Thursday, May 17, 2018

Review: Atomic City Girls

I read Atomic City Girls because of Amazon's recommendation algorithm, probably because I'd also read Hidden Figures. To my surprise, unlike the other book, it's a novel, not a non-fiction account. The story takes place in Oak Ridge, which unlike Los Alamos, hasn't really been documented as far as I can tell: other than a couple of stories in Richard Feynman's memoir, I don't remember much discussion about it.

The story revolves around June Walker, her roommate Cici, and a few other characters who arrive just as Oak Ridge is ramping up. Each chapter is headed by actual photos of Oak Ridge and the various posters reminding everyone to keep their lips sealed about what they were doing, even though in practice, most of the employees were apparently kept in the dark about the bomb they were building.

As novels go, the characters seem kinda wooden, more as vehicles to tell the story of Oak Ridge rather than people with their own volition. The romance between June Walker and her lover (a former assistant professor from Berkeley) seems awfully contrived, though the rampant nepotism of that era rings through. There's a side plot involving the civil rights movement, but not really enough is told of that facet to make it a major part of the story.

I kept reading hoping to suddenly find some non-fiction account that would reward my perseverance, but alas, none was found.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Review: The Nature Fix

I really wanted to like The Nature Fix. The entire book is about how getting out in nature cures all sorts of ills that are endemic in city dwellers, ranging from depression, ADHD, happiness, or even (in one chapter PTSD). Unfortunately, the book ends up reading a lot like a massive commercial for outfits like Outward Bound, which have always felt just as artificial as any of the corporate "team-building program" outfits I'd ever seen.

Most of the problem is that the author, Florence Williams isn't a scientist herself, but a journalist. That means her interviews of scientists in the book are shallow. There's barely any consideration about the size of the studies being done (most of the studies seem too small to draw any conclusion from, and the larger ones seem to be based around self-reporting!), or how to control for a Placebo effect.

This sort of thing hits the zenith when she visits Singapore, where the city state has recently built artificial trees. Yet she herself pointed out in earlier chapters that Singapore is one of the countries in the world that have massive rates of myopia, all traced to kids spending less time outside than in other countries in the world. This sort of easy gullibility permeates the entire book and undermines her thesis.

Perhaps the strongest part of the book is the section on ADHD:
“ADHD got its start 150 years ago when compulsory education got started,” said Stephen Hinshaw, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “In that sense, you could say it’s a social construct.” Not only will exploratory kids feel bored and inadequate in conventional schools, he said, the constrained setting actually makes their symptoms worse. (Kindle Loc 2999)
 If, as the research suggests, outdoor free play is so important to kids’ physical and mental health, you might expect to see evidence of illness during this seismic generational shift indoors. And in fact, that’s exactly what you see, although it’s impossible to draw a direct line to a particular cause. The stats are alarming: Preschoolers are the fastest-growing market for antidepressants in the United States. More than 10,000 American preschoolers are being medicated for ADHD. Teenagers today have five to eight times more clinically significant scores for anxiety and depression compared to young people born in the 1950s. Since 1999, the U.S. suicide rate has increased for nearly all groups, with the steepest rise—200 percent—among girls ten to fourteen years old. (Kindle Loc 3100)
But again, we don't see any evidence that increased outdoor time would reduce diagnosis or suicide rates. There's a lot of pontificating, so to speak, but precious little science, and next to no evidence.

I'm the last person in the world to advocate against spending time outside: if you ask me, I think  most Bay Area parents under-emphasize time spent outside and over-emphasize academics. But if you're going to approach the thesis English-major style, you're not going to do the outside movement any favors.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Review: The Modern Scholar: Tolkein and the West

I was climbing Kings Ridge Road with the Western Wheelers on the tandem the other day. Right at the top, the pastoral scenery was glorious, my son was singing and telling everyone how much fun this was. Racers on some sort of timed event were passing us, but every one of them gave us a thumbs up. I found myself saying, "This is why people have kids, because if you're lucky, you get one like this one."

Indeed, Bowen's letting me recapture a bit of my childhood. From listening to the Hobbit with him to now listening/watching pieces of The Lord of the Rings and playing D&D, I'm reliving the part of the past when I first discovered the fantasy world that Tolkein created. But it also comes filtered with an adult perspective: that these books are deeply and fundamentally conservative and nostalgic in a way that I don't always agree with.

