Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Reading List 2018

Sunday, January 13th, 2019

I read 34 books in 2018. Here are the ones I strongly recommended

I either read better stuff, or my grading is getting softer. You can see the full list of my 2018 capsules.

Histograms in grap

Saturday, July 28th, 2018

I know everyone loves it when I talk about arcane typesetting languages, so here’s a response to a fellow who wanted to replicate the histograms at in grap.


Attached is a commented grap/groff file that draws something like both
histograms.  I commented the grap to explain what I was up to (comments
start with .\"), but feel free to ask about anything that's confusing.

I didn't see immediately how he set the widths of his histogram
bars/buckets, so I used 10-pound-wide buckets centered on 105,110,115...
for all crew (blue) and 5-pound-wide buckets centered on
105,110,115,120... for the rowers (green).  (The bucket width is both
the clustering range and the width of the histogram bars.)

I've attached the grap/groff (called, the data file I used
called data, and the postscript it generates when I call

$ groff -Gp hist >

on my ubuntu box with groff and grap installed.

I used grap 1.45 from a stock ubuntu .deb.

If I wanted to do this same task as flexibly as possible, I'd probably
preprocess the data using a scripting language and then generate grap
output that I'd run through groff as above.  I'm slowly writing a pic to
svg program in my spare time that would make that more portable to use.

Hope that helps some.

The grap script looks like this:

.\" Initialize globals
tot105 = tot115 = tot125 = tot135 = tot145 = tot155 = 0
tot165 = tot175 = tot185 = tot195 = tot205 = tot215 = 0

rtot105 = rtot115 = rtot125 = rtot135 = rtot145 = rtot155 = 0
rtot165 = rtot175 = rtot185 = rtot195 = rtot205 = rtot215 = 0
rtot110 = rtot120 = rtot130 = rtot140 = rtot150 = 0
rtot160 = rtot170 = rtot180 = rtot190 = rtot200 = rtot210 = 0

.\" between takes teh following args in order
.\" $1: value to test
.\" $2: center of bucket
.\" $3: bucket width
.\" $4: variable stem
.\" if the test value is in the bucket (between the center +/- width/2) 
.\" the macro increments the variable made from concatenating the stem and
.\" the bucket center.
define between {
  if ($1 >= $2-($3/2) && $1 < $2+($3/2) ) then {
    $4$2 = $4$2 + 1

.\" Copy the test data through between calls to set the globals
copy "data" thru {
  if ($3 == 1) then {

.\" Set up the coordinates and the ticks to match the example
coord x 100, 220 y 0,8
ticks bot in 0.02 down 0.04 from 100 to 220 by 20
ticks top in 0.02 from 100 to 220 by 20 ""
ticks left in 0.02 left 0.08 from 0 to 8
ticks right in 0.02 from 0 to 8 ""
label left "Number of Members"
label bot "Weight in Pounds"
label top "The Boat Race Crew Histograms" size +2

.\" Draw bars for both kinds of crew
bar up 105 ht tot105 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 115 ht tot115 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 125 ht tot125 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 135 ht tot135 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 145 ht tot145 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 155 ht tot155 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 165 ht tot165 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 175 ht tot175 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 185 ht tot185 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 195 ht tot195 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 205 ht tot205 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"
bar up 215 ht tot215 wid 10 fillcolor "blue"

.\" Draw bars for rowers
bar up 105 ht rtot105 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 110 ht rtot110 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 115 ht rtot115 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 120 ht rtot120 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 125 ht rtot125 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 130 ht rtot130 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 135 ht rtot135 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 140 ht rtot140 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 145 ht rtot145 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 150 ht rtot150 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 155 ht rtot155 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 160 ht rtot160 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 165 ht rtot165 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 170 ht rtot170 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 175 ht rtot175 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 180 ht rtot180 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 185 ht rtot185 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 190 ht rtot190 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 195 ht rtot195 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 200 ht rtot200 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 205 ht rtot205 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 210 ht rtot210 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"
bar up 215 ht rtot215 wid 5 fillcolor "forestgreen"

.\" Draw a key (Note that the positions here are in the histogram coordinates)
bar 102, 7.8, 155, 6.5
bar 105, 7.6, 120, 7.2 fillcolor "blue"
bar 105, 7.0, 120, 6.6 fillcolor "forestgreen"
"rowers and coxswains" ljust size -4 at 122, 7.4
"rowers and coxswains" ljust size -4 at 122, 6.8


Review: Astrophysics for People In A Hurry

Sunday, May 6th, 2018

This collection of essays from Neil deGrasse Tyson warmed my heart, but didn’t delight me.  That may say more about me and prejudices – having read Asimov’s math & science essays as a kid – than Tyson’s writing.  He’s writing about interesting stuff.  He’s engaging.  He illustrates difficult concepts with interesting analogies.  He taught me things I didn’t know.  But I still come off more warmed than excited.

