the researchers explained to patients that they were getting a placebo. Even with that knowledge, those in the placebo group still had improved outcomes. 

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

Habits are what create us. Good and bad habits are relative to what we would like to accomplish. We often do things in response to the reward we receive. If we make it easy to do the "good habits", we are more likely to follow through. We can associate them with other things we already do or find ways to make them useful. Doing a small thing repeatedly can produce results over the long run. If we are trying to improve a skill, we must also work on making the habit more challenging over time. For "bad" habits, it helps to create ways to avoid it. This may be via negative association or the help of others.

The author was "forced" into the habits after a severe baseball injury. He set goals and made small steps to improve and eventually play again. The book is a suscient encapsulation of much of many common aspects of habit formation. It doesn't present new research or magic, but instead focuses on ways to get the job done.

The Big Sleep: Philip Marlowe, Book 1

The Big Sleep is a "mystery" book that is more concerned with the process than the conclusion. The detective is brought in to do some work for the "General".  In the process of investigating some blackmail, he uncovers multiple murders and many other crime operations. He is the principled, loyal detective who is going to get the job done for his small fee. He has little faith in the police solving crimes. He also freely navigates the underbelly of society without actively being part of it. While he does uncover various crimes, those were not the subject of his investigation, so he feels he has not earned his commission. It is a true "smarter than life detective" and an interesting portrayal of old Los Angeles.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race


The Code Breaker explores the developments in gene editing technology through the life of Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna. She helped develop CRISPR to edit genes. Others helped apply this to various life-forms including humans. There is plenty of infighting and maneuvering in the process. Science is about collaboration and the pursuit of knowledge. However, there is also the goal to be "first" and take the credit. Some behind the scenes manipulation is often done to make sure certain papers and patents take priority. Patents and commercialization also lead to other shenanigans that interfere with the pure pursuit of knowledge. The Covid-19 epidemic helped science move back to a more collaborative approach. Research was shared in real-time and people were able to quickly work on new tools. The new vaccines are enabled through past research that allows more direct manipulation of genetic sequences.

The story of Watson, the godfather of the double-helix also comes into play. He was shunned because he has seen a genetic relationship for many things. He "crossed the line" when he advocated a genetic relationship between race and intelligence. This seems very offensive to our culture. The two concepts that lack concrete definitions and genetic identity.  Perhaps there are genes associated with certain appearances that are also correlated with certain cognitive abilities. If we call it race and intelligence, it is taboo. But could research be done to investigate genes related to  mental capability and appearance?

The taboos and ethics could get very interesting as the gene editing technology becomes more available. The initial "customized" baby in China was shunned. However, we already do genetic testing and often abort fetuses with "less desirable" traits, like Down's syndrome. Gene editing could result in greater customization. But will we know enough about these customizations to make good decisions? Might we accidentally wipe out a mutation that is necessary for later survival? Could a rogue entity produce a "gene bomb" that wipes out humanity through a custom mutation.

The book also profiles other people involved. Some of the most interesting are the "DIY" gene manipulators. These are "makers" that use gene editing technology on their own, often on themselves. Will biology replace computation of the new area of innovation?

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know

Think Again is another good book on debunking psychological "junk". People tend to adopt beliefs and hold tight to them. Contrary information often does little to change these entrenched beliefs. Opposing arguments may even help them build up the beliefs.

How do we get people to adopt new beliefs?

Often listening can be a powerful option. Asking somebody how something will be implemented can lead to a rethinking. It is easier to advocate for a change than actual implement a change. The author gives an example of a "vaccine whisperer" doctor that has had success in getting anti-vaxers to vaccinate. Instead of trying to preach or cajole the person into vaccination, the doctor listened to the patient's reasons for not vaccinating and respected their decision, regardless of what it was. The doctor helped the patient to understand the situation and make decisions of their own.

Polarized views often make it difficult to change thoughts. Hearing the view from "the other side" often serves to strengthen the original views. People are more likely to "convert" when exposed to the "shades of grade" in the nuances of each view. Fewer arguments will often work better than more.

Being open to change is an important thing for us to adapt in our lives. It is useful to spend time revisiting some of our views and goals. Do we really want to be working in our current career? Do we know why we hold certain beliefs that we do? Children can be helped by having discussions of changes in belief from the past and the present. Taking time to revise a drawing or other work can help us be exposed to different views of how to do it. Change is power, but challenging.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert, Revised and Updated

This book is part narrative and part laundry list of actions based on Gottman's relationship research. Successful marriages don't avoid conflict. However, they know how to deal with it. Couples need to identify areas that are negotiable and those that are not. Spend time on the areas where benefit can be achieved. There are also key areas in which men and women often differ. These seem to be present throughout different cultures. Males tend to take a stronger role of authority. Women tend to value cleaning more and are more concerned about feelings. There are many other things that tend to be over-represented in one gender (though that they are applicable to all couples or individuals.)

