Book Review: “What If?” by Randall Munroe

Lots of serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions. Some are intriguing but most are overly hypothetical, borderline silly and the answers were overly thought out or overkill and I wish the questions were more plausible.

Some of the “good” questions that have good answers:
1. Swimming in typical spent nuclear fuel pool. I was surprised that you would come out OK as radiation drop to half strength every 7mm of water. But you’d probably die from the gunshot wounds by the security.

2. Some of the elements on the bottom of the periodic table are so radioactive and so transitory that a nuclear explosion would occur if you just collection a small portion of it.

3. A mole (unit of measurements) is roughly 6×10^23. It’s a huge number. A mole of moles (animal) could mean a size bigger than the moon.

4. If every human somehow simply disappear, the last artificial light could be coming off from our nuclear waste deep in concrete vaults.

5. All the physical space of storage on the Internet can be contained in just one oil tanker. This speaks to the amazing density of the harddisk.

6. Dropping a piece of steak from the orbital distance from earth would char just the surface but not cooked throughout due to the cold temperature. Inside the steak it would still be frozen or cold.

7. You can’t eliminate the common cold by forcing everyone on earth to be quarantined from one another for a week, because not all people have healthy immunity system to rid themselves of the rhinovirus.

8. Yoda can produced ~19.2KW of power, based on his ability to lift an X-wing Skywalker vehicle from the swamp. Impressive.

9. There is not enough energy to move the entire current human population off-planet. No, it would probably destroy the planet.

10. Self-fertilization: too much inbreeding could have a very high probability of contracting spinal muscular atrophy. A case in point is King Charles II of Spain, who’s got an inbreeding coefficient worst than a child of two siblings. Yikes!

11. When will Facebook contains more dead people profiles than living ones? ~2065.

12. Richter scale can go negative. You get -8 when a grain of fine sand fall onto the pile at the bottom of hourglass.

So there are lots of useless what-if questions that author attempts to answer with great efforts. The questions make good brain teasers and even good interview questions and it’s all they’re going to serve and the author.

Monitor Display Cropped With HDMI Input From PC – How I Fixed It

Recently, I replaced my 24″ monitor that has a VGA and DVI inputs with another monitor ViewSonic VX2453 that has one VGA input and 2 HDMI inputs. All is well when I connect to the VGA input from my desktop PC. But I need to share this monitor with both my PC and my laptop, which has only one HDMI output. So I just need to connect the HDMI output to the HDMI input of the monitor. Simple right? Not so fast. The display turned out to be heavily cropped by the monitor, in other words only ~70% of display was shown; the rest could not be seen.

I suspected there may be three possible causes: 1) my graphic display driver and 2) HDMI cable 3) the monitor settings.

The first thing I did was to update the Intel HD 3000 graphic driver, which was dated 2011. I downloaded the Intel Driver Update Utility 2.2 . The utility failed to update the driver after 3 attempts. Then I tried to download the driver directly from the vendor’s (Acer) update site, which hosted the same old driver I had. Then I Googled and found the exact driver from Intel’s manual download (go to download center and search on “hd 3000”). The worked fine to update to the latest graphic driver: dated 5/16/15. Great! But it did NOT help my monitor cropping problem.

Next I tried to rule out the HDMI cable by swapping the cable with another. It didn’t help either.

Then I Googled around and saw another idea from this article. The suggestion to change the scale seemed to make sense. The first step is to select the Advanced Graphic Mode by right clicking the background wallpaper and select “Graphic Properties”. See below:
Graphic mode
So I change from “Maintain Display Scaling” to “Custom Display Scaling” and adjust to ~ 70% to get out of the “cropped” mode. See below:
Scale Original
Scale After

So this should fix it right? Yes and no. The display was not cropped but it looked like “crap” – lots of rough edges. This was not going to work for me. So I decided to try my last option 3 – adjust the monitor. I went through each menu carefully. And voila! I found the source of the problem. As it turned out, this monitor has two different modes for the HDMI input: AV mode and PC mode.
2015-09-29 22.12.45
2015-09-29 22.13.01
The default is the AV mode which automatically crop out 30% of the display. By selecting the PC mode. The problem went away after changing the Scale to “Maintain Display Scaling” and the display was fantastic! Problem fixed!

