20 August 2011


Banana Nutella Cake

I have been baking cakes! The cake recipes from the Alice's Tea Cup Cookbook have served me well. In that capacity, the book comes recommended. However... I cannot yet speak to the usefulness of the chapter on how to throw a tea party.

05 August 2011

Fiction Roundup

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

A classic, a very short read, and a lot of fun. Recommended.

The Road

The closest thing I have read in some time to poetry. In Cormac McCarthy's barren post-apocalyptic world, a father and his son are pushing their cart down the road in search of the coast, always on the brink of starvation. The setting is striking but it takes a backseat to the lyrical and poignant dialogues between father and son. These are all the more remarkable for how few words are uttered. Beautiful and haunting; recommended.

Kafka on the Shore

by Murakami. A fun read. Compared to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, it seemed to have more of a coherent structure and plot, but less of the wordplay (if you could call it that) that made Wind-Up Bird so hilarious.

Catching Fire / Mockingjay

The two sequels to The Hunger Games. These should be considered as a unit since Catching Fire has a cliffhanger ending. Katniss has unwittingly become a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol, but any overt action on her part would put her and her family in danger. Catching Fire was an enjoyable read, but most of Mockingjay felt uninspired, and the ending was rather unsatisfying.

Born to Run

(Of the two acquaintances who mentioned this book to me, one had started running barefoot because of it, and the other had turned vegan...)

In Born to Run, Christopher McDougall recounts his personal quest to learn to run (and learn to love running) without injury. McDougall's thesis is that the human body is purpose built for running long distances. This seems unbelievable when you realize that, in any given year, most runners will injure themselves while running. Every year. And most people find running to be a necessary evil, not something that feels good. So what is going on?

When McDougall's research led him to a band of quirky long-distance (ultramarathon) trail runners, and an elusive tribe called the Tarahumara who live in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, he sought to learn their techniques— everything from posture to diet. Perhaps the most surprising among those: Tarahumara of all ages run for hours or days on end in thin rubber sandals and sustain injuries at a rate that is close to zero. McDougall advances the case that we're built to run barefoot, not in padded shoes (which change one's running posture and provide insulation from proper ground contact).

The science in Born to Run is somewhat sparse, and the writing can be overdramatic and incoherent. At times the book feels like a way-too-long magazine article. But it is nothing if not entertaining, and the conclusions are eye-opening. Mildly recommended.

04 August 2011

Peach iced tea

I have been making my own iced tea this summer. Prototypical recipe:

3 quarts water
6 tea bags
1/2 cup (100g) sugar
2 cans (11.5oz ea) peach nectar (e.g. Kern's brand)
Juice from 1 lemon

Brew the tea. Mix with remaining ingredients. Chill.

This recipe makes about 3.5L of tea and is much less sweet than the typical bottled stuff. I poked around to compute the sugar concentration for some representative iced teas:

Sugar concentration*
Peach iced tea (above)54g/L
Trader Joe's Pomegranate Green Tea63g/L
McDonald's Sweet Tea73g/L
Snapple Peach Iced Tea97g/L

By the way, iced tea as Americans know it (the unsweetened tea that is ubiquitous in restaurants) is, as far as I can tell, nowhere to be found in Europe. Quelle horreur!

* As I understand it, different sugars have different taste and nutritional properties, so these numbers don't tell the whole story.

The Story of the Tour de France, Volume 1

Bill and Carol McGann's The Story of the Tour De France, Volume 1 is a fairly comprehensive history of the Tour from its inception in 1903 to 1964.

The book takes the form of a play-by-play for the significant stages of each year's Tour, and discusses how the rules of the Tour evolved to adapt to the changing times. The creator of the Tour, Henri Desgranges, was quite the character. He wanted the Tour to be a show of the individual cyclist's strength and cunning, but he was in the end unable to keep the team element out of the sport.

The main takeaway from this volume, for me, is that the Tour de France used to have a lot more badassery than it does today. Consider, for example, Stage 2 of the 1909 Tour, 398 kilometers (247 mi) long and run entirely in freezing rain, in which François Faber broke away for the entire second half of the stage. Or the story of Eugène Christophe in the 1913 tour, in which he broke his fork on a descent during Stage 6. There were no follow cars back then; under the rules of the time, riders had to make their own repairs. Christophe carried his broken bike down the hill, walking 10 kilometers to the next town. Here he found a blacksmith, who was able to talk him through what he would need to do to repair his fork (this was as much as was permissible under the rules). Christophe worked at the forge for 3 hours. But at some point, he ran out of hands. He asked a little boy to work the bellows for him. For this the Tour referees gave him a 10-minute penalty. Eventually Christophe finished the repair and kept on riding. He finished the stage 29th— still ahead of 15 other riders.