The seven principles include:

1. Share Love Maps

2. Nurture Your Fondness & Admiration

3. Turn Towards Each Other Instead of Away

4. Let Your Partner Influence You

5. Solve Your Solvable Problems

6. Overcome Gridlock

7. Create Shared Meaning

The book does not advocate a one size fits all "quick fix" to marital problems. The preferred approach may differ from couple to couple. However, using the principles as a guide for building the relationship is highly correlated with a lasting marriage.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island

Iceland is an interesting place. It is located "in the middle of nowhere", part way between Europe and America. It is really far north and has extreme differences in winter and summer light. It has only been inhabited for a millenia. The descendents of the original inhabitants still remain there. While there has always been interaction with other people, it has not been frequent or deep, thus leading to a fairly homogeneous population. The weather is generally cool. It does not get as cold as inland arctic locations, and rarely gets hot. 

With this situation, Iceland has had an interesting history. The Icelandic sagas are an important source of historical information. (Though there is plenty of "story" in them.) Iceland has been "ruled" by various Scandinavian entities, but always remained somewhat independent. Iceland was the launching point for voyages to Greenland and North America. In more modern times, the location has made it a key point in global wars. It has managed to befriend both Germans and Americans in world wars. The population remains small and can be easily overwhelmed by large external populations. The small economy often requires many imports. Fishing is one of the main exportable natural resources. However, there are talks of exporting electricity. (Iceland has great untapped capacity of geothermal and hydro power.)

This book is a rather tongue-in-cheek look at all the important ways in which Iceland has been an influence in world affairs. Iceland served as a training ground for the moon landing due to its "moon-like" landscape. It was the first country to directly elect a female president. The volcanoes in the country have had significant weather impacts and altered the course of history. This little island has had an outsized role in history. 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal

With the title and subtitle, I was expecting something fairly inflammatory. What I was not expecting was for such an emphasis on racial inequality. This book continues the popular scheme of using the tools of western civilization to say that everything that western civilization has brought us is bad. The old "we are so awesome because we can say that we are evil" argument.

Animal, Vegetable, Junk traces the evolution of eating habits. The modern industrialized diet is heavily criticized for the negative impact it has on us. The USDA has primarily been focusing on the needs of food producers. Yet, it is also tasked with providing nutrition information. This goal itself is also confused, alternating between a desire to ensure adequate consumption while controlling for overconsumption. Farmers have been able to produce huge amounts of crops, but have needed help finding markets. Thus, we get things like ethanol and high fructose corn syrup.

There are plenty of diet fads out there. Food producers are more than happy to provide us with products to fulfil these. However, we would be better off focusing on plants and more basic foods.

The book focusses on various "exploitations" that have occurred through time. Famine is usually caused by government policies. (For example, the British helped contribute to famines in India and Ireland through their policies.) Food producers are often exploited in different ways. The Atlantic slave trade was launched to help raise sugar. Midwestern farmers are at the mercer of the large seed sellers and grain buyers. Modern agriculture is dominated by monocultures and migrant workers.

The solutions advocated are a mixed big. A return to small-scale organic polyculture is desired. However, unionization and high wages for farm workers is also advocated. Healthier, local food does sound nice. But would we be willing to sacrifice the convenience? Would this lead to even more of a separation between the rich and the poor? History is wrought with examples of society moving forward to a "worse" situation that we can't move back from. Industrialized agriculture may be the same. Cheapness is important to people. Attempts to improve food production that result in huge increases in price will not be met kindly. Society is more likely to support huge interventions to fight a monoculture blight than a more expensive polyculture. The best solution may be a gradual move to better soil-maintaining practices. Maybe GMOs will help us there? (The book is strongly on the anti-GMO route.) Many of the other arguments in this book are more coherently advocated for in other books.

The Art of War

The Art of War is one of the oldest works that is still read today. Sun Tzu provides a number of warfare principles that are at times very specific to the day, but also very general. Different terrains (such as salt marshes) have different considerations. Sometimes the best way to defeat an enemy is by encouraging their overconfidence. Your army may fight better when they are far from home, and thus find it more difficult to desert. Spies are very important, yet they must be well vetted. It is also important to show everyone that the leaders follow rules also. (There is even an example of a leader that nearly beheaded himself.) While we don't engage in siege warfare today, most of the general principles are still applicable. 

Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America

Amazon has been closely tied to many of the changes in society today. The big coastal cities have boomed. Meanwhile, small town America is in bad shape. Most well-paying industrial jobs have long since left. The new economy jobs tend to focus on the already well-endowed big cities. (Tech workers prefer to go to cities that already have a large number of tech jobs.) Local retail has also been moving away from small towns.

With little job opportunities available, small towns are eager to have an Amazon fulfillment center located nearby. Alas, Amazon plays off the desire for jobs by extracting significant subsidies. Thus, the city typically gets very limited tax revenue from the Amazon location, yet still need to provide the appropriate services. Amazon engages in great secrecy in the process.

Data centers are also sprouting up in multiple locations. These typically consume huge amounts of electricity, but do not generate many jobs. In some cases, the other ratepayers are forced to pay for the extension of the high voltage lines to the location.

