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Journal of No. 118

March 12th, 2019

Strange California, edited by Jaym Gates and J. Daniel Batt @ 03:23 pm

 Anthology of weird fiction set in California. I know it's my own personal hang-up, but I'm always looking for a strong sense of place -- at least in a place I know and love well, like my home state. The stories within are kind of a mixed bag in terms of quality, and a mixed bag in terms of Californianess.

Before diving into the stories, I'll give a shout out to the artwork and illustrations, which were mainly the work of Batt. Nicely done. You certainly win me over with an opening map of California as an island, an image I love so much we have one on the wall now. Lots of the other illustrations for each story are also arresting. On the minus side, the book is printed on paper with a sort of grey fake foxing pattern that obtrude a bit much.

Some of the early stories are a bit to gonzo for my tastes. So is Lance Shoeman's "All This'll Be Yours", but this episode of Hoarders gone wrong somehow won me over. Tim Pratt's "A Sea Monster in the Bathtub" has exactly that California vibe I was looking for, and a great tale, even if it hews too closely to a predictable SJW fable than a fantasy that might take us anywhere. Chaz Brenchley's "Uncanny Valley" had me hooked, but didn't reach a destination. James Van Pelt's engaging "Five Dollars for a Ticket" does arrive at a destination, or will shortly. Meg Elison's "In Loving Memory" makes me glad I've only visited Hemet for the sailplaning, and not grown up there. Ezzy G. Languzzi's "Naranjas Inmortales" gets to the climax a bit too fast and glibly, but definitely caught my attention.

March 1st, 2019

The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert @ 04:10 pm

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Subtitled An Unnatural History, the book looks into the effect that human beings are having on the extinction of other species on Earth. The title refers to the five established major extinction events that have happened over the course of Earth's history, where large fractions of the species living on earth have gone extinct. The sexiest one is the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.

It's hard to deny the overall concept that our influence on the planet is causing a similar extinction event similar in size to these. Kolbert focuses on a number of particular research groups studying a particular species or groups of species that is under threat. These are really great looks at how science operates, and what scientists do, and paints a vivid picture of the facts and conclusions. At the same time, I think that in addition to these embedded journalist pieces, the book could have used a better summary and conclusion to tie everything together to suggest the overall impact. But perhaps that's just too huge to tackle and loses some immediacy in its hugeness. People will care more about that adorable squeaking bat over there suffering from white nose syndrome than about "37% of all species on earth".

There's also good variety among the cases and causes. Ocean acidification affecting corals, predation of moas and other prehistoric fauna that isn't around any more, climate change shifting habitable zones -- if you live on flat land, and the climate warms up, you can move north to stay at the right temperature. But if you live on a mountainside, all you can do is go up in altitude. Not only does the temperate zone shrinks, but if your mountain isn't tall enough, it vanishes.

Now that humans have air travel and poke our noses all over the place, things come along for the ride. Species that never would have run into each other do so now. Sure, we know about how smallpox affected Native Americans, but this story is being played out many times over, including the white nose syndrome decimating some bat populations in North America, caused by a European fungus that doesn't much bother European bats.

January 29th, 2019

The Glass Universe, by Dava Sobel @ 05:08 pm

I really like Sobel's book on Galileo's Daughter, so I was definitely curious to read this one. It tells the history of the female calculators at Harvard University. How their role changed from the late 19th century into the mid-20th. First as (very modestly paid) numerical calculators, and then examiners of photographic plates, and on into become some of the main organizers of early stellar spectroscopic data, and early studies of variable stars to the first Ph.D. students and dissertations, and on into everything from Oh Be A Fine Girl to spectroscopic binaries, to the discovery that stars are mostly hydrogen and helium, to the law between variable star periods and their intrinsic brightness, one of our first and best rulers for measuring the distance to distant stars.

Just some other details that caught my eye:

The story focuses on the women, but also goes into other activities of the broader Harvard Observatory, including setting up a telescope in Peru near Arequipa, which got involved in some civil unrest "[Bailey] recorded daily events, the din of nearby rifle fire, and his relief that the battle coincided with the cloudy season, 'as otherwise it would sadly interfere with our night work.'" Or Shapley's work on globular clusters showing that we are not in the center of the galaxy. In Shapley's words, "the solar system is off center and consequently man is too, which is a rather nice idea because it means that man is not such a big chicken."

Just after WWII, Cecilia Payne and her husband Sergei Gaposchkin took in the family of Reverend Casper Horikoshi -- a Japanese born missionary whose family had recently been interned at one Heart Mountain camp before now coming to Massachusetts for Divinity school. He and his wife probably had some stories of their own to tell.

January 9th, 2019

Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway @ 06:58 am


 Take 25% Umberto Eco, 25% PKD, and 25% Dan Simmons and you get 75% of an author writing a book that's three times too long.