If you – or your kids – have any interest in cosmology and astrophysics take a look.  If you want to find out if you have an interest in those things, have a look.


Pro Tip: Only the People can change the Constitution (generally with the help of Congress)

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

When a president or candidate claims to be a protector against or progenitor of changes to the Constitution, do not believe them.

The president’s role in repealing the Second Amendment or preventing its repeal is operationally zero.  The same is true of adding new amendments – e.g., the ERA.

The process is completely contained in Article V.  The tl;dr is: if two thirds of both houses propose an amendment (enough to override a veto, were one even possible, incidentally) and three fourths of the state legislatures or conventions therein approve it, the proposed amendment becomes part of the Constitution.  (There’s an alternative way to start the ball rolling, but the 3/4 approval by states always has to happen.)

The chief executive’s only input or output is the ability to shout from the Bully Pulpit. That’s it.

The judicial isn’t involved, either.  It’s just us.

So don’t vote based on that crap.

Review: The Shallows

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

The Shallows is the best kind of polemic: it’s one that gets the facts right and lets the reader get on to disputing the ideas.  And I do dispute the ideas even as I admire the presentation and research that Nicholas Carr has done.

The focus of Carr’s concerns is that today’s information economy is changing the way people approach and process information.  On its face that assertion is true, but Carr’s concern isn’t that people search Google instead of the card catalog; he’s concerned that these tools are changing the layout and function of people’s brains.  This sounds much more dire.  He implies that people are losing their ability to read and interpret long-form arguments and similar hallmarks of the humanist scholar. That has a certain alarmist feel about it, but the facts he marshals in its support are genuine.

His argument that tools change how we think at a biological level hinges on recent research into brain plasticity.  This is the observation that neurological connections rearrange themselves throughout human lifetimes, not just during early brain development. The most dramatic examples of this are people whose brains rearrange themselves after traumatic brain injury to restore or enhance existing brain function.  These are remarkable examples, and worth a look no matter what else you think of Carr’s arguments.  His exposition of these ideas implies that he expects arguments about the efficacy of the phenomenon.  He won’t get them from me.

We do disagree, though. The first point is a bit subtle.  He seems to hold a vaguely dualistic view of the brain and mind.  That is, he seems to believe that the mind is distinct from the brain and uses the brain to think with.  Under this view the various tools are damaging the house his self lives in.

I don’t believe that at all.  I think that the brain the entire manifestation of self and consciousness, modulo the fact that we don’t know how it works and there may be elements of consciousness that reside other places. But it’s all physical.  As a consequence, brain plasticity is unsurprising; every though or memory or impression modifies the organ in some way.  I am surprised by just how widespread the changes can be, but it doesn’t feel to me like modern tools are undermining my thinking equipment.  My interpretation is that the tools and I are adapting to one another.

Philosophical fine points aside, the second point on which we largely disagree is that he believes that the traditional scholarly modes of thought are under siege.  And that this is a loss to society.  Perhaps because I believe that my brain is meeting the tools halfway, this seems non-coercive to me.  I think people who use the information revolution’s tools can change how they use their brains.  I also think that this is neither a one-way street or an binary choice.  I’m comfortable finding a sweet spot here.

All of which is a lot of extra text that underscores the idea that this is a book worth reading, even though I disagree with its conclusions.

Strongly recommended.

Listening List 2017

Saturday, January 6th, 2018

As a companion to my 2017 reading list, here’s the podcasts I listen to and why.