Amazon has also made extensive use of "third parties". Many workers start out as contractors. Amazon delivery drivers are almost all independent contractors. The Amazon website also includes many third party sellers. When Amazon pushed into business procurement, they included the talking point that they could still buy from their local provider on Amazon's site. However, the provider would now be required to pay a commission to Amazon. (And Amazon now has information about the provider and the ability to undercut them.)

The book includes many anecdotes about people that have negative changes in their life connected to Amazon. Bethlehem Steel had well paying union jobs. However, they got very fat and content, with both executive and union payed extremely well. International trade and technological advances led to the fall. There are many other jobs that fell similarly, leaving limited opportunity for those without college educations. The fall of family structure and drug addiction makes life even more miserable.

Amazon is a huge company with a number of small organizations. Each group tries its best to maximize individual profitability. They are like small companies trying to get the best deal, while having a giant company behind them. This can lead to large negative impacts without even trying. Is it time to split it up?

Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions

Food can be truly addicting. However, the nature of addiction has many different facets. Our food preferences also start when we are young. For many people in the US, the "native food" is the junk fast food that we have grown up with. He have had this food marketed to us from our infancy and continue to prefer it. Some people are much more susceptible to it than others. To some people, a simple ad for McDonalds can trigger the craving. Similar to many other addictions, it is the longing for food that drives it - a longing which can sometimes not be fully satisfied by consuming the food.

The science of how we crave food is interesting. In a study with chocolate lovers, they kept eating the chocolate, even though it stopped bringing pleasure. In other studies with reduced calorie drinks, it was found that a "midpoint" seemed to provide the best experience. Even with things that tasted the same, the body could sense the one that had fewer calories. However, people ended up preferring the one that did not have the most calories. While this could be interesting, there could also be a number of confounding factors. The multiplicity of factors is a regular problem with eating studies. Food is such an integral part of our lives that it is difficult to fully test it out.

This book is well written, but seems to continue on the same themes of the author's previous book (Sugar, Salt, Fat). Food producers love to chase whatever is the "fad" of the day to make what the public "desires". There is a science of producing the ideal taste to maximize revenue. Will junk food end up suffering the same ignominy of big tobacco?

Friday, July 16, 2021

Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old

People get old. As they get older, they are susceptible to many ailments and eventually die. The science of aging explores ways to counteract those actions. The book explores the research into aging. It doesn't spend much time exploring the ethical impacts of aging. (What does happen if we have a lot more people living a lot longer?) However, it does note that the "unhealthy" typically consume a lot more medical resources for limited longevity.

The science of aging explores a number of corollaries in other lifeforms. Some beings live much longer than humans. Others live much shorter. We can look at the aspects of the long-lived organisms for insight. We can study short-lived organisms over multiple generations to quickly get feedback.

Many aspects of aging are the resultant of accumulative defects. Cells divide. DNA gets repaired. Various ailments are fought. Eventually, systems are overwhelmed. There is a reason why many ailments primarily impact the elderly. Their bodies are no longer able to "fight back" as well as when they were younger. Research has explored different therapies and approaches to help preserve the ability to maintain the body, even in old age. There are challenges. Cancer is a disease in which cell growth goes amuck. We need to be able to still have the "good" going, while prevent the bad. We want to be able to continue to have an active life, rather than merely just extend years.

There is both a genetic and an individual component to aging. Certain genes can help in different aspects of aging. Different conditions can also help. For instance, castrated eunuchs have had longer lifespans than non-sterilized individuals

While there are possibilities of great treatments for aging, for now it is mostly the simple things that can help reduce the impacts of aging. A nutritious diet helps. (Though supplements don't.) Exercise helps. Keeping a healthy weight helps. Caloric restriction is also beneficial. However, the appropriate balance must be found. (People typically eat too much. However, too little can be harmful. )

Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Wandering Earth: Classic Science Fiction Collection

The Wandering Earth movie was based on the open short story of this collection. However, the two are quite different. Both deal with the challenge of moving the earth to a new location to escape the exploding sun. There are also cataclysms and problems with the earth thrusters. There are also a space station overseeing the work. However, the short story paints a much broader picture, while the movie goes into small details of certain events. The short story also extends further into the future, with the earth doing serious wandering, while the movie ends earlier. 

The people in the story story have Chinese sentiments. When encountering a major problem, the hierarchy helps create a unified solution. People drop religion in favor of the science of moving the earth.

However, after the earth starts to move, there are doubters. They see that the sun is still there. A rebel group appears to complain that the sun is not going to die. There was no need to move the earth. They capture those in charge of moving the earth and sentence them to death. However, they then see the helium flash of the sun dying. Oops! We see people move from heroes to villains to heroes again. Now the earth can be on its way. The book has a strong message against mob descent that is totally absent from the movie.

