Monday, September 27, 2021

The Last Siege

A bunch of young people break into an old castle during the winter. It is cold. There is snow. That is about it. I kept waiting for something to grab my attention, but nothing ever did.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat

The history of how we prepare our food is tied together with culture. Different tools and utensils arose due to different needs. Knives were some of the earliest tools for preparing food. Before knives, loss of teeth could be a death sentence. (This makes me wonder if the high quality teeth seen in remains is due to survivor bias. People without good teeth would not live to adulthood.) Pottery arose in many regions to facilitate cooking with liquid over flames. However, some cultures in Polynesia went away from pottery in favor of alternate eating methods. 

In some places, knives became uncouth, thus leading to a gradual proliferation of eating implements and "dumbed down" knives. Special "eating knives" were still used for cutting steak. However, duller butter knives were common with other uses. In China, food was prepared in smaller bits and chopsticks were the implement of choice. In many places, such as India, food has traditionally been consumed with hands. 

Different implements also give rise to different taboos. In Japan, using another person's chopsticks is frowned upon (thus leading to a huge market in single use chopsticks.)

A typical kitchen contains tools from various time periods. An attempt to show a kitchen containing only tools from that time would be anachronistic. There are typically many tools and appliances from the past together with things that are new. 

New gadgets may not have lasting power. The eggbeater was the subject of extensive innovation. However, a whisk still performs the job well. Some innovations do help and have long term benefit. Others may encourage us to change our way of cooking - for the better or worse. Sometimes we stick to traditions enforced by the tools of the time. Other times, we seek to change without understanding the benefit of the old process.

Consider the Fork provides many interesting tidbits as it covers the evolution of how we prepare our food and the tools that have helped us do it.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet

This is an interesting take on humanity. The "Anthropocene" is our current day. The author gives ratings to everything from the Indianapolis 500 to the Internet. And those are just the eyes. General concepts (like very embarrassing events) are also given ratings. Each rating is a short essay describing the item and the impact on his life. There is no general reason for anything to specifically appear other than that it had some relation to his life. It is a fun read as well as a pseudo-memoir. 

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

Adam Grant explores how people are "Original" and make key contributions to society. These Originals would be like the people in an Apple "Think Different" ad. They are willing to go against the grain and make change in society. The counterintuitive conclusions are among the most interesting. Those that are most successful breaking out of one area, are usually quite grounded in others. Successful entrepreneurs are likely to stick with another job as they are kicking the tires on their new enterprise. They keep the base to allow them to go out in other areas. 

The first mover does not often have the advantage. Intead, waiting on the sidelines until ready to pounce with the best solution is often the hallmark of greater success. (Even in places like social networks where there is a huge first mover advantage, companies like Facebook have succeeded where Friendster and Myspace have floundered.)

Encouraging descent and open conversation are also valuable for better decisions. People prefer to agree with those around them. This can lead to a chorus of yes men. Even requiring somebody to play a devil's advocate does not work as well as having somebody that really disagrees.

Praising people for their actions also has a different result than praising them for a behavior. Somebody that is a "Good person" will try to get that praise in other scenarios, where a good deed will not necessarily build that character. (This approach can also backfire in discouraging people from doing hard work.)

The meat of the book are up front with some meandering business approaches toward the end.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Music Listened To By Year Written

 I have been scrobbling my listening with Last.FM for the past decade. Now I want to do some analysis. I can see simple results such as most popular tracks, albums and artists over recent time frames. However, that is not enough.

I want to see what type of music I'm listening to.  I typically discover an artist I like, and then binge on their entire back catalog. I'd like to know what "year" I am most commonly listening to.

The first question I'd like to answer:

1. In what year was the music I'm listening to released?

The first approach would be to identify the year that each song was written, then produce a simple histogram to aggregate everything, showing each year and the songs by year. A pie chart showing the percent of scrobbles by year written.

The first challenge is getting the year written. doesn't include it in the scrobble data. I saw a reference from Redit on one approach at This will take the top listened to albums and do a simple aggregation by the years specified.  It grabbed the most listened to albums, then looked up the musicbrainz id to find the year. It is somewhat limited by the rate limiting of the musicbrainz API. It also often displays the date of a remaster, rather than the original release. This is not quite what I wanted, but it did provide some inspiration.

I did look up listenbrainz. This has an alternative to scrobbles. I've uploaded my data. However, it doesn't seem to merge.

I tried some manual MuiscBrainz look ups by name. The catch with that is that there can often be pages of results.

MusicBrainz does make all of the data public. There are full instructions on how to set up a local postgres database for the data. However, this looked like a fairly daunting task.

They had an alternative form of data as a JSON dump. ( This seemed like an easier approach. However, the file was 10GB compressed. Uncompressed, it is one 177GB file. It is technically not a valid JSON file. Instead, each release is a single line of valid JSON. Grepping through it for information is possible, but painfully slow.

The files did have a lot of information that I did not need. I tired to do some shell scripting to reduce, but that ended up running into encoding errors. As an alternate approach, I wrote a simple JavaScript program to read each line and extract just what I wanted: album name, artist name, original release, track names and track release dates. This reduced the file to only 2.1GB of JSON.

