Positive Populism: Revolutionary Ideas to Rebuild Economic Security, Family, and Community in America review

Positive Populism: Revolutionary Ideas to Rebuild Economic Security, Family, and Community in America

Positive Populism: Revolutionary Ideas to Rebuild Economic Security, Family, and Community in America by Steve Hilton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a gift, and when I saw the author was a Fox News host I was quite confused. But he grew up in the UK, so he’s a European-style conservative.

And to his credit, there are some pretty good ideas in here! Some of my favorites are: more local (i.e. neighborhood) control over things that make sense, a national service program, more help/resources for parents, serious antitrust enforcement, getting rid of noncompete clauses, and a living wage(!).

There are also some less-good ideas: in particular he’s proudly a nationalist (not a white nationalist, mind you), and he was strongly pro-Brexit when he worked in the UK. And he’s enthusiastic about “green/brown” zoning, which means that land is either zoned for nature (like a park) or for any sort of development. (I don’t really know how to feel about that. Maybe it’s good?)

The book has almost a verbal tic about “elites” – it goes on and on about how elites are trying to keep you, the people, down, and it’s a bit excessive and maybe even a little dangerous.

One amusing running thread is that in the introduction he talks about how liberals and conservatives are both wrong, and only by looking for pragmatic solutions can we find things that will benefit the people. This is the kind of thing that sounds great but breaks down pretty quickly. For example, in the section about health care he says that
– Democrats want universal coverage
– Republicans want competition and consumer choice
– There have been some scandals in England’s NHS (National Health Service); it’s not so great!
– But actually people in England are very proud of the NHS despite its problems
– And obviously people shouldn’t go bankrupt because of medical bills
– So clearly the pragmatic middle ground is the government paying for healthcare, but the healthcare itself is provided by private doctors.
And I was like…umm, great, but this is clearly a leftist/Democratic position! Have you met the modern Republican party? You should watch some of the other shows on your network!

Anyway, there are a lot of interesting ideas here and it was a fairly easy read. Would recommend, even though I don’t agree with all of his policy ideas.

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Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies review

Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies

Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies by Charles Perrow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a bit of a fascination with airplane crashes, and several books I’ve read mentioned this one as a seminal work in describing how accidents in complex systems happen.

The main part of the book is setting up a system for categorizing systems. One dimension is “loosely-coupled” versus “tightly-coupled” – this roughly corresponds to how much slack there is in the system. A good example of a tightly-coupled system is an assembly line if parts are going down a conveyor belt or something – if something goes wrong to mess up a widget at one station, that widget will quickly be at the next station which can cause other problems.

The other dimension is “linear” versus “complex”, which roughly describes the interactions between parts of the system. An assembly line with a conveyor belt is a good example of a “linear” system because the interactions between the different stations are pretty predictable. Usually the more compact in space a system is, the more “complex” it is because lots of different parts of it are close together.

Tightly-coupled complex systems are prone to what the author calls “normal” accidents which aren’t really preventable. Basically, when a system is tightly-coupled you need to have a pretty strict plan for how to deal with things when something goes wrong, because you don’t have a lot of time for analysis or debate. (a military-like structure can help, although obviously this can have bad consequences for organizations that are not the military) But complex systems require more deliberation to figure out what’s actually going on and possibly more ingenuity to find a solution.

It’s interesting because in retrospect for each particular accident it’s usually easy to see what went wrong and what the people involved did wrong. (or what the organization did wrong before that point) The author’s point is that most of the time blaming the people involved is missing the point – these sorts of accidents are inevitable.

Most of the book is looking at specific systems (nuclear power plants, chemical plants, airplanes, marine shipping, dams, spacecraft, etc.), trying to categorize them, and looking at examples of accidents.

(I should point out that I’m grossly oversimplifying here…)

I think I mostly agree with his points, but I really don’t have the depth of experience to know how reasonable his approach is. The book was written just before Chernobyl (so the part about nuclear power plants seems prescient), but there’s also an afterward written in the late 90s about the Y2K problem and how maybe everything will be fine but there will likely be unpredictable serious problems, which didn’t pan out. So I dunno.

