Book Review: “The Wax Pack” by Brad Balukjian

The premise: a baseball fan fondly recalls his childhood memories of obsessively opening and collecting packs of baseball cards.

While watching an A’s game one afternoon at the Coliseum (which he rightly describes as a “post-apocalyptic crater ringed with hot dog stands”), he wonders what the players featured on the cards he collected as a kid were doing with their lives after their baseball careers had ended.

After purchasing a pack of cards on eBay from 1986, (the first year the author remembers having baseball cards), he sets off on a road trip across America to find and hopefully meet the 14 players featured in this 30-year-old card pack.

High jinks, hilarity and even important life lessons ensue.

This was just a great read and I highly recommend it for any baseball fan. Check it out on Goodreads.

Relevant excerpts from “Spillover”

In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been reading “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” by David Quammen, published in 2012 (!!).  It takes a look into various zoonotic viruses that make the jump from animal to human. There have been a number of passages that have just jumped out and resonated with me as I’ve been reading.

One further factor, possibly the most crucial, was inherent to the way SARS-CoV affects the human body: Symptoms tend to appear in a person before, rather than after, that person becomes highly infectious. The headache, the fever, and the chills—maybe even the cough—precede the major discharge of virus toward other people. […] That order of events allowed many SARS cases to be recognized, hospitalized, and placed in isolation before they hit their peak of infectivity.

And a few paragraphs later:

“That probably helped account for the scale of worldwide misery and death during the 1918–1919 influenza: high infectivity among cases before they experienced the most obvious and debilitating stages of illness. The bug traveled ahead of the sense of alarm. And that infamous global pandemic, remember, occurred in the era before globalization. Everything nowadays moves around the planet faster, including viruses. If SARS had conformed to the perverse pattern of presymptomatic infectivity, its 2003 emergence wouldn’t be a case history in good luck and effective outbreak response. It would be a much darker story. The much darker story remains to be told, probably not about this virus but about another.”

One section of the book that was especially chilling involved the monkeys that inhabited the sacred monkey temples on Bali. In 2014, Kerry and I took our honeymoon there and I had even posted about the crazy monkeys: “While cute looking, the monkeys here are ridiculously aggressive. It was a bit scary!

Anyway, the monkeys on the island are all apparently infected with herpes B, which kills nearly everyone.

The monkeys aren’t shy about accepting, even demanding, those handouts. They have lost their wild instincts about personal space. Enterprising local photographers run a brisk trade in photos of tourists posed with macaques. “And here’s me in Bali, with a monkey on my head. Cute little guy, just wanted that Snickers bar. But the cute little guys sometimes bite and scratch.”

Engel, Jones-Engel, and their colleagues gathered two interesting sets of data from this place. They surveyed the monkey population, by way of blood samples; and they surveyed the human workforce at Sangeh, by way of interviews and also blood samples. What they found says a lot about the scope of opportunity for virus spillover between Asian monkeys and people.

The team drew blood from thirty-eight macaques, of which twenty-eight were adults, the rest youngsters. They screened the blood serum for evidence of antibodies to herpes B, the same virus that killed William Brebner and most of the other people ever infected with it. The results of the lab work were chilling: Among adult long-tailed macaques at Sangeh, the prevalence of herpes B antibodies was 100 percent. Every mature animal had been infected.

But, there is good news!

The researchers merely estimated that there must be thousands of monkey-bitten tourists walking away from Sangeh each year—and Sangeh is just one such Balinese monkey temple among a handful. The odds of a human contracting herpes B under these circumstances seem vast.

But it hasn’t happened, so far as anyone knows.

I recommended the book to my dad and he asked if it had a happy ending. I shared this passage toward to end of the book with him.

“These scientists are on alert. They are our sentries. They watch the boundaries across which pathogens spill. And they are productively interconnected with one another. When the next novel virus makes its way from a chimpanzee, a bat, a mouse, a duck, or a macaque into a human, and maybe from that human into another human, and thereupon begins causing a small cluster of lethal illnesses, they will see it—we hope they will, anyway—and raise the alarm.

Whatever happens after that will depend on science, politics, social mores, public opinion, public will, and other forms of human behavior. It will depend on how we citizens respond.”

He replied simply, “so much for the happy ending.”

I ended up rating this book 5 stars on Goodreads. I probably wouldn’t have discovered it if not for the current global pandemic, but it is something I think I’d have enjoyed before everything changed. David Quammen looks at a number of zoonotic diseases (SARS, Lyme, and AIDS among them) and their fascinating histories.

