The Reading List (Summer, 2016)

I'm always reading something. Over the spring and summer, there's more time to read. I'm trying to make a dent in the stack of books I have. I thought ebooks were great (less clutter in my office!), but they have a downside (more clutter on my iPad!). Although I usually listen to podcasts when I'm commuting, sometimes it's nice to change it up and listen to an audio book. The Edmonton Public Library has a great selection at low cost.

Steven Levy has been one of my favourite technology writers since I read Hackers (1984) about the early computer counterculture, which he released online for free. Insanely Great (which is not free) is his account of the development of the Apple MacIntosh. I haven’t used a Mac in 25 years, so why would I bother reading this? First, it’s like stepping into a time machine back to the early 1990s, remembering what computers were like. Floppy disks--ha ha! Plus, Levy tells a great story, and he was there--interviewing insiders at the time.text
Think Like a Freak collects some of the most interesting stories from the Freakonomics podcast. Author Stephen J. Dubner is a great storyteller, even if I have heard the stories before. (Er, twice before. Not only did I hear the stories in the podcasts, I ended up reading this book two times for some reason. It seemed awfully familiar...) Don’t believe the title: it won’t "retrain your brain" or change the way you make decisions or solve problems, but you’ll encounter fascinating stories about the hidden side of eating contests, Van Halen’s strange M&M’s requests, and the bizarre research on stomach ulcers. haven’t I been aware of Jim Gaffigan before now? I mean, his dad-humour is right up my alley. Heck, I could help him write his material. (Or, well, I could just steal his jokes. Whatever.) I played the audiobook (read by Gaffigan himself) in the car and my kids loved it--starting with the title: Dad is Fat. Ha ha! Funny! (I wasn't sure if my kids were referring to me or not.) You may not find this book funny if you’re not a dad, or if you’re not a kid, or if you never were a kid. But you should at least watch his Hot Pockets routine on YouTube.
I’ve said before that Neil Gaiman is probably my favourite fiction author. The Graveyard Book was published way back in 2008, but I wanted to wait until at least one of my kids was old enough so that I could read it to her. The beginning is a bit grim (the best fairytales are, and it is Gaiman after all), but it’s not a horror book. It’s about kids being resilient and not giving up in the face of adversity. The Graveyard Book won a bunch of literary awards, and deservedly so; it is not a book just for kids. My 11-year-old loved it.
The Brain: The Story of You is the companion book to the PBS series The Brain with David Eagleman. You might be wondering what I’m doing reading a popular book about the brain. Don’t I know all this stuff already? OK, yes I do. But I want to see what neuroscientist Eagleman is up to, and how he presents the workings of the brain to a general audience. It’s not bad, but it’s not revolutionary, either. There’s a bit too much of “your brain does this” and “your brain does that.” Um, I am more than just my brain. Maybe it’s a subtle distinction between “I woke up” and “my brain woke up”, but it’s a meaningful one. Let’s not reduce ourselves to just being our brains. (Would you say, “my brain was eating lunch” or “my brain was having sex”?)
Tony Biglan is a behavioural scientist with decades of experience working in prevention research and public health. With so many seemingly overwhelming problems facing society, it’s enough to make you think that finding solutions is hopeless. This book will convince you otherwise. The Nurture Effect shows that behavioural sciences research has proven effective (both in terms of efficacy and cost) in reducing antisocial behaviour and substance dependence. It will take changes in individuals, families, and social policy, but there are evidence-based solutions.
Have you read anything good lately?

No? How about reading your textbooks then?
Why aren't you studying?

What I Did on my Summer Vacation (2016 edition) Part 2

Last time, I wrote about part of my summer vacation in Florida. This time: Disney World. (Hey, it was a big, long, expensive trip. I’ve got to get at least two posts out of it.) Did I mention it was expensive? The poor exchange rate really hurt my wallet. Add to that the fact that Disney tries really, really hard to separate your money from you. Whatever Disney-related item you desire, you can get it--clothes (including costumes and all kinds of hats), mugs, toys, kitchen utensils, cookies, decorations, and various miscellaneous collectibles. I’m pretty cheap, but the huge Disney Store in Disney Springs managed to break me down: two Star Wars ties and a pair of, er, boxer shorts. I'll be wearing the ties this term; they're not too flashy, so you'll have to look closely. No, you won't be seeing the boxer shorts, sorry.


Our hotel (Art of Animation) was nicely themed, including our small Little Mermaid-themed room. Unfortunately, being a cheap room, it was far from the main building and bus stop. How far? My Fitbit calculated it to be 0.6 km away. That’s Disney World: lots and lots of walking.

A pretty typical day in Disney World.

I was looking forward to the Star Wars attractions in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. We waiting in long lines to meet “Kylo Ren” and “Chewbacca”. Maybe they were the real thing, I dunno. (I called Kylo Ren a big jerk before running out the door.) Character greetings and autographs are a big thing these days. There are long lines for princesses, especially Anna and Elsa. But the worst was Joy and Sadness, from Inside Out. We waited over 90 minutes to meet two oversize stuffies in a lineup full of impatient, screaming children (not my kids, incidentally). My favourite movie of the year so far is Zootopia, but aside from a Nick Wilde character in a parade, and a small display of character sketches in Animal Kingdom, there was nothing to see. (Marketing opportunity, Disney!)

 This is one of the nicest pics I took.

