Friday, November 17, 2017

2017 Books of the Year

I read 55 books this year, and then on top of that piled on 20 audio books and 9 comic books, which makes this a bumper year for books read. As usual, non-fiction takes the lead in terms of books worth your time.

My book of the year is How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Whether or not you agree with the premise of the book, it's a different approach to understanding emotions and debunking prior models of emotional intelligence and thinking. It's very much well worth your time to read, and will make you a better person. Other books of note include: Hillbilly Elegy, The Undoing Project, and Einstein.

On the fiction side, I really enjoyed My Sister Rosa.It's an outstanding novel about family dynamics as well as an excellent coming-of-age story. It doesn't have the usual happy ending, but in exchange, it grants you unusual insight into what a high functioning sociopath is (and there are many in society), and how to recognize one. It's well worth a read, and even beats out excellent rereads that I did this year like Stories of Your Life.

For Audio Books, I really enjoyed the Medical School for Everyone series. In particular, Pediatrics Grand Rounds would have saved me a lot of angst when my children were smaller, and I encourage every parent to audit it. The other books in the series: Emergency Medicine and Grand Rounds Cases are by the same lecturer and have no overlap, so if you enjoyed that one, you can pick up the others in the series and not fear any repetition.

Alas, I didn't read any comic books this year really worth recommending.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: Batman - The Long Halloween

The Long Halloween is a story from the early days of Batman. As Batman stories go, it's pretty good. Early Batman means there aren't that many silly things, like sidekicks, Batgirl, and the rest of the Bat  family. It's also an interesting take on Harvey Dent (aka TwoFace), in fact, easily the best Harvey Dent as portrayed in the comics.

The mystery revolves around the Holiday killer, and who it is. The authors kinda cheated in an improbable fashion (I won't spoil it for you, but I think if you read it you'll not be wondering why I consider the solution to the mystery unsatisfying), but it's one-third fair. (To say more would be to give away the mystery)

The rest of it is a bit cookie cutter. Mildly recommended.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review: The Sudden Appearance of Hope

The Sudden Appearance of Hope won the world fantasy award for best novel in 2017. I was surprised to discover that this novel was readily available at the local library for a kindle checkout (despite having only one copy), so I proceeded to check it out.

The premise of the novel is that Hope Arden is a woman who cannot be remembered: if you met her, a few minutes after you can't see her any more, you'll have forgotten the encounter. This seems like such a great gimmick. I imagined a novel where the non-memorable woman is metaphor for all the people whom you pass by during the course of the day whom you'll never give a second thought to. Maybe they're too plain, or in the case of us Asian guys who get mistaken for each other by white people, just not considered interesting enough to make an impression. At the very least, it's a nice change from the plethora of vampire/werewolf/night magic fantasy crap that we see all over the place.

Well, I was wrong. There's some philosophizing in the novel, and there's plenty of angsting to go around, but Claire North has gone for the super-thief approach, complete with a full exposition of the limits of her powers (e.g., cameras can still record her appearance, you can still take a picture of her and write notes to yourself to remind you that you saw her, etc). The protagonist is also said to be beautiful by many she encounters (hey, if you're going to go Hollywood, you need to make sure the casting director can hire a big name star for the lead).

The plot revolves around a smart phone app called "Perfection." Perfection is the ultimate app that Google, Facebook, and Snapchat are evolving towards: the ultimate behavioral control and reprogramming app that changes you towards being perfect, making tons of money in the process. Why it exists, what the goals of the organization that launched are, then becomes the focus of the novel.

My problem with the novel is that long parts of it is pretentious, unreadable drivel barely worth skimming. It references Byron, but does nothing with it. There's plenty of stream of consciousness, some of it hints at a cool statement of what it must take to exist in a world where no one can remember you, but all of the characters in the book have no motivations that make any sense to me. The book never explains Hope's special powers (that's OK, it's fantasy), but Hope's antagonists never come up with more sophisticated approaches to trying to capture her either: e.g., machine-based feature recognition, biometric identification, or even simply tracking her via fingerprints. Since Hope frequently travels in countries where people with dark skin are viewed with suspicion, I would have expected racial profiling at the very least!

I finished the book hoping for an ending that somehow justifies the World Fantasy Award. I came away completely unfulfilled and wishing I had the time I'd put into the novel back.

Not recommended.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review: Batman - The Complete Hush

I finally got around to reading The Complete Hush because of the Kindle Fire. You can download the Hoopla app and with your library, check it out of the library for free. The app does a great job of showing comics and letting you zoom in panel by panel. There's a delay when you switch between horizontal and vertical layouts (the 2-spread pages in comic book pages frequently tempt you into doing this), but otherwise it works great.

The content of the story seemed very familiar. Then I realized that this story was part of what went into the story line for Arkham Knight! I enjoyed the story but it felt a bit rushed and compressed. The weakest part of it was Batman: through the entire story arc, he didn't feel competent and in charge (and that's despite of course his ability to manage Superman). I felt the video game did a better job of portraying Batman than this book did.