If you are interested in the history of the Tour de France, there is probably not a better book. The Story of the Tour de France gave me some perspective about how competitive cycling works and about the historical evolution of the sport, but at times it seemed to me to be little more than so many names and numbers.

Sustainable Energy: Without The Hot Air

You can get a digital copy of this book for free. Or get a paper copy on amazon.com.

Reading this book should be a prerequisite for having a conversation about energy policy. Like balancing the budget, the question of how we make the transition from fossil fuels to sustainable power sources requires a quantitative approach with quantitative questions. And, like in the discourse around balancing the budget, people regularly make insane, impossible, or useless proposals because they don't know any better (or they think they can get away with it).

Sustainable Energy, by David JC MacKay, tries to establish a solid numerical foundation for such discussion. At its heart is the question: Is it possible to switch all our energy production from fossil fuels to sustainable sources? And this is more or less an arithmetic question. Either the supply of energy available (given technological projections) can meet demand, or it can't.

MacKay lays out the numbers for various classes of energy consumption and energy production. It turns out that you can reach some nontrivial conclusions just based on very crude lower and upper bounds. For example, what are major uses of energy? MacKay estimates that the typical Briton, who makes a transatlantic plane flight once a year, has a carbon footprint on that single flight of approximately the same as his carbon footprint due to driving during the remainder of the year. And we are not going to make planes that are substantially (say, more than 2x) more efficient than they are today; physics provides a pretty clear lower bound there on the amount of energy that is needed to fly people around. In total, transport (planes plus ground transport) accounts for about a third of total energy usage in developed countries. So to make a dent in total energy usage, we are likely to have to either dramatically cut the amount we fly, or make ground transport much more efficient. (MacKay advocates the electrification of cars as one of the most significant things we can do.)

Conversely, it's also important to know what classes of energy usage account for only small portions of total usage. Lighting in homes and businesses? Around 5% of total usage. Vampire wall warts (like cell phone chargers)? Around one quarter of one percent. Now, some people will insist that "every little bit helps". While this is true in a superficial sense, we can't delude ourselves into thinking that we can, say, halve our energy consumption by implementing ten (or 200) "tiny" interventions like replacing incandescent bulbs or unplugging cell phone chargers when they're not in use. They won't add up. It just can't be done unless you touch the heavy hitters: transport and heating (together, about two-thirds of energy usage). You have something like the equivalent of Amdahl's law here, which upper bounds the total savings even if you were to optimize one class of usage completely away. To think that you can somehow dance around this mathematical constraint is madness.

MacKay reaches a sobering conclusion: for developed countries, making the switch away from coal will require industrialization of vast amounts of land. Whether it's designated for tide power, solar farms, wind farms, biofuel farms, geothermal installations, or something else, we're going to need a hell of a lot of it. (If you find this unpalatable, have we mentioned nuclear power?)

We have been implored at one time or another to try and reduce carbon emissions by carpooling, installing LED lights, eating less meat, not using plastic bags, turning down the volume on the television, breathing more slowly, etc. But we have to pick our battles, and that requires a cost/benefit analysis. I always get annoyed when I hear on the radio a useless and impossible-to-evaluate comparison of the form, "If we all just [made some change], it would be like {taking [large number of] cars off the road, planting [large number of] trees, heating [large number of] homes for free, etc}." Sustainable Energy convinced me that there is a response superior to smashing the radio with my hands, namely, doing some back-of-the-envelope math.

This is a very important book. Did I mention it's free to download? Highly recommended.

03 August 2011

The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir of the year in her life after her husband of 40 years (fellow writer John Gregory Dunne) died of sudden cardiac death. During the months surrounding John's death, their only daughter, Quintana, was in a hospital, in a coma, suffering from septic shock.

Grief is common, but Didion has the uncommon trait of being detached enough that she could dissect her grief and commit it to paper. So she was able to pick apart the state of derangement that she found herself in. When people think about loss and the prospect of grieving, they expect to be inconsolable, perhaps unable to function, unreachable in a way. They do not expect to be "literally crazy," as Didion characterized her own mental state when she realized she was unable to throw out John's shoes, because, well, how would he get around when he came back? That is the sort of thing that (if you were in Didion's shoes) would seem to clearly indicate that part of you had abandoned rationality and taken up "magical thinking", and yet, remarkably, it would go unchallenged and possibly unrecognized unless you had explicitly articulated it!

There is little inspirational advice for coping here; just Didion's bare and unfiltered retelling of the event, its fallout, and the strange ideas that her derangement led her to. A very personal account, and a sad but satisfying read (especially if you recognize bits and pieces of Didion's derangement in yourself); recommended.

The Box

The author is Marc Levinson and the subtitle is How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger.