There are always ups and downs when you travel with kids. Especially if one is a really picky eater, who doesn’t like scary (read: all) rides, and develops a pain in her leg so bad that you have to rent a toddler stroller in the Magic Kingdom. OK, so mostly downs. Luckily, I have another child who is a real trooper, eats almost anything, and has energy, patience, and tolerance. And is probably a better parent than me. So why bother traveling? You hope that by escaping your usual surroundings you see the world differently; you share experiences (for better or worse) that bond you together as a family. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, there are moments of joy and wonder--like watching your kids’ tired eyes light up when the Main Street Electrical Parade goes by.

Sadly, this parade is ending in October, 2016.

Of course, I didn’t spend the entire summer in theme parks (thank goodness). After spending so much time and money on our big holiday, we cut back on other things--not as many trips to the lake as we usually take. (Upside: pleased to see that Sylvan Lake has an actual beach now again. Downside: Aspen Beach at Gull Lake is overrun by wasps--avoid.) We were going to skip K-Days completely--how can that compare to Disney World? Except Rachel Platten was a featured performer this year, and I have two daughters who completely love her. So we had to go after all--in the rain. At least I got to have my annual deep-fried Twinkie. (All photographic evidence of that has been destroyed.)

Because you'd rather see a picture of Rachel Platten than me eating a Twinkie.

All of these fun things were squeezed in between work, of course. I’m not on vacation from the end of Spring term to the start of Fall term; I’m just not teaching. As usual, I updated all of my courses based on feedback from students last year. I spent a lot of time clarifying things that the data (from assignments and exams) indicated were particularly difficult to understand and apply. (See? Your term work does more than just contribute to your final grade.) I also did two textbooks reviews for publishers, giving them feedback on what I liked and hated in new textbooks they’re working on. I also applied for and received a grant to do...well, that’s a post for another day.

There were a couple of things that made me a little grumpy over the summer. I’m trying to get over that, I really am. I’m excited--a new term is starting, my classes are full of enthusiastic, energetic, hardworking students. What could go wrong? Well...I guess the Internet flaking out, freezing the classroom computers on the first two days of class...that could go wrong. Aaaaand, I’m back to being grumpy.

I'm a little grumpy. Get it?

Why aren't you studying?

What I Did on my Summer Vacation (2016 edition)

I guess the biggest news is that my eldest daughter, being of the appropriate age, went to Hogwarts. Well, actually, the whole family did--to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at The Universal Orlando Resort, that is! (Oh, and we went to that other resort in Orlando, too.) A big trip like this takes a lot of planning (and money, ouch!), but making it even harder was the fact that my wife and I tried to keep it a secret. We worked up "invitation letters" to Hogwarts for both of our daughters, and only delivered them a month before we left (not by owl, sadly).

The dragon breathes fire every 10 minutes. Nice and warm!

If you're any kind of fan, the Harry Potter-themed areas of Diagon Alley/London (in Universal Studios Florida), Hogwarts/Hogsmeade (in Islands of Adventure), and the Hogwarts Express train going between the two are mind-blowing. The attention to detail is amazing. Of course, we all had (frozen) butterbeer. Frozen, on account of the temperature being around +40 C every day. I'm not used to that kind of heat, whew!
There goes USD$7.00!

Naturally, my Potter-obsessed daughter had to do the wand-choosing ceremony in Ollivanders Wand Shop. A small group of people are allowed into a back room of the shop, and there's a brief spiel with some special effects in which the wizard guide randomly chooses one member of the group, who then tries to match the person with the right wand. If you are chosen, you do NOT get the wand for free; you still have to pay for it. It told my family that, if anyone in the family is picked, we are, under no circumstances, going to pay USD$50 for a plastic stick. And what happens? My Potter-obsessed daughter was chosen. She looked up at me with big puppy-dog eyes, and my heart melted, and I said, "No!" (It didn't melt all the way.) Lucky for her, my wife allowed her to buy the wand. Goodbye money!
They have surprisingly many expensive plastic sticks.

Of course, there are so many other cool attractions. Men In Black Alien Attack. The Simpsons. Dr. Seuss. The Hello Kitty store. I have a particular fondness for the Terminator 2: 3-D ride, formerly called T2: Battle Across Time. My then-fiancee, now wife saw that attraction when we were last in Florida 20 years ago. The Despicable Me-themed Minion Mayhem ride was really cool. One of the Universal hotels has a character breakfast with Gru and a minion. You can see that Gru is very happy to meet me! (I do a pretty good Gru voice. I told him that I was Steve Carell. He was impressed.)
Gru with "Steve Carell".

I'm also a huge Back to the Future fan, and was happy to see a DeLorean time machine on display. It is not, as is reported in some places, the B-car. It is one of several stunt cars. How can you tell? Check out the Mr. Fusion. See how tall it is? That was never in the movies--it was part of a botched restoration attempt years ago. Still looks pretty cool, though. (I contributed to the Kickstarter-backed OUTATIME documentary. If you love DeLorean time machines, you have to watch it.)
When this baby hits 88 miles per hour, you're gonna see some serious shit.

Aside from the extreme heat, and even more extreme cost (did I mention that everything is expensive?), there was another thing I didn't like: crowds. Wow, it was elbow-to-elbow everywhere. To mitigate this, however, I relied on the super-useful Touring Plans website (and their appropriately named app, Lines). There a lot of data and science behind it: the travelling salesman problem, bin-packing problem, evolutionary algorithms. Really cool stuff. They predict how busy each park will be, and also give you an estimated wait time for each attraction. I found it to be a lot more accurate than anything reported by the theme park itself. Totally worth the small amount of money they ask for a 1-year subscription.

Looks like I have to get to class. See part 2 for the rest of the trip. (As if you aren't jealous enough already!)

Why aren't you studying?

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