The book itself is pretty academic and was kind of a slog to get through even though I am interested in the topic.

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Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster review

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a really interesting book about the Chernobyl disaster. I was hoping for details about why it happened, and while the book does go into that the explosion happens around page 100 of the book. (of 360 or so) But what happened afterwards was really interesting, too!

The reactor design at Chernobyl was a major cause of the accident. Nuclear reactors in the West used water as a coolant and as a moderator – if the reactor gets too hot, that turned more of the water to steam, which is a less effective moderator, so that slows the chain reaction down and can even stop it. This is known as a “negative void coefficient”, and means that if things get out of control the reactor will shut itself down thanks to physics. But the Chernobyl had a “positive void coefficient”, meaning that if the reactor gets too hot the chain reaction speeds up, and if the operators of the plant don’t do something to stop it a meltdown or explosion would occur.

The Russian physicists didn’t discover this until late during the construction of their first nuclear reactor of this kind. They tried to tweak the design but couldn’t fix this problem easily.

Another problem was that the emergency shutdown protocol was to drop a bunch of control rods to absorb a bunch of neutrons and stop the chain reaction. But they thought the impact of instantly shutting off all power would be too harsh on the Soviet power grid, so by design it took around twenty seconds for the control rods to complete their descent into the core.

In fact, this reactor type had already had two major accidents (one partial meltdown and one explosion), so the Soviet agency in charge was supposed to develop new safety regulations and a better emergency shutdown protocol. But none of that was ever done, probably because of the political pressure to get more reactors up and running. And in fact every nuclear accident was treated as a state secret (presumably because it was politically embarrassing), so even operators of other reactors weren’t told what had happened!

Shoddy construction (due to unrealistic deadlines) was yet another problem.

I was curious about how much of the accident’s cause was due to the Soviet political system, and it turns out a lot of it was. Despite the things I mentioned above, the designers did write a manual that included detailed instructions that probably would have been good enough to avoid problems, if operators followed them perfectly and exactly (which is itself unrealistic). But operators were used to bending the rules to get things done to meet their production targets already. And because of the whole secrecy aspect the manual didn’t emphasize which rules were actually necessary for safety.

Another takeaway from the book is that the plant operators didn’t even realize there had been a (giant!) explosion for a while. Some of this, it seems, was due to the usual “fog of war” around major accidents (an explosion in the reactor was basically unthinkable), but there seems to be some incompetence as well, or something. The book goes into detail about people in the town going about their day (the explosion happened around 1 AM on Saturday morning) and I spent around 100 pages yelling “Get out of there!”.

Other odds and ends:
– The Soviet agency behind atomic weapons and nuclear reactors was named the “Ministry of Medium Machine Building” in order to to conceal its true work!
– Fallout (radioactive dust) is very very hard to clean up, because it’s, well, dust. Spraying down streets, etc. with water helps but every time the wind picked up it would just get picked up and moved around more.
– Gorbachev (the general secretary of the Communist Party at the time) wanted to come clean about what had happened to the world in line with his glasnost policy, but was overruled by the Party elders. In fact, people (Gorbachev included!) see the Chernobyl accident and ensuing coverup as a big factor in what brought down the Soviet Union down.
– Because the radioactivity had spread to Europe relatively quickly, the West knew that something was up but not what had happened or how bad it was. A United Press International reporter in Moscow at the time talked to a Russian woman who said that two thousand people had died as a result of the explosion, and this made headlines everywhere. This was not in fact true, and a different reporter thought that the UPI reporter’s Russian was so bad he mistranslated what the woman had said!
– One of the cleanup efforts involved helicopters dropping sand or clay on the now burning reactor to try to put out the fire. (this later turned out to be a Very Bad Idea(TM)) The helicopter pilots try to line their helicopter and seat with lead to protect themselves, and even had a catchy rhyme about it: “If you want to be a dad, cover your balls in lead”! (I’m assuming that rhymes in Russian or something)
– The China Syndrome (based on the 1979 movie) saying that a reactor could melt down through the floor and the ground, all the way to China, is not true. But the Chernobyl reactor could have melted down through the floor and get into the river nearby, which would have poisoned the water that thirty million people used(!) Thankfully, this did not happen.
– Another big worry was that all the material left in the reactor could have started a new nuclear chain reaction, emitting much more radiation. This also did not happen.
– There was a bunch of radioactive debris on the roof of the building (there were three more reactors as a part of the same complex!), and technicians tried to deploy robots designed to work with radioactive material to clean it up. But the environment was too hostile for the robots – the radiation and gamma fields killed their electronics. So they used “bio-robots” – soldiers would run out onto the roof (with some protective gear), throw some debris through the hole in the roof, and run off. This would hit them with the maximum allowed radiation dosage, so they’d get a handshake and get to go home, and the next soldier would go in. It took over 3800 soldiers, but they got the job done.
– 17.5 million people lived in the most seriously contaminated areas of Ukraine, and 696,000 had been examined by doctors, but the official death toll was 31. This was, of course, a gross understatement of the deaths the radiation caused.
– In the end, 1800 square miles of Ukraine and Belarus were declared “officially uninhabitable”.