When I saw The Modern Scholar: Tolkein and the West go on sale on Audible, I picked it up for its excellent reviews, since it might make a good companion for the novel. (And there's that bit of me that says that I should also teach my son to read more deeply than the surface plot and characters in the novel, and for that to happen I myself have to understand the book at a deeper level)

Professor Michael Drout comes across as extremely earnest and of course, a Tolkein enthusiast. He points out several things that immediately hit me:
  • Tolkein is probably the most widely read poet in the past half century, since a lot of the book is in verse, and most books of poetry can't even come close to selling as well as his book.
  • Tolkein comes from academia, and the techniques of academic textual analysis and philology are deep in the book, in ways that I never realized. The parts where the characters go into full on verse? The part where Sam Gamgee speaks poetry that he couldn't have known? That's in the grand tradition of the study of Western Literature, where scholar after scholar might have come across the text and modified it, or written in the margins, and inserted stuff that might be out of place just because he/she knew something and thought it appropriate. That's why the language in the book is the way it is, and the pieces of the text disjointedly so.
  • There are repeated poems in the book, some of which show up in different versions, and it takes careful reading to discover why. The reader isn't meant to realize this, but this is used to evoke a sense in the reader of the change that has happened between the start and the finish. Prof. Drout mentions "The Road Goes Ever On and On" as being one that shows up 4 times, and the last 2 times is different from the first 2.
  • The sense of loss in the novel, The Lord of the Rings isn't solely about nostalgia. It's also a reflection of Tolkein's work as a philologist. Apparently, Western Literature has lost many stories and tales which are only known about because of references to them from works that survived. That sense of loss that Tolkein felt professionally also led to the themes of loss and corruption in the novel.
  • The last third of the Hobbit is a huge confusing mess, unlike the children's book it's intended to be. It's complicated enough that the multiple betrayals, negotiations and ultimate reconciliation can be viewed as the taking over of modern values over the ancient, honor-bound cultures that existed in Western Civilization before then.
There's much much more in the lecture series. Books covered individually are: The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, the Two Towers, the Return of the King, the Silmarillon, and Unfinished Tales. The lectures were so compelling that I found myself listening to the series from beginning to end, almost in a binge in just a week. It was entertaining, fun in a way I didn't expect to be, and now I feel better equipped to answer more questions from Bowen. In fact, I wonder if he'll find the analysis of The Hobbit interesting.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Review: Homo Deus - A Brief History of Tomorrow

Sequels are rarely as good as their example, but I've had good luck with non-fiction, as long as the author picked a completely different topic instead of rehashing the same-old same-old. Unfortunately, the title, Homo Deus should have given me a clue.

Sapiens was a great book, covering Humanity's past and the rise of civilization. Homo Deus is Harari's attempt to predict the future. Let me try to summarize his argument in this book:

  • The rise of civilization was a result of human organization: human beings learned to believe the big myths (such as the existence of money, god, or the social order) in order to organize to create big projects (like irrigation, the pyramids, or expensive exploration).
  • The rise of science and technology created conflicts between the scientific enterprise and religion ("everything we know is already in the holy book"), and demanded a new "religion" that reflected the new reality: humanism.
  • Humanism values the preciousness and uniqueness of human experience. Hence, one man one vote, equality under the law, democracy, and the emphasis on freedom.
  • The further development of science and psychology means that the human experience is no longer unique: how can you say that you have a unique self if a drug or electrodes placed in your brain can modify your experience so distinctly that you're no longer the same person?
  • The new religion that reflects this reality is "dataism". Collect and use data to choose which unique self you want to be, and share that data with the internet so everyone can learn from and use that data.
  • Alternatively, our AI overlords and algorithms might make that selection for us.
I won't claim that the above 6 bullet points summarizes the whole book, but safe to say that the above is enough for you to decide whether it's worth your time. If someone else had summarized the book like this before I read it, I don't think I would have needed to read it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Review: Law School for Everyone

Nearly every lecture in Law School for Everyone is great and worth listening to. The first section of the lecture series (there are 3 different lecturers) is one Criminal Law, and the cases used to illustrate how criminal law works are current and relevant, ranging from the shooting of Trayvon Martin to the OJ Simpson case.

The second section is about civil procedure, which sounded like a boring subject until the lecturer produces an example that might be relevant to you: a drunken house guest slips and falls on your doorsteps, and then returns home to sue you from another state. What do you do? From there, we get a good idea of how the federal courts work vs the state courts, and how jurisdiction works.