By running the display via the HDMI cable, the sound can be redirected to the speaker of the monitor. But I had to manually changing the sound output to the VX2453 by right clicking the speaker icon on the bottom and select “Playback devices” and then select “VX2453 Series” to be the default output.
Sound Output Selection
That was the bonus! Hope you find this tip helpful and wouldn’t have to waste the 2 hours I spent to fix the problem.

Book Review: “The Innovators” by Walter Isaacson

As an engineer working on computer development for the last 30 years, I found this book very enlightening and thorough but a bit long. It documented the history of the computer from as early as Ada Lovelace’s concept document over a hundred and fifty years ago to the present PC era. It’s a much longer history than I thought and the book was equally long but the stories of the individuals who contributed to the computer history were interesting nevertheless.

My main takeaways:

– People who worked as a team and collaborate well tend to bring out the best and most creative work. Internet is the epitome of the collaborate work on the network.

– People like Ada Lovelace, Einstein, Steve Jobs, and others are good at bring out the symbiosis of science of humanity.

– Significance of Altair Computer in 1975 that gives birth of Microsoft and Bill Gates’ wealth.

– We all stand on the shoulders of giants of the past so we can look farther. Notable contributors: Alan Turing, who came up with the idea of a Logical Computing Machine, dubbed a Turing Machine. Claude Shannon came up with the “logic gate” idea. George Stibitz turned the idea into a mechanical relay machine (400 relays) in 1939.

– The book started with the story of Ada Lovelace and ended with it. Ada was the first one conceive in her “Notes” in 1843 the idea of the general-purpose computer, where the program is stored in a memory device and executed there.


Chapter 1: Ada, Countess of Lovelace
– This chapter goes into the beginning of the computer concept given by the early pioneer, Ada Lovelace. She had come up with the concept of computer back in early 1842 in her paper called “Notes” that outlined the four key concepts: general-purpose (not limited to just doing differential equations, etc.), not limited to just math and numbers, a step-by-step sequence or algorithm (e.g. calculating Bernoulli number), and not thinking on its own (dubbed Lady Lovelace’s Objection.)

Chapter 2: The Computer
– Solving the differential equation by Babbage was the first application for the special purpose computer – or appliance in today’s term.
– ENIAC was the first electronic calculator built by Mauchly and Eckert with 17,468 vacuum tubs and weighed 30 tons in 1945.
– British in 1943 with Turing’s help built a special purpose decryption machine to decrypt the German wartime codes, based on mechanical relay and vaccum tubes. It’s called Colossus.
– There is a long discussion about who invented the computer? Mauchly and Eckert topped the list but it’s mostly a group effort and ideas drawn from the past.

Chapter 3: Programming
– Grace Hopper was the first programmer due to her ability to articulate precisely. The Mark I machine she used was a behemoth, made by IBM. She eventually joined Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. to help develop the COBOL and Fortran languages and first compiler.
Alan Turing contributed to computer algorithm and how should a “Turing machine” work. His homosexuality caused him great pain and resulted in his being jailed and sentenced to chemical castration in UK. He later committed suicide at the early age of 41.

Chapter 4: The Transistor
– This chapter describes the invention of the 20th-century’s most important technology – transistors by John Bardeen (the quiet, theorist physicist), Walter Brattain (the experimenter), and William Shockley (the competitive, credit-grabbing boss) in the Bell Lab in 1947. The competitive nature of William Shockley showed in his behind-the-scene bipolar-transistor idea and publication/patent to try to overshadow Bardeen and Brattain’s FET transistor idea. In 1952, Pat Haggerty of Texas Instruments, originally a Dallas-based oil exploration company, persuaded Bell Labs to license its transistor technology and managed to mass produced the transistors resulting in cheap pocket radios (Regency TR-1). IBM’s Thomas Watson turned the transistors into computers. Then Shockley decided to start his own company and ended up putting in Palo Alto, his childhood home to be close to his aging mother. Hence, the Silicon Valley was born. Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore and the other 6 rebelled against Shockley to form the Fairchild Semiconductor.

Chapter 5: The Microchip
Jack Kilby of Texas Instrument and Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore of Fairchild held a patent dispute on who invented the microchip, while the popularity of microchip blasted off. Moore’s “Law” was born. Noyce got tired of the Fairchild bureaucracy and decided to start their own company with Gordon Moore and Andy Grove. With Arthur Rock’s venture capital funding, they started Intel. Thanks to the foresight of owning the right to the 4004 design, while designing a general-purpose calculator for Busicom of Japan, they embarked on the road of Intel’s microprocessor architecture and products.