The Mountain begins with the tale of a scientist who never leaves the ship. It turns out he loved climbing mountains. However, on an attempt to scale Everest he sacrificed everyone else so that he could live. Not going on land again is his penance. As they are sailing near the equator, a giant alien ship appears. People are concerned that it will destroy the world. However, in the process, it creates a giant "water mountain". He feels inclined to climb it (as everyone else goes away fearing the end of the earth.) Once there, he talks with the aliens. This begins the main part of the book. The aliens are electro-mechanical lifeforms that came from a hollow world. They had no concept of anything other than vacuum and rock. They struggled through millennia of exploration and politics before finally tunneling through to the surface, where they were killed by water. Eventually they managed to survive it and finally got to the surface. In the process, their theories of the extent of the universe were constantly evolving and changing, often moving backwards before going forwards. They consider the earth "lucky" to have a head start and already be living on the surface. It is a good example of the power of framing the situation. (It is also a case of more challenges encouraging more innovation.)

Of Ants and Dinosaurs is an alternative history of the fall of dinosaurs. They had created a great civilization. However, they had split into two groups. They took mutually assured destruction to the extreme and eventually blew up the world with anti-matter. These seem to be the US and Soviet Union in the cold war. The ants play the role of China. They help to manufacture most of the high technology that the ants invent. They are not nearly as creative, but they are more industrious and creative. The dinos become very dependent on the ants. The two groups work symbiotically to create an advanced civilization. However, the ants tire of the dinosaur fighting and go on strike, and later decide to take down the dinosaurs. Alas, this also stop the "deadman" switch. The contained antimatter obliterates the world and the ants come to the "dark age" of ants. This seems to be a very political message addressed at the Chinese. "You know those other countries are brutes. However, they do have some redeeming qualities. We will be much better keeping together than trying to eliminate them."

The Sun of China is an interesting story of the Chinese villager venturing out - way out. A barely literate peasant goes to the city and gets a job as a window washer. At the same time, China has launched a "reflective sun" to help control the weather. It gets dirty and they need people to clean it. They were going to get astronauts with PHds. However, they were convinced that the window washers had the needed expertise. Eventually, Stephen Hawking goes up there. This country boy brefriends him and learns about space. When it comes time to decommission the "sun station" this former peasant advocates manning it to sail off into the unknown. I wonder if this is how sailors going to the new world would fail. After all, many of those crews never did return. 

The Wages of Humanity centers on a hitman for hire. He is hired by some rich people to gun down some poor people because they refuse to accept money. He is later highered by one of his victims to gun down the rich people. He truly is for hire. The science fiction aspect revolves around aliens that have come to colonize earth. They plan on creating a reservation on Australia (an idea he will use in another book.) The standard of living there will be based on the minimal standard needed by earthlings. Thus, there is a desire to have a high level of equality. It turns out that the invading force comes from a planet where one man had managed to accumulate all resources (even air), and thus all of their residents had sought a new abode.

Curse 5.0. is about 5 iterations of the Curse virus. The author himself makes an appearance and starts the 4th version in a drunken stuper. (This one destroys Taiyuan, China) The 5th version is set to destroy the world. The virus uses AI to manipulate people. And first it was just to hurt Si Ba, but the "handcuffs" were gradually removed.

Micro-Age is a civilization of mini-humans that were created to survive after the sun flared. A big human that came in a ship came back and realized they were better, so he killed off the few remaining embryos. The "small" humans can fly like dust.

The Devourer is a giant space ship that is set to gobble up earth. Humans try an attempt to block it by setting nuclear blasts on the moon. The ship manages to avoid it by accelerating, but is damaged. The devourers want to use humans as food. Those "food" humans are happy, and then they are slaughtered for meat. It turns out that the devourers are dinosaurs that set on a long voyage many years ago.

Take Care of Gods is an allegory of taking care of our seniors. The gods are the original creators of humanity. They have come back and live among the humans, who take car of them. They tried to impart of their great knowledge. However, humanity doesn't have the capacity to understand. Eventually humans tire of taking care of their gods. However, the gods are ready to leave, and impart wisdom that people have "brothers" that have turned out much worse.

In With Her Eyes a technology allows space travelers to experience the sensory stimuli of somebody wearing special glasses. We learn that the person that experienced them was not in space, but in a vehicle tunnelled deep within the earth. The vehicle accidentally hit the earth's core and lost the engine. The occupant is now stuck there for the rest of her life. The experience with the "eyes" was the last she had before she lost the bandwidth to communicate.

The Longest Fall centers around the experience of a man who wakes up from a quarter-century of sleep to discover the world had changed. The atmosphere is polluted and his recently deceased son is considered a scourge of society. He spent countless sums of money to create a tube through the earth from China to Antarctica. The people throw him in the tube. On the other end, people are alerted to him coming and he is able to exit. He goes to sleep again for another half century. When awakes the the world is in even worse condition and the tube has now been modified to launch people into space. The man's granddaughter is he girl from the previous story.