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Breaking and Entering: The Extraordinary Story of a Hacker Called “Alien” review

Breaking and Entering: The Extraordinary Story of a Hacker Called

Breaking and Entering: The Extraordinary Story of a Hacker Called “Alien” by Jeremy N. Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was…fine. The book spends a long time on Alien’s time at MIT, which was sorta interesting but not very compelling. Then it writes about her first few jobs before she became a security consultant/pentester. The last section was the most interesting, and there were little bits of interestingness throughout the rest, but I can’t really recommend it. It’s a cross between a biography and “here’s what security consultants do” (although it does reference the movie Sneakers; points for that!), and the biography stuff was just not that interesting.

I think that I just don’t like biographies in general (I couldn’t even get through the sample of Michelle Obama’s, which surprised me), so maybe you’d like this better if you do, or if you’re less familiar with computer security?

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Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes review

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise and Other Bribes

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book whose thesis is basically: rewards don’t work and are bad for people. It’s pretty interesting, and I’d recommend it with some caveats. (see below)

Saying “if you do this, you get that” makes you think of the “this” as just a means to get the “that”. It saps your intrinsic motivation for “this”, so once the reward is taken away (or you get used to the reward) you want to do “this” less. In fact, if “this” is any sort of creative task it can make you do a worse job at “this”!

He also discusses how rewards are generally controlling (and/or condescending), which I somewhat buy.

Odds and ends:
– Unexpected rewards are much less destructive than rewards that people expect; of course this is hard to maintain because people will start expecting them!
– The author points out that grades in school act as rewards, so we should try to get rid of them. Of course, that’s a bit ambitious, so at least parents can focus on what their kids are learning at school instead of what grades they’re making.
– One common objection is “if you don’t reward people, they’ll just be lazy and won’t do anything”. But people are generally inclined to try to succeed at something moderately difficult. (not too easy, not too hard)
– The author cites numerous studies where promising money for completing puzzles, playing games, etc. works initially, but once the reward is withdrawn people get less interested in the puzzle, etc. than people who never got a reward to begin with.
– There’s a whole section about praise and how it’s basically just like a reward (i.e. bad). This makes sense in a work setting, and I’ve been trying to apply it at home with the kids by showing them unconditional love and showing interest when they accomplish something. But it’s sooooo hard not to just say “Good job!” like a thousand times a day!
– The demotivating effect of rewards happens even if you reward yourself for something! Yikes.
– If you’re talking about an activity that you don’t care if your child has an intrinsic motivation for, rewards are pretty OK. (the money quote here is: “a regimen of positive reinforcement for potty-training a toddler is not likely to do lasting harm…Why? Because we are not terrible concerned to instill a lifelong love of defecation.” Hah!)
– Instead of using reward to get someone to do an uninteresting task, the recommendation is to acknowledge that the task doesn’t seem interesting, offer a meaningful reason that it needs to be done anyway, and give the person as much control as possible about how to do the task.
– Giving out a reward for a competition is especially bad, because the winner will lose intrinsic motivation, and everyone else, well, didn’t win.
– Praising someone for a result is especially bad, but praising for effort, while less bad, still has all the problems listed above. But if you are going to praise, he recommends:
– Don’t praise people (“you’re so good!”), only what they do
– Make praise as specific as possible
– Avoid phony praise
– Avoid praise that sets up a competition
– The author is also not a fan of “natural consequences” because he sees them as controlling. Which, I can kind of get (the examples he gave were not great examples of natural consequences, to be honest), but parenting is hard and while he does offer some suggestions I’m not sold on how realistic they are.
– Instead, if you’re having a discipline problem with your child, he recommends looking at the content of your request (are you asking your child to do something that’s really necessary, or just to do something because it’s convenient for you?), try to collaborate with your child to mutually problem solve (or if it’s something you can’t budge on like a safety issue, at least explain why they can’t run out into traffic), and give the child as much choice as possible.
– Praising a child when they achieve something is a problem not only for the reasons above but also because it signals conditional acceptance – they may think they’re only valued because of their accomplishments. Children need unconditional love!