  • NPR’s Up First: This is basically the day’s headlines from Morning Edition.  When I bike to work, it gives me the lay of the news land.
  • Golic and Wingo: The sports equivalent of Up First. This used to be the Mike and Mike feed before ESPN retired that show.  I get a kick out of the younger Golic and the easy jock interactions.
  • His & Hers/SC6: I listen to this solely to get my Jemele Hill and Michael Smith fix.  They have great personal chemistry and they comment so widely on the world within the framework of sports.  Lately they’ve been openly poking their employer’s manipulation of viewers to my great delight.  They were given the wheel of ESPN’s flagship SportsCenter time and they’re driving it like they stole it.  Good fun.
  • Planet Money: I’ve been listening to Planet Money since they began putting them out.  It is consistently a great explanation of economic issues in concrete circumstances, and I recommend it unreservedly.  Even if you don’t generally care about economics, give it a try.
  • This American Life: One of the most respected radio shows/podcasts out there. For me, it earns that respect with every show.  Their investigative reporting is excellent and enlightening.  Beyond recommended; a must.
  • Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me: Peter Sagal and his talent riff on the news with panache every week.  Their guests are from a broad range and interesting.  I like the political ones best.
  • Welcome To Night Vale: A fiction podcast that combines humor, spookiness, and great characters.  Worth it for the throw-aways alone and  the story sneaks up to capture you.  It’s felt a little more aimless recently as the creators are doing more things, but still has many great moments.  Even if you don’t follow it, it’s worth hearing old stories.
  • Awesome Etiquette: I am an etiquette nerd, but I find that the Emily Post folks who produce this (Lizzie and Dan) are much less concerned with the fish fork rules than the relationships that underly the rituals we perform.  It’s a principled approach to etiquette that’s often more an advice column.
  • Dinner Party Download: This was a quirky take on pop culture that spent a lot of time on food, drink, history(!?), and terrible, terrible, terrible jokes.  Rico and Brendan had great chemistry and a great take on the world.  Sadly, this is in the past tense: they’ve moved on to other projects.
  • A Way With Words: A cool show about (English) word usage and origins.
  • Reply All: Reply All is a show about the Internet.  But, really, it’s about many many things that touch the Internet in some way.  The reporting is outstanding and the hosts are charismatic.  This is on a par with This American Life.  A must.
  • ScienceVs: Each episode reviews the scientific studies about some public policy or personal issue.  The host is delightful and the topics are compelling.  Great fun.
  • LA Public Library’s Aloud Series: The Los Angeles Public Library hosts a series of talks from authors, artists, and thinkers (including Q&A) and records them.  The talks cover a fantastic range of topics  from cephalopod intelligence to modern poetry.  I’ve never heard one I didn’t learn something from.
  • The Memory Palace: This is Nate DiMeo’s poetic and indescribable podcast.  There’s some history, some poetry, and some reflection.  Try a few and you’ll see if you like it.  I don’t miss an episode.
  • Here Be Monsters: HBM is another basically indescribable podcast.  It is eerie and enlightening.  Another one where you really have to look for yourself, because it’s beyond my powers.
  • Make Me Smart: This is an extension of Minnesota Public Radio’s excellent Marketplace radio show.  It began pointed at economics and politics – and those still figure prominently – but had branched into its own ongoing conversation.   It is a conversation shared by two world-class journalists (Molly Wood and Kai Ryssdal), so it’s not your run-of-the-mill chat. As all great conversations do, the discussion has developed its own in-jokes and themes (and a book club, that not all great conversations spawn). As with any conversation, it may or may not interest you.  Try enough to get the vibe if you’re interested.
  • Found: Davy Rothbart publishes a zine of objects that people gather from the streets and send him.  The zine is quite a quirky collection of oddments and Rothbart’s live shows have a lo-fi vibe with real entertainment in there.  He uses the podcast to dig deeper into the stories behind the objects and explore longer form performance.  Perhaps my favorite parts are the songs based on the found objects – mostly the texts lists and letters – from the Found Musical.  Yeah, there’s a musical.  It’s a thing.
  • You Must Remember This: Karina Longworth’s exploration of Hollywood’s history is one of the real gems in the podcast world.  She balances diligent research and insightful modern analysis to not only tell a story but help the listener think about its place in the past and future.  I can find her delivery a bit dry, but the content is fantastic. After a few episodes I began hearing more subtle elements of her style.
  • RadioLab: Another blue chip podcast.  I listen to it primarily because it makes me yell at the speakers in ways that make me think.  When it’s good, it’s great. When it’s not, there’s usually something to think about.  And it’s often great.
  • StartUp: This began as a near-real-time history of Alex Blumberg founding Gimlet Media.  That was gripping and exciting, but since then it’s seemed a bit aimless.  I do think that their series on American Apparel’s troubled CEO is top-notch.
  • Below The Ten: Stories from life in South LA.  These are interesting and compelling.  Does not update often.
  • Baseball Tonight: I use this to just keep up with major league baseball.  I let a lot of it wash over me, but that’s possible because of the easy charisma and camaraderie of the hosts and guests.
  • Within The Wires: This is one of the other projects that Night Vale creators are spending time on.  It’s brilliant, funny, creepy, innovative storytelling and I don’t want to spoil it.  A must.
  • Alice Isn’t Dead: Another Night Vale creator’s project.  I find it a more straight-ahead thriller than Within The Wires, but it is very strong.
  • The Hidden History of LA: Short snippets of LA history.  Great if you live in LA.
  • The Pitch: Here’s the pitch: young investors pitch their startup ideas to a set of real investors and these folks report on it.  I thought I’d listen to one or two of these and stop, but it hooked me.  I enjoy assessing the presentation quality and I’ve come to like the repeating investors.
  • The Nod: Gimlet’s stab at exploring Black culture.  I listen to it primarily because I got hooked by host Brittany Luce when she did Sampler.
  • Live From The Poundstone Institute: I picked this up to listen to Paula Poundstone.  Adam Felber was just a bonus. The early few episodes were clunky as the two of them felt their way through the form.  As the show progressed, they developed a chemistry and rhythm that I quite like.  It’s solid and expect it will get stronger; I’ll keep watching.
  • NPR’s Code Switch: NPR’s swing at exploring the crenelations of a multi-ethnic culture.  The show can feel stilted at times, but the reporting and commentary are top notch.  It’s grown on me considerably.  If its niche appeals to you, it is very good.
  • Conversations With People Who Hate Me: The pitch for Conversations is simple: Dylan Marron calls people who screamed hateful things in his YouTube comments section and tries to figure out what ticked them off.  Marron’s execution is unbelievably strong: simultaneously professional, vulnerable, analytic, and compassionate.  And many other adjectives that apply to a bold person experiencing genuine emotion. I can imagine listeners rejecting Marron as the stereotype of an SJW – an observation he might well confirm – but I think he’s much more interesting than any stereotype.  A must.
  • Desert Oracle Radio: I may never know Warren Ellis found this lunatic poet, conspiracy nut, nature conservator, and svengali who broadcasts from the middle of the Mojave, but thank heaven he mentioned it in his newsletter. Listen to one episode and you’ll know if it’s for you.  It’s for me.
  • The Liminal: Another Ellis recommendation.  This is another podcast that I listen to because of the host.  He’s talking about fortean topics with a perspective somewhere between skeptical and accepting.  I’ve heard a lot of the topics and I admire the perspective.
  • Deep State Radio: One more from Ellis. This is a revolving set of foreign policy heavyweights weighing in on the state of the world.  I enjoy the tone and content.  Beyond that, they pay careful attention to gender balance – there are basically always half women foreign policy experts in the conversation. The group’s perspective is strong.
  • The Allusionist: This is another words and language podcast, but with a somewhat wider ambit than A Way With Words. I haven’t been listening to it that long, but I find that she casts an interesting net.
  • Uncivil: Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika report on some of the corners of the Civil War story that you won’t hear from Ken Burns.  It’s well-researched and takes no prisoners with its pro-equality perspective.  The Spin episode will give you a feel for the tone and quality.
  • There Goes The Neighborhood: Collaborative reporting by WNYC and KCRW on gentrification in Brooklyn and Santa Monica.  I learned a bunch, though it’s currently on hiatus.
  • More Perfect: This is the guys from WNYC/RadioLab coming at the US Supreme Court from excellent perspectives.  I probably like it more than RadioLab itself.  Recommended.
  • The Breakfast Club: This is the best of the non-music parts of an NYC-based morning show.  I enjoy hearing the rhythm and perspective of NYC.
  • The Sisterhood: Laurie Penny and her sister talk about feminist issues.  Still finding their feet, but shows promise.  I found their commentary on our robot masters particularly insightful.