Friday, November 10, 2017

First Impressions: Kindle Fire HD8 2016

Kindle Fire HD8 tablets are well known for being cheap. Cheap, however, does not mean good value, and I thought I'd avoid getting the 16GB model since I've had so many struggles with 16GB phones running out of storage. Well, Amazon's currently running a 25% sale on refurbished 2016 Kindle Fire HD8s, which meant I got one for $40. I figured with Amazon's generous return policy I could return it if I didn't like it.

The refurbished model looks indistinguishable from a new one. I booted it up and it was reasonably fast, but what's amazing to me was that when I opened up the storage setting I discovered that it had 12GB free, which was much more than what I'd experienced from similarly sized Android phones. Amazon's done some significant shrinkage on their version of Android.

One of my prior objections to the Kindle Fire tablets were that they didn't have the Google Play store. That's not quite true if you're a technie: there's a well-known way to get the Google Play store on the tablet, and it works just fine. Everything works as you might expect from a tablet.

The shortage of RAM is an issue: these devices come with only 1.5GB of RAM, rather than the 3-4GB that regularly ship with even midrange phones. On the other hand, the device is only driving a 720p display, which meant that even games ran reasonably well. The only times when the device stutters is when you're switching between apps rapidly: garbage collection pauses and app swapping pauses then become apparent.

The reason I bought the tablet was for reading comics: those don't translate well on the Kindle Paperwhite (which I still love, but costs 3X as much as this tablet). Those work great on the Kindle Fire HD8.

Amazon does a better job of integrating SD Card storage than Google does on its phones and tablets. This is important for a consumption tablet that has limited storage. By default, once you install a microSD card, all media gets moved into the card. Not only that, FireOS has retained the old Android feature where apps can also be moved to the external storage, which means that even a 16GB Kindle Fire is usable.

I've often complained that Google's product managers seem to live in a world where internet is everywhere, with unlimited, free bandwidth. Amazon's PMs clearly don't live in that world, which is a great thing for the products. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Review: The Innovators

The Innovators is Walter Isaacson's history of the IT industry. It has two theses it argues for: one is that innovation and breakthroughs don't occur in a vacuum: it takes a team to make revolutionary change in industries, and the team could take the form of a company (startup or traditional research lab) or open-source style collaboration, or a partnership.

The time spent on each individual or team is pretty shallow, since Isaacson's covering huge periods of time (from Charles Babbage through the invention of the transistor to the introduction of the world wide web). As someone who worked in publishing, he had his biases, for instance, choosing to focus on blogger but not say, friendster or Facebook.

The book makes the point that the growth of the social networks and interlinked web is the culmination of the vision laid forth by Vannevar Bush's Memex. I wonder how Bush (or for that matter, Isaacson) would have thought of the current revelations that foreign governments did take advantage of the distributed nature of the web to attack American democracy (not that the stage weren't set by various political movements that came before).

The second thesis of the book is that augmented intelligence has won over artificial intelligence. I actually think that it's too early to say that, especially in the light of recent advances in statistical machine learning.

All in all, the book's not up to the standard set by his biographies of Einstein or Jobs, but it still made for decent reading. Mildly recommended.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Review: Gravity Maze

Rekha and Roberto gave Bowen Gravity Maze for his birthday, and this was immediately the most played toy in his birthday present set this year. Since he liked both Rush Hour and Laser Maze, this was probably predictable.

The idea behind the puzzle game is that you have a source tower and a target location, and a certain number of pieces with which to build a series of connections such that a ball dropped from the source tower will end up in the target location from the correct direction (the target tower is opened on only one side).

The concept is simple, but the game has several flaws that make it less than perfect:

  1. The pieces are finicky, making it easy to dislodge them while placing other pieces. This is true even for an adult, let alone a 6 year old.
  2. Some of the solutions are dependent on the height from which the ball is dropped. This has a couple of problems: first, there exist solutions which occasionally solve the puzzle, but don't do so all the time (an indication that this is not the solution the puzzle maker wants you to reach), but there are also solutions which are finicky, meaning if the pieces are not placed firmly or the ball is dropped a bit too low you will not consistently get the ball to hit the target.
  3. The colors chosen are very annoying if you're partially colorblind, as I am. The orange/green pieces are not distinguishable, and the subtle differences on the printed cards that differentiate purple and black are so subtle that I frequently have to ask Bowen what the colors are whenever he asks me to setup the next puzzle for him. Fortunately, he's soon reaching the age where he can setup puzzles for himself, but some of the setups involve one puzzle tower on top of another, and he doesn't quite have the coordination to do it yet. This is yet another example of how the world of UI designers just doesn't seem to have enough color-blind people for people like me.
Bowen likes the game a lot, and plays with it a lot. But this is one clear case where the user experience would be improved if the physical pieces were all thrown out the window and replaced with a computer simulation/app instead. Computer reality is much more well-behaved than this finicky design. Avoid if you or your child is clumsy, and avoid if you or your child is even a little bit color-blind.

Nevertheless, it's a great concept that maybe someone else will refine and execute better than ThinkFun has.