The book could use a little editing help. There are some obvious typos. However, it is still understandable. The stories have an "East meets west" feeling, with themes borrowed from both China and the west. The stories do explore some of the same ideas from each other (and from his novels.) He does have a tendency to stretch things to universal proportions, with the destruction of the earth happening frequently. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can't Cure Our Social Ills

There are plenty of pop culture self-help books out there purporting to have the new great thing from psychological research. Often a counterintuitive small change can have great impacts. Why weren't we doing this before? The usual answer is that it doesn't work for everyone. Often these "quick fixes" come from some small study that showed the positive result. In the worst cases these were just statistical flukes. The researcher may have been p-hacking and just cherry picking their best results. Or they may have picked a hypothesis to explain the data. In other cases, the results were legitimate. However, the research did not support the applications that have been advocated. Other times it is fairly legitimate work under a new name.

Quick fix explores some popular psychological fads. Most of them have some legitimacy, but not nearly as much as their supporters advocate. "Grit" is for the most part just conscientiousness reinvented. Racial bias studies often tell us that people are racially biased in racial bias studies. A lot of the anti-racism work out there basically supports an anti-racism industry. It does more to help make people feel good than to help with race relations. Self esteem coaching helps psychologists feel good about their pocketbooks. It may help people a little bit, but not as much as we would expect. Some work to counteract PTSD in the military is based on research done on children. Social priming is also overrated.

The message here is not that fad psychology is useless. There is generally small value. We must pay attention to the details and not spend too much effort on the "new big thing".

Saturday, July 10, 2021

A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age

This title has gone through a few title changes in the last five years. From A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age to Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-truth Era, before settling on A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking With Statistics and the Scientific Method. The core is similar to other books that explain in detail how statistics, charts and numbers are used to manipulate. Sometimes the manipulation is done to knowingly mislead. Many times, both the reader and writer are complicit in the poor understanding of what they are presenting. Covid-19 and politics have brought even more statistical lying out in the world.

The first part of the book focuses on how statistics and graphs can be used to mislead us. Then it goes on to cover other ways that we can be misled in a narrative fashion. Understanding bayesian probability can be extremely helpful in making sense of things. Slight differences in expressing inclusion and exclusion can trigger vastly different responses in our perception. News coverage tends to focus on the more rare, colorful events. This leads people to become more worried about the least probably things they hear more about. Science news coverage can be even worse. A new exciting research study makes the news. However, this could just as easily have been random noise. Once it is repeated multiple times and analyzed over different populations can we start to draw accurate conclusions. Alas, these meta-analysis do not get the great coverage. 

In analyzing media coverage, Bayes theorem can help us. We can use the 4-way table to analyze the difference from the current understanding. It is often more likely that extreme results are just flukes. The conventional analysis is more likely to be true. However, with more evidence, we have a greater likelihood of the "new" solution supplanting the current.

This book is loaded with examples of many ways that people "lie" (either intentional or accidentally) with the data they are presenting. There are plenty of tools to help us overcome these lies. Information is readily available today. It is now up to us to do the analysis.

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged is a really long book. Over 60 hours of audiobook. Luckily, you can listen at 3 times speed. Still, it is long.

The book takes place primarily in an industrialized, fictionalized version of the United States. There are a large number of companies competing against each other in various industries. Some companies have faltered, while others have grown. The "losers" have worked with the government to help protect their interests. Regulations and cartels are meant to prevent some companies from getting too big and ensuring that everyone has equal opportunity. There are even some individual factories that attempt pure "communism", with everyone getting paid what they need. Alas, this regulation just makes things worse. Companies find it is easier to get cozy with regulators than to provide viable goods and services. Colorado proves to be the exception, with businesses flocking there. However, the regulators put an end to that with taxes and regulation. Eventually, regulation gets out of hand, with companies "frozen" at their current levels and guaranteeing everyone jobs. There is little incentive to work. The only real responsibility people have is ensuring that they can't be blamed if something bad happens. The country is falling apart.

The heroes of the book are industrial magnates. Dagny Taggart knows how to run a railroad. Henry Reardon has created stronger, lighter steel alloy. Neither try to curry favor with politicians and are greatly persecuted. There are many others. Through the first two "books" of this book, characters often ask "Who is John Galt?" In the third book, we finally meet him.

The first two books present an indictment of the lazy "rent seekers" People that innovate and work hard help to improve the world. There are many lower-level employees that do the best they can at their jobs. There are also many others that are just collecting a paycheck. At the top, there are plenty of company leaders that do all they can to avoid blame rather than make difficult decisions. Communism in deed (if not name) is condemned due to the corruption it engenders. Sure, there are parts that sound good. However, in practice, it is a system that is easily manipulated by corrupt rulers. Corruption brings down almost all of society.  A leftist reading of the book could easily read this as an example of a failed implementation of a system. (You could even argue it is a failure of fascism, as the "oligarchs" of industry are in cahoots with the government.) The "corrupt" bureaucrats are very similar to what we often see in society today. Seattle Public Schools seems to be the perfect epitome of the corruption in the book. The leadership does a great job of "saying nothing". There never seems to be somebody that takes responsibility for anything challenging. If things do get difficult, they just through out the word "equity" to try to bring down any opposing argument.