Now, the bad news. I found the content of the book interesting, but it was a real slog to get through. One reason is the usual tiredness from having two kids; hopefully this doesn’t apply to you 🙂 Another problem for me was the way the book is structured. It talks about how rewards don’t work in the workplace, at school, and for raising children, and the last few chapters are about what does work in these situations. By the time I got to these last few chapters I had kinda given up hope on ever doing anything right (at least in regards to raising children) because it seemed like anything I did would mess up my kids. Reading the last few chapters did help, to be fair.

My main problem, though, is that the book is really long – the paperback version is 430 pages, although there are a lot of footnotes. I’ve run into this problem before with books that are trying to build an unconventional case for something and the book gets very repetitive citing study after study after study. I understand why the author did this, but I almost wish there were two versions of the book; one that includes all the studies, and one that summarizes and gets to the point a bit faster. I don’t know what a reasonable solution to this problem is, but it does make me a little hesitant to recommend the book without adding “but feel free to skip to the next section when you get bored”.

Also, this is not a good book to read right before you have to set goals for performance evaluations at work 🙂

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Spy the Lie: Three Former CIA Officers Reveal Their Secrets to Uncloaking Deception review

Spy the Lie: Three Former CIA Officers Reveal Their Secrets to Uncloaking Deception

Spy the Lie: Three Former CIA Officers Reveal Their Secrets to Uncloaking Deception by Philip Houston

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was…fine. It has some interesting techniques for interrogating people, but it seems like to use them in practice you have to have a fairly controlled environment. It is at least realistic that this isn’t going to make you a “human lie detector” and has some tips for asking your children questions which is only somewhat creepy.

Anyway, it was a fun read but not super practical.

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Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams review

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not sure why I decided to read this book about sleep at a time in my life when I’m fairly sleep-deprived (hi Baby Nick!), although it’s not as bad as when I read a book about airplane crashes while on an airplane. (for the record: I was OK reading the book, but watching the airplane scene of the movie Flight creeped me the heck out!)

Anyway, this is a really really good book that everyone should read. I’ve always been mildly interested in sleep, so I knew some of this stuff, but there was a ton of stuff I didn’t know and a lot of it was very interesting. The book is full of interesting studies that sound like they were pretty well done.

The upshot of the book is: sleep is really important and does a ton of stuff for your body, and getting less than you should impacts you in a ton of ways. Basically everyone needs between seven and nine hours a night. So prioritize sleep!