Book Review: “Talking to Strangers” by Malcom Gladwell

Talking to Strangers” examines how our internal and cultural biases affect our interactions and perceptions of the people around us.

Early in the book, Gladwell mentions a study that gets right to the heart of the book and was really eye opening for me.

It’s a study into the “illusion of asymmetric insight” and shows us how we think we’re good an interpreting what a stranger is thinking or their intentions (spoiler: we’re actually really horrible at it).

Participants were required to complete a set of words with missing letters and then asked what the results say about them.

For example, someone was given “TOU _ _”. Some people would fill in the blanks as “TOUGH” and others would put “TOUCH”.

Afterward, the participant was asked if they think these results reflect their beliefs and core values. Nearly every participant said their word choices were random and had no relation on how they view the world.

Then they were given a random set of words from other people and asked the same question: What do you think these word choices say about these strangers?

Everyone had a strong opinion within literally minutes of being asked the same question about themselves! “Whoever wrote these sounds pretty vain“, or “this person sounds very obsessed with money and power.

Crazy, right?

The book is full of studies like this, as well as specific examples from real life interactions like this (some with very tragic consequences) and takes a deeper look into why things might have played out the way they did — from a traffic stop in Texas that went very wrong, broken diplomatic promises before World War II, a high-profile sexual assault that occurred at Stanford, and even looking into the motivations of people who try to commit suicide and our collective misunderstanding as to why and where these things happen.

I went into this book not knowing exactly what it was about. I thought, “Oh! New Malcom Gladwell book and it seems to be getting some good reviews, let’s go for it”. It took around a chapter or two for me to really get into the book and see where it was going, but when things finally clicked for me, this was fascinating and enlightening look at every day interactions.

Book Review: “You Look Like a Thing and I Love You” by Janelle Shane

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You is a great, quick read for anyone who is even remotely curious about what things like AI, machine learning or neural networks actually mean and how it affects your day-to-day life.

Whether it’s facial recognition, to self-driving cars, to the search results you get from Google, this book describes the different types of machine learning algorithms, often in a humorous way (the first few pages deal with the author trying to generate pick-up lines using a neural network — hence the title of this book).

It’s a quick read and dives into some of the limitations that machine learning algorithms are bound by and how machine learning algorithms can be tricked, return results outside the parameters of a problem, or even cheat (e.g., when one AI agent was given an objective to minimize the number of times a character died in a video game, it found out how to simply pause the game).

One particular section of the book talks about the recently released GPT-2 data model by OpenAI, which can be used to generate fairly intelligent and coherent sounding blocks of text. It prompted me to try and run the model on my own machine.

After giving the model a prompt of “machine learning can be scary,” the computer responded with the following block of text:

“The problem is, it’s easy to forget that we can’t avoid the problem with software. It’s often hard to avoid the problem, but knowing how to avoid it is not the same as knowing how to avoid it. The problem is, the problem is easy to avoid, but the problem is hard to avoid.”

Do we need to worry about robot overlords any time soon? Probably not.

This is a book that I’d recommend to both people who are tech savvy and to parents who might still call you with questions on how to turn on a computer… or at least anyone curious to how machine learning affects various aspects of our lives.

We are all just algorithms…

I’ve long joked that “we’re all just algorithms in some engineer’s machine.”

But it’s kind of true.

I recently finished reading Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari, which imagines what the lives of our children, grandchildren, and beyond will be like and how technology will affect them.

We generate copious amounts of data each day and give our personal electronic devices and social networks almost unfettered access to all of it. Everything from how long we sleep, how often we exercise, where we go each day to the types of songs, movies and books we like.

There was one passage from the book that I found both amazing and frightening:

A recent study commissioned by Google’s nemesis – Facebook – has indicated that already today the Facebook algorithm is a better judge of human personalities and dispositions than even people’s friends, parents and spouses. The study was conducted on 86,220 volunteers who have a Facebook account and who completed a hundred-item personality questionnaire.

The Facebook algorithm predicted the volunteers’ answers based on monitoring their Facebook Likes – which webpages, images and clips they tagged with the Like button. The more Likes, the more accurate the predictions. The algorithm’s predictions were compared with those of work colleagues, friends, family members and spouses.

Amazingly, the algorithm needed a set of only ten Likes in order to outperform the predictions of work colleagues. It needed seventy Likes to outperform friends, 150 Likes to outperform family members and 300 Likes to outperform spouses. In other words, if you happen to have clicked 300 Likes on your Facebook account, the Facebook algorithm can predict your opinions and desires better than your husband or wife!