November 30th, 2018

White Fragility, by Robin J. DiAngelo @ 04:45 pm

White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

Obviously as a White Dude (TM), I'm set up for failure when criticizing a book about how white people can't handle honest discussion about race and racism. About 80% of the book is entirely unobjectionable (to me), but there are bits that rankle.

First up, I'm not sure what use the book is. Part of DiAngelo's job is moderating racial sensitivity training seminars at the behest of corporations or other groups. A fair amount of the book really seems to be her complaining about her job. "And then there was this white person behaving like this at my seminar. Wypipo, amirite?"

The book does do a good job of exploring and describing the various defense mechanisms that white people use when confronted with unpleasant truths. But is this news to anyone? I guess I was hoping more for strategies for dealing with those defenses when encountered in the world (or inside). But there's precious little about solutions, just a clinical description of the symptoms of the disease. OK, this is perhaps valuable, but I expect it is old news for anyone likely to pick up the book and read it, and the people who would learn a thing or two are not likely to pick it up.

Next up, nomenclature. Now, I understand the use of "racism" to mean something that might be more fully described as "systemic racism" or "institutional racism". I'm cool with that, but it seems like it would save time in her workshops if she used those longer terms, since it seems like she spends a great deal of time fighting against the 'common' understanding of racism. Especially since the actual situations that come up in her seminars are a lot more like common racism than systemic racism. She's not being brought in to address redlining, but to address people being nasty to Suzi in the breakroom. So there's some equivocation on the use of "racism" in the book.

Similarly, she blithely asserts that American culture is a culture of white supremacy, that most schools are segregated, and "For example, although we are taught that women were granted suffrage in 1920, we ignore the fact that it was white women who received full access or that it was white men who granted it. Not until the 1960s, through the Voting Rights Act, were all women—regardless of race—granted full access to suffrage."

I think a lot of these blanket statements need some asterisks. I mean groups who identify as "white supremacists" mean something different than the systemic racism that already exists in our culture. To call them both "white supremacy" is again equivocation (or at least cause for confusion). The 2018 elections showed that there are still some limits to voting access. If we can only celebrate when "full access" has been granted, then we still cannot celebrate women's suffrage. By no means do I want to minimize the disenfranchisement of blacks in the South -- quite the opposite -- but this hairsplitting seems absurd.


November 20th, 2018

Language at the Speed of Sight, by Mark Seidenberg @ 04:52 pm

Subtitled "How We Read, Why So Many Can't, And What Can Be Done About It" this fascinating book provides some great insight into the science of reading. Not linguistics or language, really, but reading.

There's some great observational science about how people actually read, and this goes towards exploding many common myths. Both of the 98% scams of 'speed-reading' and the education wars of how to teach children to read.

Perhaps one of the most interesting little bits is probably quite useless. As you might know, your eye makes little jumps or saccades as you read. Obviously it takes time to move your eyes, so one way to increase reading speed is to remove the saccades. Systems have been devised for this so that a text is presented one word at a time at a fixed location on a screen, and you can power your way into a significant speed increase. But a drawback is that you can't keep up that focus for long. I think the author describes it as trying to win a staring contest with a book.

One of the interesting insights comes through the development of neural network type models. While not necessarily exactly the same as how brains process written language, it's still very interesting and I think does teach us something. A naïve look at reading is just to say that it's language translated into the visual rather than into sound. But what the models find (by training them in different ways) is that there are three or four interacting pieces to the puzzle. The brain is juggling with the orthology (the written characters) the phonology (the sounds of the phonemes and graphemes and morphemes) and the semantics (the meaning of the language), and the best neural networks have connections that run both ways through all three of these subsystems.

And if you cripple a neural network by not training it on the phonology, you get a less able reader. And this leads into the more contentious issues in the latter part of the book. Namely that 'whole language' reading instruction that deemphasizes skills-based learning is, shall we say, not well-supported by the evidence. Worse, its proponents misunderstand the evidence they use to support it.

Seidenberg naturally feels that it would be a useful thing to base a curriculum of "teaching people to teach people how to read" on the science of how people learn to read. Sadly, this is not the case at the moment, and I share his frustration with what education curricula actually do (and don't) teach prospective teachers. The entrenched inertia of ed school is likely preventing us from making evidence-based advances in the teaching of reading.

November 2nd, 2018

Smith of Wootton Major / Farmer Giles of Ham, by JRRT @ 04:00 pm

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 I confess I had not read these before, despite being a humongous fan of LotR. I think something about the cover art and the focus on, well, a farmer, put me off. Magic rings and orcs good, farming and smithing not so interesting. So I blame Tolkien's title.

If I renamed it Farmer Giles who Almost Accidentally Does Something Useful (and Lives to Regret the Imposition it Creates Upon his Life) Yet Receives a Magic Sword and Quickly Runs out of Fucks to Give About Anyone or Anything (of Ham), I might have cracked it open before now.