In the third book, we are introduced to John Galt's mountain utopia. Here all of the most creative leaders are living in peace and harmony. They can be greedy, yet still willing to do menial jobs to build up their local community. The titans of industry decamp to the wilderness to become hippies. 

The book then proceeds to really go off the deep end. Everything is falling apart in society. However, the government does manage to build a highly destructive "Sound bomb." (This will eventually destroy the one railway bridge across the Mississippi.) The South American governments attempt to nationalize a copper mining multinational. However, right before the takeover is announced, all the mines and equipment are destroyed and all money is gone from all accounts. (But not until after all workers have been paid.) Things are looking really bad. To reassure the population a big speech is announced. However, right before the speech is to take place, John Galt takes over the airwaves and gives a three hour speech on the Ayn Rand's objectivism philosophy and the "leader strike". (This actually lasts three hours in the regular speed audiobook!) The speech blathers on and on and on. After the speech, the nation further falls apart. The government tries to track down Galt and get him to "fix" the economy. His suggestion is to back off. They won't do that. The nation further disintegrates. Galt's friends stage a commando raid to rescue him and go off to their Utopia.

Atlas Shrugged has some good ideas. It also has a lot of long-winded nonsense. Rand's philosophy seems to be taken up by libertarian leaders of industry. Yet John Galt spends most of his time as a regular laborer. He works hard at what he does, and doesn't aspire for more. Like in the Fountainhead, Rand shows respect for people that are willing to put their entire mind and effort into manual labor. The industry leaders that focus on providing a valuable service for people and the economy are also respected. The "greedy" bureaucrats that merely want to maximize profitability are pilorried.

 The philosophy from the characters can be summed up as: "Work hard. Be true to yourself. Do what you feel is best. Don't try to dictate what other people should do." As part of this, you should seek out more knowledge to better understand what is best and be willing to change. Just because everyone else thinks it is right does not mean it is so. The book is very critical of both big companies and big government. Both are a drain on the economy when they focus on bureaucracy and status quo rather than societal improvements. Rand also has an interesting take on morality and religion. Characters engage in multiple marriages and affairs. Many will retain a marriage while knowing an affair is happening. Others use it as a means to stop. Religion seems to be a non-entity in her works. Both morality and religion are 'non-entities' in a world where people are focussing on their own personal gain. 

Take out the third book and the philosophy that is indirectly expressed is fairly convincing. There is a strong condemnations of those that "mooch" on others. People can fall into systems because they expect to receive excess benefit. However, they don't realize that they could also be the one sacrificing their excess. The third book tries to drill home this and many other points. It reaches too far and adds too much to be believable. The in your face philosophising brings it down even further. The novel that starts out with a bunch of autistic industrial leaders ends with unbelievable superheroes living happily ever after. 

Friday, July 09, 2021

The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future

Today, we rely on an electric grid to get energy. However, we rarely think about it. The United States has 3 primary grids: East, West and Texas. The first time most people heard about this was when Texas lost power this winter. Losing power is a challenge. However, the grid also manages that challenge of generating just enough power. Electricity generated must be "used" when it is generated. There is not a giant battery that can store it all. (The biggest battery can store less than an hour of usage for Fairbanks, Alaska) Pumped hydro power can store more electricity by using excess electricity to pump water uphill, then generating electricity as it comes down. Unfortunately, this requires lots of spare land, which tends not to be in great supply.

Luckily for electricity generators, patterns of electricity usage tend to be fairly consistent. Offices turn on during the workday. Houses start using more in the evening. During warm summer days, there will be increased demand from air conditioning. Alas, sometimes things don't go as planned. Some power production may be off. Other events may increase demand.

Fitting renewable energy into the grid can be challenging. Wind comes when it does. A windstorm will bring huge amounts of wind-power online whether or not it is needed. The best location for wind energy tend to be far away from population centers. Extensive high voltage carrying capacity needs to be built out to these locations to transfer the electricity to people. Solar can also be erratic. It does generate a lot during peak daytime heat. However, it turns off in the evening during the peak "home from work" time. It also turns off when clouds come by. 

Wiring solar to the grid also poses challenges. Because of laws, power companies must buy excess electricity from those with home solar panels. The users then buy electricity from the grid when they are not producing. This allows them to have a continuous power supply for almost nothing. Alas, this results in "pure grid" users subsidizing the solar users for their use of the grid. This can result in the "poor" paying higher rates and leads to a utility company "death spiral". Some states (such as Hawaii and Vermont) have restricted new grid tie-ins to help maintain the infrastructure. (Hawaii is an interesting case - electricity is expensive because it is made from shipped in oil. Many people have added solar to save money.)

The grid happened somewhat by accident. At one time, there were many small power producers. The country could have easily evolved to have thousand of micro-grids. Instead, we ended up with an interconnected grid with a power companies of different sizes all with monopoly service areas. They became staid utilities with guaranteed profits. Then the government rewrote the rules. There were a number of unintended outcomes (Enron), but evolution has kicked into gear with a greater preponderance of renewable energy.