Ships, trains, trucks. Giant computer-controlled cranes. Operations research. This book is pure nerd porn.

Marc Levinson documents the history and the rise of standardized shipping containers in this astonishingly interesting book. Today, 40-foot shipping containers full of stuff are routinely sent from factories to warehouses without being opened in transit, even as they are loaded from truck to train to ship and back to train to truck. Before the 1950's, no one implemented seamless intermodal transport: at a dock, for example, longshoremen would unload cargo from a truck or train, piece by piece, and put it in a warehouse, then repack it again into the hold of a ship. This process was slow, labor-intensive, liable to be interrupted by strikes, and made the goods prone to damage and theft. A 1959 report estimated that the cost of shipping some commodities accounted for 25%(!) of the sticker price. Shipping containers and integrated shipping changed all this. You ever wonder why you don't hear much about dockworkers and longshoremen these days? It's because docks don't actually need very many of them anymore.

Levinson covers the complex web of economic, regulatory, and standardization challenges that faced shipping container proponents. But he only hints at the real shipping revolution: manufacturers that adopted shipping containers actually didn't obtain substantial savings until they also retooled their businesses to use containers end-to-end and to think of fast and reliable shipping as something they could count on. Hence developments like just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing and reduced inventory costs (I am now on the hunt for some reading material on these subjects).


02 August 2011


Hackers is Steven Levy's classic social-anthropological account of software pioneers and the computer revolution.

Levy's history takes us from the birth of the hacker culture and the hacker ethic, hammered out in Building 26 at MIT, to the commercialization of software, exemplified by On-Line Systems (better known by its later name, Sierra On-Line) and its seminal series of computer games, and the creation of GNU by Richard Stallman.

(It is strange, to me, now, to think that hacker culture was born out of a subgroup of MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club [TMRC].)

Levy introduces us to a large cast of characters from different generations, from the 1950's to the 1980's. And while the history as Levy tells it— recounting all their intertwined stories— is intriguing, Hackers also serves to document the hacker culture and the hacker ethic.

The software pioneers were always trying to push the limits of what computers could do. Still it seems strange to speak of a singular ("the") hacker ethic or hacker culture, since their motivations and their worldviews (while all idealistic in some way) were so different. Some viewed hacking as a search for ever more elegant programs, eternal discoveries of a nearly mathematical nature. Others viewed the computer as a tool for the empowerment of individuals. (This was a tough sell in Berkeley, where computer software, which at one time was in large part the product of (D)ARPA funded research, was viewed with skepticism.) Moreover, each generation's version of hacker culture was shaped by the technological and commercial environment of its time. The MIT hackers were concerned with ensuring that they had unfettered access to the extremely valuable hardware on their hands. But by the 1980's, when inexpensive computers were widely available, what seemed more important was bringing the fruits of computing to the masses.

When Hackers was first published in 1983, it seemed as if it could merely be a chronicle of a little-known and dying subculture. (At the time, Stallman referred to himself as the "last survivor" of the hacker culture.) But today the hacker ethic has permeated society and popular discourse in a way that few might have imagined then, and Hackers is the definitive account of its birth.


By the way, in 1983, at a panel at the first Hackers Conference in Marin County, CA, Stewart Brand made an utterance which is widely quoted out of context as "Information wants to be free". It is worthwhile to read his original comment, which is substantially less normative and more interesting than it is often made to sound:

On one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Brain Rules

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School is John Medina's guide to some of the principles that underlie how the brain works and how we can best take advantage of those principles when living out our lives.

Even though I've read plenty of popular psychology books, I found a lot of interesting nuggets here, including:

  • How exercise boosts cognitive performance (exercise stimulates, among other things, generation of new blood vessels in the brain)
  • The mechanisms by which prolonged stress breaks down our bodies (we're evolutionarily adapted to respond to threats on timescales of seconds to minutes, not months to years)
  • The importance of the sense of vision: some years ago, brain researchers gave white wine tinted with red dye to a bunch of wine-tasting professionals and found that they described the taste and smell of the wines using the vocabulary usually reserved exclusively for red wines. The outcome of this study is frequently cited as evidence that wine connoisseurs are full of it, but Medina's (more charitable) explanation is that the way our brains are wired, the sense of sight is so compelling that vision input preempts all our other senses.

Medina's writing is occasionally a bit too cute and circuitous for my taste, and, annoyingly, some of the connections appear to be based on little more than wild extrapolation (e.g. the parts about the student-teacher relationship, or the significance of synesthesia). But for the most part the book is easily digestible and appears to be based on solid research. Medina also proposes many interesting ideas— not just suggestions about how in our lives we can better accommodate the natural limits of our brains, but also ideas for experiments that could shed further light on things.

Mildly recommended.