Larry Hosken: New

Book Report: Republic of Lies

This book explores some recent hoaxes and fake news, concentrating on stories that got gullible folks to take political action. (Does blundering around with a rifle count as "political action"? Maybe. Anyhow.) Though I'd bumped into these hoaxes and hoaxters in the news, this book pointed out some trends I hadn't picked up on.

E.g., dummies who fell for one hoax fall for other hoaxes. There's bad news and good news here. The bad news: loons don't admit they were wrong; they just stop following one piece of fake news and move on to the next. The good news: if you thought that umpty-ump thousand Americans believed in pizzagate and another umpty-ump thousand Americans believe in QAnon, you'd think a lot of Americans were really gullible; but there's a lot of overlap between those dummies.

It was kind of spooky to read about how such a large fraction of Swedish folks prefer non-mainstream news at the same time that Sweden was Leroy Jenkinsing COVID-19, letting many many citizens die because maybe the disease wasn't going to be that dangerous somehow?

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Pull List

In these unprecedentedly contagious times, I must not shop inside the comic book store. Instead, I can order ahead so the excellent proprietor can hand comics to me at the front door. This nudged me to figure out a "pull list", a list of comics to reserve. Organized comic collectors have them; and nowadays I guess I'm one of those.

Every so often someone asks me what comic books I read and I can never remember at the moment, since I'm not so organized, comics-wise. But today I have an answer!

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Book Report: The Grid (The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future)

In my head, an electrical company's control room looks like some Hollywood vision of NORAD: a map of the region with blinking red lights to indicate imminent-brownout warnings. But my head is wrong. Historically, a good-enough monitoring sytem for an electrical grid was a telephone: when customers from some neighborhood called up to complain that they'd lost power, you knew that neighborhood had a problem. That system worked pretty well for a long time. In the bad old days, things were more predictable.

In the bad old days, power use was more predictable second-to-second. That was good, because electricity moves really fast, and we don't have much good battery tech yet; thus, a big electrical company needs to provide just the right amount of power for all its customers second-to-second. Old-time refrigerators kept running all the time instead of just running their chillers occasionally. This used a lot more power—but that use meant that a typical household's power use was about constant (modulo a big step when the AC turned on/off).

In the bad old days, power production was predictable second-to-second. As long as you kept flinging coal into the burner, power came out at a steady rate. New-fangled wind and solar power plants are better for our health, but not so predictable, second-to-second. We don't control weather.

In the USA, things aren't modernizing so quickly. Some regions finally have smart meters, but plenty still don't. There's monitoring systems that can watch for power problems on lines—but they're new and have software that's new (and thus hasn't had all the bugs shaken out yet). The USA has brownouts and blackouts. I used to think my local utility, PG&E, was bad, and they are—but they're not atypically bad for the USA.

The economics and laws aren't so great for modern USA power companies. Reality isn't great for them, either. E.g., if my landladies put solar collectors on my apartment building's roof, that's good for a lot of people, but not for the power company. There's more clean power available; folks in the building could use that power even if the local utility has problems… but it's yet another bit of unpredictable power production on the grid with less money going to the power company. The book indirectly makes a good case for moving power companies out of private hands and over to government; the system that works best for the local economy overall might not make money itself.

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My local blood bank (Vitalant, operating in the San Francisco bay area) wrote to say that they're especially interested in plasma donations from folks who have recovered from Covid-19. Apparently, they're working with local med school+hospital UCSF to test whether such blood might help other folks to covercome the disease. My high school chum Peter Tang points out that such plasma isn't likely to be a super-duper cure: really what you want is for the body to produce its own antibodies; donated antibodies might help a little, though. (I think he said something like that. I'm scrolling through old chats, and he kinda went on a rant about why injecting UV was a bad idea… It's been a rough time for folks who know something about medical whatever… a lot to get upset about ANYHOW Peter's had a lot to vent about lately and I didn't have the energy to keep scrolling back through all of it to find exactly what he was saying about antibodies or whatever from donated blood). I'm accustomed to the blood bank asking me about various diseases that might disqualify me from donating, but it's new for them to ask about extra-tasty super-qualifying diseases.