Now for the details I found particularly interesting:
– There are two main stages of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-REM). I knew this but I could never remember which is the important one, and the reason is that they’re both important! NREM is important for memory retention (moving short-term memories into longer-term storage), and REM sleep is important for “recharging” your ability to handle your own emotions and detect emotions in others.
– The easy way to tell whether you’re getting enough sleep is to answer these questions: after waking up in the morning, could you go back to sleep at 10 or 11 AM? And can you function without caffeine before noon? If the answers are “yes” or “no” respectively, you’re probably at least somewhat sleep deprived.
– Animals vary wildly in how much they sleep, even among similar species, and we don’t know why. (opossums sleep 50% longer than rats!) Also, fur seals have both NREM and REM sleep when they’re on land, but when in the water they stop having REM sleep, as far as we can tell.
– I had read that in the old days, people would sleep in two chunks, and in between they’d be awake for several hours. This is true, but it wasn’t nearly as universal as I had thought – it seems to have been just a Western European practice for a little while around the year 1700.
– Lack of REM sleep makes it harder to regulate your emotions (to which I said “hahahaha sob I know!”)
– Asking a teenager to wake up at 7 AM is like asking an adult to wake up at 4 or 5 AM, and high schools really really should start later in the morning than they do. (some high schools have moved back their start time to closer to 9 AM, which is great!)
– As we get older, we get less and less quality sleep, and this is responsible for some of the effects of old age, both physical and mental. People think that seniors need less sleep, but that’s only because it’s hard to tell how much quality sleep you’re getting – all evidence shows that seniors need as much quality sleep as other adults.
– NREM sleep is more concentrated near the beginning of your sleep period, while REM sleep is more concentrated near the end. So if you go to bed later than usual, you’re missing out on mostly NREM sleep, and if you wake up early, you’re missing out on mostly REM sleep.
– There’s an experimental protocol that stimulates the brain during NREM sleep that almost doubles the facts that people were able to remember the next day! They’ve also shown a lesser effect (around 40% improvement) just by emitting sounds in sync with brain waves, and even rocking the bed in sync with brain waves seems to improve NREM sleep.
– In a test of reaction time, people who got six hours of sleep per night for ten nights did as badly as people who had been awake for twenty-four hours!
– This link hasn’t been proven yet, but studies suggest that lack of NREM sleep may raise your risk for Alzheimer’s. Yikes!
– Switching to daylight saving time (i.e. losing an hour) leads to a spike in heart attacks the next day. Conversely, switching away from daylight saving time leads to a big drop in heart attacks. The same effect can be seen in traffic accidents.
– People who had gotten more sleep were rated as looking more healthy and more attractive 🙂
– There are only epidemiological studies (i.e. not double-blind and well-controlled), but there’s some evidence that nighttime shift work and the disrupting of circadian rhythms increase your odds of getting various cancers. Denmark has actually started to pay worker’s compensation to people who developed cancer after working night-shift work in government jobs.
– To get over emotional trauma, dreaming about the painful experience (which can be done with little emotion) seems to be necessary to get past it. PTSD seems to be a breakdown in the ability to do this – the brain keeps trying to dream about the painful event but it always has the strong emotions associated with it.
– Going without REM sleep impairs your ability to detect emotions in others – you tend to see the world as a more threatening place. (i.e. you become more paranoid) This is not a great thing for people who have night shift work, like nurses, doctors, and police officers!
– Waking people up in the middle of REM sleep makes them way more creative! (as measured by a test to find anagrams) And dreaming about a particular task does seem to make you much more able to find creative solutions to that task.
– I’ve read this before, but it still surprises me – the optimal sleeping temperature is around 65 degrees, which is cold!
– It seems like many children that have been diagnosed with ADHD may just be sleep-deprived. (obviously it’s hard to determine this on a large scale, but the symptoms are pretty similar, and the author’s estimate is that more than half of kids with ADHD fall into this bucket!)
– The big insurance company Aetna gives bonuses to their employees who wear sleep trackers and regularly get seven hours of sleep per night. (I applaud their efforts, but this is creepy)
– I understand narcolepsy a bit better now (the “sleep-wake” switch in the brain is unstable and easily gets triggered), and it sounds really hard to live with, especially since the treatment options we have today are not very good 😦

Anyway, I highly recommend this book, and if you want to try to sleep better here are some tips from the National Sleep Foundation, although there’s nothing earth-shattering there. I was planning on giving this book four stars because the laundry list of “things lack of sleep makes worse” got a little long (the book is on the long side at 360 pages), but the book was so interesting in general I had to give it five!

As I mentioned earlier, I’m trying to avoid buying from Amazon, so this was the first book I read on the Barnes & Noble Nook app. And it was totally fine and a perfectly reasonable substitute for Kindle!

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