'Smith' is a fairy story, somewhat somber but satisfactory. And well, you can see what I thought of Farmer Giles. Both are more in the form of European folk-tales (as opposed to stories of Middle Earth) but they contain little elements here and there that disclose some of Tolkien's preoccupations.

October 15th, 2018

From Bacteria to Bach and Back ; When the Sleeper Wakes @ 04:22 pm

From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, by Daniel Dennett (my spirit animal)

In many ways this book ties together a lot of Dennett's idea from different areas of his interest: primarily evolution and consciousness. I think he tries too hard to smash them together into something that looks like a broader worldview, but I'm not sure he succeeds. I'm definitely on board with much of what he says, but then the intervening spit and glue that holds it together just doesn't come together into a picture for me. My verdict: just go read Consciousness Explained one more time. His best book on his hardest subject.

When the Sleeper Wakes, by HG Wells

One of those ancient SF stories that everyone recognizes and no one reads. And now I know why. Our hero falls into a strange trance and lives on through centuries. His cousin providentially invests his money wisely, and When the Sleeper Awakes, he owns half the planet. The planet is being run, more or less, by a council of capitalist pigs, while The Sleeper has sympathies with the downtrodden people.

Wells gets some things extremely right about the future: windmills for power generation, annoying advertising, capitalist pigs. And of course, many ludicrously wrong things: moving sidewalks instead of streets to carry people around.

Anyway, after the Sleeper Awakes, there is a far too overlong section of tedious chases and alarums as the people and the powers that be fight, while the Sleeper is largely a figurehead or in hiding. And then finally, the powers that be try that one thing -- that last straw to break the camel's back and get the Sleeper to exert his power and influence to overthrow the status quo. The powers that be attempt to use black people as policemen.

“I have been thinking about these negroes. I don’t believe the people intend any hostility to me, and, after all, I am the Master. I do not want any negroes brought to London. It is an archaic prejudice perhaps, but I have peculiar feelings about Europeans and the subject races. Even about Paris—”

Ostrog stood watching him from under his drooping brows. “I am not bringing negroes to London,” he said slowly. “But if—”

“You are not to bring armed negroes to London, whatever happens,” said Graham [the Sleeper - aka the Master]. “In that matter I am quite decided.”

Ostrog, after a pause, decided not to speak, and bowed deferentially.

Guess who orders black policemen despite explicit instructions not to?

“These negroes must not come to London,” said Graham. “I am Master and they shall not come.”

Ostrog glanced at Lincoln, who at once came towards them with his two attendants close behind him. “Why not?” asked Ostrog.

“White men must be mastered by white men.

So the Sleeper puts on his MBGA hat and puts a stop to this nonsense. As long as I'm spoiling this craptastrophic book, he also gets the girl with the goo-goo eyes and trembling lips.


October 5th, 2018

The Other Races @ 09:46 am

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Checking my primary choices...

Gov: reluctantly Newsom

Lt. Gov: Ed Hernandez - I think he has better chops as a politician, since Kounalakis' only real role was as an ambassador. But man, now that we have the D vs. D fights, the endorsement war is crazy. Planned Parenthood endorses Ed, while NARAL endorses Eleni.

SoS: Padilla
Controller: Yee
Treasurer: Ma
AG: Becerra

Ins: Lara
BoE: Vazquez

Senator: De Leon
Rep: Bass
SS: Mitchell
Ass: Piquado

LA Times suggests voting yes to retain all of them. 

However, if you (like me) are feeling vindictive about (State) Supreme Court Justices nominated by Republicans, of the two on the ballot, Corrigan was nominated by Arnold the Governator. She wrote a concurrence and dissent on In Re: Marriage, in which she said she personally thought gay people should be able to have marriages, but she wasn't persuaded that the majority was right in thinking that banning gay marriage was unconstitutional, and that the will of the people (as enacted in laws) was clear, and the will of the people was changing and would likely make gay marriage legal in the future.
I'm not vindictive enough to check all of the Appellate Justices to see who appointed them.

4 - Sauceda
16 - Michel
60 - Hancock
113 - Perez

Schools: Thurmond
Assessor: Prang

County W
"Revenue from the tax, estimated to amount to $300 million annually, would fund the construction, operation and maintenance of projects that collect, clean and conserve storm water. The average tax for a single-family house would be $83."

Ugh. Um. Although one of the projects would be
walking distance from me, very few other projects are anywhere nearby. And out here in the county, we don't get water from DWP, so paying for DWP projects doesn't benefit me directly. ME ME ME. It's all about me. Waaaah. It doesn't even rain any more, so how are we going to collect storm water? Waaah. OK, yes.


Water Replenishment District: 
West Basin Water Whatever:
I'm tired, I'll go with the incumbents here.


October 4th, 2018

Journal of No. 118