What will the future hold? More and more people are producing their own electricity. However, they are almost all connected to the grid. Will we be able to keep it reliably running?

Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind

What makes creative people creative? It seems creative people have a disproportionate amount of trauma in their lives. This helps with creativity, but people are creative without trauma. Mental illness and creativity also seem to go together. Again, mental illness is more common, but only a small number of creative people suffer from it. Creative people may appear to be extroverts. However, it is common for "extroverted" performers to actually be very introverted people who put on a performance. What often sets creative people apart is their willingness to take chances.

This book has an adulation of "creatives". It feels like an Apple ad. (It even quotes the apple "misfits" add.) In real life, creativity is usually shunned. Those "creators" are only respected after their creativity goes mainstream. Those most creative are typically scorned in their time. Scientists, inventors and artists often die penniless, along to have books written about them after they die. Humans prize conformity. Even in school where we claim to respect creativity, the "creativity" that is respected involves only incremental changes. Keep things as close to the standard as possible and only change a few small things and you will be ok.

The Timeless Way of Building

Great human environments are not conceived in one head and pushed out of a factory. They evolve like other life forms. Cities and buildings follow a number of patterns. Different designs are common in different parts of the world. These are "patterns" but not modules. The patterns are adapted to the surroundings and environment to help fulfill human needs. For a building to remain timeless, the architect must be egoless. Otherwise, the building will represent the desires of the designer rather than the people.

The Timeless Way of Building is an elegant describing characteristics and patterns for timeless building. The layout of the text and images adds to pleasure in reading the book.

A "pattern language" helps in design. The language allows one to envision what is being done. The description of the patterns follows a logical order allowing anyone to visualize. One can focus on the proper interaction of people with the patterns. The patterns will be adapted to the various needs. In construction, there should be flexibility to adapt as the need arises. Even afterwards, things should be adapted and built upon as needed.

The best buildings and cities evolve over time. Even the best planner cannot see all the uses of the environment. The more "planning" involved, the more sterile the environment. Even on a small level, the site may just not fit into the "standard" model. Non-modular development is more expensive, but allows for better use of the location. 

Since the book was written in 1979, things have chugged further down the "bad path". I recall a blogger that tried to buy a house in Appleton, Wisconsin. The agent tried to guide him towards houses on the periphery built in the last three decades. These would best maintain their value and had the best school. Only, after living in them, they would fall into the "old house" category. This is not timeless. This is just sprawl. Big arterials separate out development. (You may be able to see the neighbor across the street, but need to walk over a mile to get to a crossing to get to their house.) Today there are many subdivisions that are plopped down. The houses look similar and have little relationship to the land. They tend to be isolated in single-family ghettos. Even the amenities, like playgrounds are created in cookie cutter fashion without regards to the location. (Why is the playground next to the busy street?) While they have new homes, they are sought after. But how will these age? Probably not well. They are not timeless. 

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Programming Interviews Exposed: Coding Your Way Through the Interview 4th Edition

The Fourth Edition of Programming Interviews Exposed is a solid refresher on core computer science fundamentals. It is fairly concise. It presents core principles and provides a few very well explained problems. It does not have the theoretical depth of a text book or provide a vast array of every type of problem you may see. This makes it a great book for somebody wanting to brush up. The problems are generally language agnostic, though Java seems to be most frequently used in examples. (C++, C# and JavaScript also make appearances.) It does go into bits of more high level technologies such as map-reduce, SQL and AI, however, the focus is on the fundamentals and the process for solving problems quickly.

Monday, July 05, 2021

Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World

Land is an interesting concept. Most land already exists. Yet, people have laid claim to it and have exchange money to "purchase" the land from others. Often the initial claim involved taking land from those that previously were using the land. In some instances, land was gradually separated into different holdings. In other cases, people came in to "take it".

Ownership of land arouses strong feelings. Many wars have been fought over "control" of sections of land. People have strong animosity to others that control the desired land. But what does control of the land mean? Historically, it was primarily as a means of agriculture. People were investing significant effort in cultivating crops. They wanted to maintain control over this. Today, "exclusion" continues to play a role in land ownership. Ultra-wealthy may gather vast swaths of remote land to establish their compound. This may be used for only a short amount of time in a year. However, it ends up being cut off from others that desire to use it.

Land also evolves through many uses. Many peoples have been moved off their lands because others sought a better use for it. Sometimes this use involves more intensive cultivation or city development. Other times, it may be setting it apart as a national park. This can lead to some curious history. Yosemite was once inhabited by Native Americans. It is now set apart as an "undeveloped" national park. However, in doing so, there has been a much more intensive development of roads, trails and lodgings and a huge increase in the number of people passing through. 

The use and ownership of land has changed a great deal through history. It will continue to change. There will continue to be conflicts over ownership as well as attempts to resolve these conflicts. Even with the near "virtual" society, land remains important. 