This is one of the main reasons why both Google and Facebook have some of the largest (and most effective) advertising networks on the internet.

They fundamentally know who you are and what you like and know us better than we know ourselves.

Indeed, in some fields the Facebook algorithm did better than the person themself. Participants were asked to evaluate things such as their level of substance use or the size of their social networks. Their judgements were less accurate than those of the algorithm.

Excerpts from “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” by Yuval Noah Harari.

Giving audiobooks a try (again)

I’ve tried to get into audiobooks in the past, but never found them enjoyable.

That changed earlier this summer ahead of our epic road trip to Wyoming to see the total solar eclipse (oh hey, I never wrote about that experience). I saw an offer for new Audible memberships that sounded like a pretty good deal, so I jumped on it.

The first book I ended up download was The Power Broker, which ended up totaling over 60 hours of audio! And you know what?

It. Was. Awesome.

I think I’ve finally found out why I could never get into audiobooks in the past. It’s because I listened to them at normal 1x speed. The narrators read the stories so so so slow. If I speed things up to 1.5x or 1.75x, it sounds much more interesting to me and I find that I’m able to keep focus.

Plus, it turns a 66 hour story into a 50 hour story. Saves time (for more audiobooks). I really recommend it. It’s been a nice break from listening to my standard array of podcasts, which have focused on depressing news as of late.

Since I subscribed in August, I’ve now listened to:

And I’m currently working through Washington (41 hours) by Ron Chernow (he wrote the recently popular biography about Alexander Hamilton, which the musical is based on).

Book Review: City of Thieves

Historical fiction and World War II are two subjects that I love reading about. Even better when they’re combined, in my opinion. I just finished City of Thieves by David Benioff and it’s one of my favorite books that I’ve read in awhile.

It follows the antics of two teenage Russian boys during the siege of Leningrad in the early 1940’s. After the boys are caught breaking the law and thrown in prison, they are given reprieve by a local military commander. Find a dozen eggs in 5 days and their lives will be spared.

From then on, both hilarity and catastrophe ensue. It’s full of (mis)adventure, humor, and even has some deep reflections on what it means to be alive. There were parts where I laughed out loud and other parts that nearly brought a tear to my eye.

For anyone who’s a fan of historical fiction, especially when set in World War II, I highly recommend this book. It’s great. And at 260 pages, you can get through it really quick.

Book Review: Gulp – Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another Mary Roach classic. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal takes us through the body’s digestive tract. Like many books by Mary Roach, it’s sometimes gross, often hilarious, and always informative. Bonus points for beginning the story with the smell of beer and wine right here in Oakland at Beer Revolution.

She does a great job sharing relevant stories and interesting facts about each part of our digestive tract, among them:

* How smell influences what we taste
* Why we prefer crispy foods
* The history of scientific research into digestion through “fistulated holes”
* Fiber: the munchies, the myth, and the legend
* Did Elvis die from being constipated
* And lots and lots of stories related to the science of studying poo

Needless to say, this isn’t a book you want to read while eating lunch. But it did elicit a number of laughs and giggles from me while I took public transit to and from work each day. Overall, it was a pretty enjoyable and informative read. If you’ve enjoyed anything from Mary Roach before, I’d highly recommend this as well.

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Book Review: Zoo

Zoo
Zoo by James Patterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Let me start off by saying that the premise of “Zoo” sounds like a very promising story. It’s a techno-thriller set in the present day and explores a mystery illness suddenly spreading around the world that is causing all sorts of mammals to inexplicably attack humans on sight (and smell). From domesticated pets to wild animals, we’ve suddenly become nature’s favorite snack.

In reality, this book should probably be named, “50 Shades of Prey.” The writing style leaves quite a bit to be desired. The story alternates between poorly written third person narratives describing various animals attacking humans and tortuous first-person accounts from a “scientist” named Oz — an arrogant manic drop-out with ADHD from Colombia University who you would probably find calling into Art Bell’s Coast to Coast each week. Oh, he also has an insane chimpanzee for a pet.

Anyway, the story opens with two lions from the LA Zoo attacking their keeper (whom they’ve been familiar with for years) and escaping into the urban jungle known as Los Angeles and generally wrecking some major havoc.

From there, we meet Oz, a self-proclaimed pioneer of a little-known theory called HAC — human-animal conflict. For roughly the last 10 or so years, he’s been tracking every instance of animal attacks on humans and is the only one who notices a disturbing trend: they’ve been increasing exponentially!