The final third of the series is about torts, which again is interesting, using studies ranging from the famous McDonald's Coffee lawsuit to Merck's famous Vioxx pharmaceutical mess. The lecturer does not just stop at discussing what is law and what isn't, but also includes detailed references to public policy, including why the law is the way it is: for instance punitive damages are meant to account not just the incidence where the bad guy was caught, but all the other incidences that they were not, or where the potential plaintiffs didn't bother pressing a suit. That's why they're typically so high.

I learned a lot listening to this lecture series (for instance, most criminal cases are a matter for the state, not the federal government, and how plea-bargaining became the most common tool in the AG's arsenal). It's very much worth your time. It's rare that something is so entertaining and useful at the same time.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Amazon's customer focus blows my mind

Amazon's customer focus blows my mind, especially as someone who knows how the sausage gets made at big companies. One day, I was watching an Amazon rental movie at home. Bowen would come and interrupt me, I'd pause the video, play with  him or answer his question, and then unpause. This happened so frequently that day that I eventually gave up on the movie.

The next day, I got an e-mail to the effect of: "We noticed you had poor quality video last night. We're giving you your money back."

This blew my mind. Somewhere at Amazon, there was a project to detect poor quality streaming and refund customers. The ROI on that project was negative: if the project succeeded, Amazon would lose money. Google for sure doesn't do this. Neither does Apple, as far as I know. It just boggles my mind that anyone would greenlight a project whose entire purpose was to return money to its customers.

My guess is that ultimately, the ROI must be positive, because even cheapskates like me notice excellent service and will buy more from Amazon as a result. But good luck getting big data to pick up on stuff like that and justify a costly software engineering project. I am in awe.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Running a 1 on 1 campaign for your kid

It's no exaggeration that Bowen likes D&D. He's mapped himself into D&D stats. He's turned Defense Grid into a D&D game. He'll play it at home with dice, and he'll play it on the back of the tandem using me as a randomizer.

After his first session with a now semi-regular D&D group, he wanted to roll up a fighter, and asked when he could play it. It turns out that back in 1992, TSR published a bunch of second edition modules in the HHQ series. These were designed for one on one play and came in the 4 major classes: Fighters, Wizards, Thiefs, and Clerics. One of the nice things about the 5th edition of D&D is that conversion is fairly straightforward, and the monster manual does most of the work, including even "leader" type characters that can be used straight out of the book.

It's fairly straightforward to download the PDFs from the internet, and given that these adventures are long out of print, you don't even have to feel guilty about downloading and using them.

Well, it took him 2 sessions, but he managed to get his 2nd level fighter to 3rd level and then TPK'd his party by walking into a bandit lair (after taking care of the sentry) and attempting to talk to the leader and losing surprise. I'm was very surprised that Bowen took it very well: no moaning or whining as you would expect from a 6 year old.

Here, however, are a few tips for parents running this for their little ones:

  • Start them off high. If the module says, "for 1 character of level 2-4", just start the kid off at 4th level. I started him off at second because I thought it'd be a good idea for him to get used to his character's powers one level at a time. But even at 3rd level, one mistake in the game could kill you. (I roll dice in the open, so there's no fudging --- that's the way I've always played, and I wouldn't play any other way) A high level character would at least let the child make one or two mistakes without being penalized.
  • It's great to have NPCs help, but don't let the NPCs lead the PC by the nose. All decisions should be the players'. This seems really hard, since the child will always ask, "What do I do next?" The correct answer is: "This is D&D, not some computer game. YOU decide what you want to do next."
  • Always ask the kid: "Is this what a Neutral Good character will do?" if his character is about to step out of alignment. The D&D alignment rules are there to help guide character behavior, so make use of them.
  • It's ok to deceive the kid. Some of the characters he or she meets are going to lie to him and manipulate him for their own ends. RPGs are great venues for exposing your child to that type of behavior (and teaching him to spot those issues) in a safe, controlled environment that's relatively low stakes. Far better for him or her to learn these things in a D&D game than in real life.
D&D is a lot of fun, and I hope to see Bowen solve problems in more interesting ways in the future. He seems equally inspired by the NPCs he meets as by the characters he read about in books. I'm having fun with Bowen, and these 1:1 adventures written back in 1992 are surprisingly good.