Reading List 2017

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

I read 36 books in 2017.  I generally write up a capsule of each as I finish so I don’t have much new to say. Here are the ones I strongly recommended:

And here’s everything I reviewed in 2017.


Present and Accounted For

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

O Holy Night
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Adeste Fidelis
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
We Wish You A Merry Christmas
Christmas in Hollis
The First Noel
Merry Christmas, Baby.

And The Little Drummer Boy, if and only if you’re Bowie and Crosby.

Fake Radio: a plug

Monday, December 4th, 2017

Fake Radio is putting on It’s A Wonderful Life this Friday night (7 Dec 2017) at the Acme . If you’ve never seen a performance, they’re a loose troup of comedians rooted in improv and voice acting who perform Golden Age radio dramas live. In my experience they bring the right amount of respect for the source material and gleeful snark to their renditions to make the evenings fun while keeping true to the material. They’re good fun. Come out and see them if you get a chance.

Portland folks also get a treat. Or two.

Review: Mexican American Baseball in the San Fernando Valley

Sunday, August 28th, 2016

While there are many things I love about e-books, there are things to learn as well,  I was surprised to find that this was primarily an annotated book of photographs of Mexican american teams and players.  I was hoping for more of a history of the area’s game, a la Fastptich.Once I understood what I had, I was quite pleased with it.  It’s a very well-curated set of images.