It probably doesn’t help that his main / preferred companion is a chimp and he is a chronic homebody. (Interestingly enough, he still manages to have a girlfriend or two in the book.) Coupled with his caustic attitude toward other scientists who looked down upon him (and the constant snarky quips and comments he shares throughout the book), I can’t think of a single reason why anyone would have a hard time believing him.

Anyway, all of this leads to an interesting thought experiment: What happens when rats, bats, dogs, and dolphins (all lead by a single chimpanzee) take over the world and potentially lead to the fall of human civilization as we know it, while our only savior is a crazy introvert who knew this was going to happen all along?

Let’s just say that I really wanted to like this book. The concept had a lot of potential. Sadly, I found myself wanting to get through this book just so I could get done with it and move onto the next thing on my reading list. The parts describing the animal attacks tried to emulate a Stephen King horror novel while the first-person accounts with Oz were just downright torture to read.

Fortunately for me (and probably for you too), it’s a relatively mindless and quick read. I struggled with whether to give this two stars or three stars. The entire story started to unravel and grow more ridiculous toward the end (kind of like this review). Ultimately, I decided to give it 2 stars.

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Book Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Part sci-fi, part fantasy, and part adventure, Ready Player One is a fun read for anyone who is nerdy, plays video games, and grew up in the 80’s (and loved it). Some parts simply feel as if you’re watching someone else play a video game (we know how boring that can be), but others are action packed and deep enough to make you think. Read on for the rest of the review!

Ready Player One is the first book written by Ernest Cline. Published in 2011, it takes a look at an American dystopia in the near future (the story takes place around 2040). It’s a strange America – an America where abject poverty is prevalent on every street corner, but everyone still has access to the Internet.

More specifically, they have access to a virtual world called OASIS, which has replaced the Internet. OASIS is a fusion of Second Life, The Matrix, Avatar, World of Warcraft, Tron, and a number of other video games and movies. It’s a world where people go to escape the tedium and toil of everyday life, buy goods (both real and virtual), meet new people, and even learn and study.

The story follows our hero, Wade Watts, an overweight, nerdy kid only 18-years of age and living inside a slum née trailer park in Oklahoma City. Socially awkward, he’s extraordinarily gifted with computers and feels most comfortable inside OASIS.

Ready Player One is told from Wade’s point of view. He begins the story by recounting where he was when he found out that James Halliday, the creator of OASIS, had passed away. Halliday was both reclusive and eccentric, and spent nearly his entire life creating, maintaining, and adding to OASIS. One can’t help but think of Steve Wozniak when Wade describes Halliday’s mannerisms. (We later find that Halliday had a ruthless and smart business partner throughout his life – it’s almost an interesting parable for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.)

Halliday had no heirs for his massive fortune. Instead, he only left behind video instructions detailing what should be done with estate. All one had to do to inherit his riches was to find and complete a series of Easter Eggs that he had hidden throughout Oasis. That was it!

Wade continues the story, explaining that this was no easy task. Halliday had left behind no clues about where his Easter Eggs may have been hidden among the tens of thousands of worlds inside OASIS.

Wade, and the thousands of others hoping to solve Halliday’s puzzle, were known as “Gunters” (a portmanteau of “egg hunters”). They began to focus on every aspect of Halliday’s life, particularly the 1980’s – a period that Halliday was especially obsessed with during his life. From here, the book descends into a virtual tour of pop culture from the 80’s. Quotes from Monty Python, songs by Rush, and arcade games such as Pacman, Tempest, and more. For anyone reading who both grew up during the 80’s and considered themselves well versed in its culture and history, the book will provide a ton of enjoyment.

Along the way, Wade and his friends will encounter rival Gunters and evil corporations bent on gaining control of Halliday’s fortune (as well as control of OASIS). Some parts are cheesy (e.g., some of the fights and battles) and others are rather thought provoking (e.g., when Wade confesses that he’s falling in love with an avatar/player that he’s never met in person – it reminded me of the movie Catfish).

Many of the themes in the book – such as those related to virtual goods, the digital economy, and even net neutrality – are especially relevant to today’s connected world. While I don’t particularly agree with the author’s vision of the future, I definitely appreciate many of the underlying themes.

Overall, I found this book to be fairly enjoyable. Some parts were slow and longer than necessary, but Wade was always a class act throughout the story. So, do nice guys really finish last? Find out! 🙂

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