LEGO Disney Princess: The Secret Room (Lego Disney Princess: Read and Imagine)

Talk about brand extension. You take the princesses from some of the most popular Disney cartoons. Then you make them minifigures inhabiting a world made up of Legos. As for story? Well, that is secondary. The princesses listen to a mysterious messenger that tells them about a special magical room in their castle. They blindly trust this and eventually go into the room. (They don't bother testing to make sure they have a way to get out.) There are many much better books for young readers out there. 

James and the Giant Peach

Like in his other books, Dahl ramps up everything to the extreme. James is living an absolutely miserable lives. His parents have died and he is stuck living with his totally evil aunts. One is extremely fat. The other extremely skinny. Both treat James as their personal servant boy. Then he happens to run into somebody that gifts him some magic crystals. Alas, he drops them near the peach tree. This leads to the tree producing a giant peach as well as some bugs becoming human size. And from here the fun begins.

The "evil women" try to make money off the giant peach. They still leave James to do work. He ends up entering the peach where he discovers the giant bugs. They set off in an adventure in the peach. Alas, as the first part of the adventure, they happen to roll over the James' guardians, thereby freeing him. They tumble through the ocean, manage to get carried by birds, escape cloud men and finally land on the empire state building (where they are mistaken for alien invaders.) 

The book moves along at a fast pace. Some things don't necessarily add up, but there is enough to keep it somewhat credible. In the end, everyone (bug and human alike) live happily ever after.

Friday, July 02, 2021

Plague of Corruption: Restoring Faith in the Promise of Science

After reading Plague of Corruption, I do feel we have a problem with science. However, the problem is very different than what the author advocates. 

The author claims that the federal government and big pharma are interested in protecting their financial interests. They will stop at nothing to prevent opposing view. (The author implies that there have been a number of scientists that have been assassinated by big companies to silence their research.) She claims that she has been silences because she has attempted to blow the whistle on the dangers of vaccine production and our blood supply. 

The book covers many shady experiences that have happened to her that have happened to her. She was "silenced", lost her research data and cannot find any scientific research work. She identified problems with using other animals as vectors for vaccine production. She worries that vaccines may help lead to long-term lingering problems in our bodies. There are also concerns with our blood supply. She then claims that this offended the government and caused her to lose her livelihood. Now she is focussed on claiming damage from vaccines. She documents a few cases that she sees as indicative of malfeasance in the vaccine courts. Then at the end, she proposes alternatives. We should drink deuterium and smoke pot. (Hmmm. She talks about her religion and appeals to the right wing anti-vaxers, yet bookends it with a Kennedy intro and marijuana. I guess this is to get both the right and left?)

There are some legitimate claims in this book. However, there is also a ton of anecdote used to exaggerate rare occurrences. Suppose everything in the book is correct and we implement the desired solutions. There will be some huge class action lawsuits. Many lawyers will get extremely rich. People will stop getting vaccinated. A huge number of people will die from diseases that had been all but eliminated. 

The big problem I see is the legal system that encourages all of this. There is this underlying expectation of "perfection". That just does not exist in the real world. The "6 sigma" standard would still leave 3400 defeats in a billion instances. With vaccines widespread, we would expect to have directly linked negative outcomes. There would also be an even greater number of coincidental outcomes. However, the positive result is much more difficult to identify. The vaccine court is a positive step. We should extend that to other areas of society. Right now there is always a quest to identify "deep pockets" to assign blame. What if we put more personal responsibility in the system? If something wrong happens that incurs a great cost have a simple way to allow for compensation.

There is almost always a way to retrospectively look back and say "if somebody would have done something, it wouldn't have happened." This is often enough to win a court case. However, it does little to help out society. We need to be able to just say "something bad happened". There may be something that we can do to limit from happening in the future. However, we must balance that against what good is done. Our current litigiousness makes it less likely that we will have needed improvements. In the case of COVID-19 vaccinations. A few rare blood clots resulted in the suspension of Johnson and Johnson vaccines, even though people were more likely to die on the drive to get vaccinated than from blood clot. (There were likely more people that died from Covid-19 due to delayed vaccinations than from the negative impact of the vaccine. However, the blood clots have anecdotes, while the survivors don't.) It perversely becomes in the public interest to suppress science that shines a negative light on vaccines so that more people can get vaccinated. People are just really bad with math and make bad decisions. If as a society, we shifted away from this legal expectation of perfection, we could actually spend more effort on identifying imperfections and helping to fix them. There are likely many improvements to vaccines that can be made. We need to open up society to allow it.

The financial incentives should also be addressed. There is a lot of money in the pharmaceutical industry. Government sponsored research can be used to seed profitable drug businesses. However, getting a drug on the market is an extremely expensive endeavor. A big company with deep pockets is needed to usher things through the process. There is an expectation of extreme safety. Drugs can be subject to great lawsuits if people have problems. (Opioid manufacturers were shut down not because of problems with the drugs, but because the drugs worked so well that people abused them.)  If we want more vaccines and drugs we need to allow research to continue and problems to be addressed. However, we should also go back to look at our society as a whole. Why are we always looking for a drug to cure us? Why not focus more on the lifestyle changes that can help?