This gives something that is greppable with:

cat smallerBrainz.json | grep "Unforgettable Fire" | grep U2

This sort of works. However, these one produced 323 results. It also doesn't distinguish between song and album titles.

Next step is to make an "album only" version.  

To be continued.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

The Cleaners: Faraway collection

Cleaners is a short story about people that clean. This cleaning is a little more specialized than standard cleaning. The cleaner not oly wipes the exterior, but also removes all memories. The story centers around a high quality cleaner who can't feel the memories himself. Meanwhile, his sister is very sensitive to memories. (She can even feel the pain of the low-wage workers that made cheap goods.). It has some itneresting ideas about memories and their attachment to physical objects.

Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life

We often "want" things not because we have a physical need for them, but because of a social desire. Our "models" also want something, so we feel we must also. People generally like things that are familiar, but not clones. Somebody acting just like their "model" is annoying. Somebody that follows the general accepted behavior pattern is accepted. 

Today, there is a tendency to rely on the wisdom of crowds. Big data allows us to mine minute differences in behaviors. However, the wisdom of the crowds is not necessarily what you want. Some companies, like Tesla go against this and are highly successful.

Crowds cna get whipped up into a frenzy, wanting things because the crowd wants it. A scapegoat can be used to work around this. The scapegoat channels the behavior towards a single entity, preserving others. Money is another means for preserving peace. Interestingly, high inequity is not necessarily bad. People are so different that they don't have the desire. However, closer levels of wealth can create more conflict as people see a possibility.

The writer also has some discussions of the work of Rene Girard in the understanding of wanting as well as the author's personal history of running his company. Many people do jobs because they are driven by others to do them. The quest for a michelin star can be all encompassing for a restaurant and chef. This external desire can get in the way of the internal desire to produce quality food. 

In our lives, there are many things we think we want. The challenge is in finding what we really want, and what is just crowd influence. Meditation and spending time totally disconnected is one way we can help disentangle our desires from those of others. 

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Boys in the Boat

 The book chronicles the story of the University of Washington crew team that won a gold medal at the Berlin Olympic games. The book details their history. The group were primarily working class boys from rural Washington. Most worked manual labor jobs (such as building Grand Coulee dam) in order to pay for school. They were a far cry from the elite rowers that they regularly competed with. Even after qualifying for the olympics, an Ivy league school offered to take their place, since they would have to pay their way.

The book intertwines the history of the Washington Crew team with the events of the world, including the rise of Hitler in Germany and the great depression in the US. The reaction of the Hitler Youth stuck out. These impressionable youth felt it their duty to carry out Nazi message. They were similar to youth in Communist Russia that would glorify communism at the expense of their elders. Today, we may look at things, and say "oh, we are now enlightened progressives. We would never be like the evil fascists." However, the actual ideology is largely irrelevant. I doubt most of the youth even have a good understanding of what the ideology is. Instead, they see "others" as not toeing the party line and punishing them. Today it may be attacking somebody on social media because they have the "wrong" views. (This may even take place in the name of "inclusiveness") Is taking down a website really much different from burning a book?

It is also interesting that Germany had "cleaned things up" for the Olympics. They put on a great facade to hide away the internal warfare going on in the country. They also did things very manually, thus creating a huge number of jobs. They were able to create a great Olympics - they just couldn't win everything.

Another takeaway is how things have changed. The olympic athletes still had to work their way through school. However, they could earn enough money over the summer to pay for school. Rowing was one of the more popular events at the olympics and attracted huge crowds. During the depression people adapted to find ways to earn money and grow food. The government safety net was much smaller. But, government interference and regulation was also much smaller. 

The championship rowers had a mixture of natural abilities and a passion for the sport. Rowing is an interesting sport that requires brute strength, technique and teamwork. There is a great deal of strategy involved to manage the group and competitive psychology as well as individual experience. University of Washington's championship team had their struggles, but were able to overcome them to put on a momentous performance. 

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Johnny Got His Gun

I discovered this book after learning that it was the basis for Metallica's One. The video includes numerous clips from the movie. (And Metallica is said to have purchased the entire rights to the movie.) I felt the movie clips helped to better understand the book. I had trouble visualizing somebody with no arms, legs, ears or face. The visual clips helped to get a better picture. However, this is the type of work that would be much better in book form. The book is almost entirely within the head of the protagonist. He recalls many past events. He analyzes his current condition. He learns that he does have some limited sensual input. He can feel temperature changes and vibrations. He eventually decides to start tapping morse code. He does that over and over again until he finally gets some morse code communication back. This shocks him. He has spent so much time in the effort that he did not have a plan when it came through. He did quickly hash up a plan, only to have it knocked down by those in authority.

The audiobook includes a couple forwards extolling the virtues of the book as an anti-war novel. While the situation did evolve due to warfare, the story of growth and discovery is more universal. We base our course of action on our past experiences. The loss of mechanisms for carrying out our activities requires us to adapt with what we have remaining. The protagonist took a long time to finally discover ways that he could begin to communicate. Alas, he then got a grand goal in his head, only to have it shot down. The future adaptation becomes the hardest.