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Learning new habits isn't so difficult, compared to unlearning old habits. I learned a rigorous hand-washing routine pretty quickly. But even after weeks of shelter-at-home, I struggle to stop old habits. When I head out for a pre-dawn exercise walk, I absent-mindedly turn off the light—so when I come back home (in the dark) I must choose between stumbling to the sink (in the dark) so I can wash my hands (in the dark) or I can turn the lights back on with perhaps-plaguey hands (and then use precious disinfectant cleaning the switch). On my way back into my apartment, I absent-mindedly lock the deadbolt before I've washed my hands; and there goes more disinfectant.

April is National Poetry Month. I suppose I should make up some mnemonic rhyme to say as I approach my apartment door to remind myself what to touch and not-touch. But it should be quick; I don't want to stand muttering to myself by the door for 30 seconds whenever I head in or out.

Go for walk,
  Key in lock.
Only gawk.
  Touch? No, balk.

Hmm, that's not so great. Any better poems out there?

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Book Report: Cult of the Dead Cow (Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World)

Nowadays we talk about the Centers for Disease Control a bunch but back in the Aughts, when we said the cDC, we probably meant the Cult of the Dead Cow. This was a group of hackers. Some of them were good at breaking computer security. Some of them were good at PR. Thanks to that combination, they got into the news fairly often. This book, Cult of the Dead Cow (by Menn) tells their story.

It's an interesting read. How could a bunch of kids growing up talking on BBS systems grow up into folks who convinced Microsoft to finally get serious about fixing its then-atrocious security? Kids who studied phreaking so they could steal long-distance phone time… those kids up into nerds who could find holes in modern-day computers. Kids who wrote rambly screeds in BBS textfiles turned into nerds who could explain a hackerish point of view.

Not all of their stories made it into the news; thus, I learned from this book. E.g., I learned that part of the reason I was so surprised to learn about China's "50-cent army" successfully snitching out dissent online—someone in the cDc, hoping to draw attention to China's authoriatarian tendencies, had spun a yarn about a (fictional) Chinese hacking group. I fell for that yarn back in the day; and didn't find out that it was a yarn until I read this book.

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I thought I knew what "home industry" meant but maybe it should also mean industrial music sheltering at home

Ten Grand Goldie official video from Einst├╝rzende Neubauten on Vimeo.

It's all very well to say you shouldn't adjust your facemask that way, but that's a difficult rule when you're singing.

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San Francisco fans of parks and the Pythagorean theorem will appreciate this picture.
[Picture: corrected social distancing sign, near Conservatory of Flowers]

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Book Report: The Fighters (Americans in Combat)

The USA invades countries every so often. This book tells the stories of some American soldiers in combat. Some things go well. Some things go wrong. If I knew a kid considering joining the military, I'd encourage that kid to read this book.

Things go wrong.

Two things can simultaneously be true:

We joke that "military intelligence" is an oxymoron, but we base deadly decisions on military intelligence. Thus, while we harm many bad guys, we harm innocents as well. E.g., this book describes a sad incident: USA infantry soldiers are defending their position in a foreign town. A piece of American artillery comes along, seemingly out of nowhere, and blows up a house sheltering local women and children. Townsfolk confront the infantry: You did this. These particular soldiers didn't fling a shell into the wrong house. But they still get the blame, because they're standing there.

USA soldiers, told they would be greeted as liberators, are surprised when their "allies" don't want to help them. But that's the pattern. Even though folks in some country are suffering, there's little reason to think that sending in troops will help them.

I'm making this book sound like an unrelenting bummer. It relents. But the bummers stay with you.

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Haircut Day

I got tired of remembering not to brush my hair out of my face. I gave myself a haircut. The haircut doesn't look great. On the other hand, maybe it's sufficiently off-putting that folks will remember to keep their distance.

[selfie: pre-haircut] [selfie: pre-haircut]

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