Chapter 6: Video Games
Spacewar was the first open-source computer game created by Steve “Slug” Russell on a DEC PDP-11 computer. Then Nolan Bushnell started Atari after a bad experience with Nutting Associates and came up with “Pong” game. This chapter proves that innovation takes three: a great idea, the engineering talent to execute it, and the business savvy to turn it into a successful product.

Chapter 7: The Internet
Bob Taylor, the clever and stubborn Texan ARPA Director, managed to get Larry Roberts to come work on the ARPA net, originally intended to link all the ARPA-funded computers to share the compute resource. To design the router, they came up with the novel idea of packet switching, owing to the Paul Baran’s original idea to be more robust against nuclear attack: to be distributed with no central hub. AT&T, so adamant about their “circuit switch” network, never saw the beauty of the distributed packet routing network. The Internet came to existence around 1969 but it awaits something else besides big research computers on campus to be popular — PC’s.

Chapter 8. The Personal Computer
Doug Engelbart demonstrated in 1968 the first mouse at the computer conference. Alan Kay of Xerox PARC, invented the first Dynabook, a notebook computer. Xerox PARC engineers came up with the first GUI Alto Systems with a mouse. Ed Roberts, a hobbyist, came up with the Altair 8800 with Intel’s 8080 chip. The Altair attracted Bill Gates and Paul Allen to come up with the BASIC language for that machine.

Chapter 9: Software
Bill Gates and Paul Allen’s Microsoft story is described in this chapter. Gates exhibited the innovator’s traits: a fanatic who loves what they do, works day and night, and a rebel with little respect for authority. He argued against hobbyist club taking the BASIC code without paying for it. Also, Apple’s story with Steve Jobs and Wozniak is being told. In addition, Dan Bricklin’s visicCalc occupies a couple of pages. Of course, the main turning point for Microsoft was Gates’ insistence on giving non-exclusive license right to IBM and Microsoft owning the code. Gates’ mother, Mary Gates, actually played a critical role for IBM to work with a non-name Microsoft at that time because IBM’s CEO, Opel, knew Mary Gate, working with United Way. The battle between Gates and Steve Jobs on GUI interface was described further. Also, Linus Torvald’s Linux story and the Gnu guy, Stallman’s leading the free software movement made an impact on the computer industry.

Chapter 10: On Line
Steve Case’s American Online and Al Gore’s contribution to Internet.
No Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet and never claimed he did but he did open up the ARPANet to the general public, who are prohibited to tap into the network until 1992.

Chapter 11: The Web
Tim Berners-Lee invented the hypertext across the Internet, hence the URL and http protocol were invented. Then he created HTML to display the web pages. He and Robert Cailliau coined their proposal the “World Wide Web.” They joined Richard Stallman in adopting the Gnu General Public License. Then entered Marc Andreessen and his graphical Mosaic browser in 1993. Justin Hall started blogging in 1993 as a Freshman at Swarthmore College. There is a story of Wikipedia by Ward Cunningham and Jimmy Wales. Lastly, it was the Google story started by Larry Page and Sergey Brin. This is a huge chapter.

Chapter 12: Ada Forever
The book ended reciting the Ada Lovelace’s objection that no computers no matter how powerful, would ever truly be a “thinking” machine. It’s the “human-computer symbiosis” that will do us most good. Lessons learned from the author’s perspective: 1) creativity is a collaborative process, 2) most technologies are based on ideas handed down from previous generations, 3) most productive teams were those that brought together people with a wide array of specialties (like Bell Labs), 4) physical proximity is beneficial. 5) best leadership come from teams that combined people with complementary styles (as in founding fathers of USA). 6) pairing visionaries (Noyce and Moore) with operating managers (Grove). 7) in a collaborative team, decisions can be made through the “request for comment” process. 8) successful innovators/entrepreneurs are “product” people.

The last paragraph: Innovation will come from … creators who can flourish where the arts intersect with the sciences and who have a rebellious sense of wonder that opens them to the beauty of both.

Book Review: “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett

I normally don’t read fiction but this book was highly recommended by Erik Larson in WSJ’s book club and other reputable authors and professors. Spoiler alert: if you haven’t read it, you might want to read it first. You can check out the plot in the wikipedia as well.

So what is special about this highly-charged, fast-paced detective thriller novel?

1. Not very predictable plot as everyone may be the killer(s) of the three people who died.

2. Good dialog written in the same ways people talk with emotion. The audiobook narrator(s) did a great job mimicking the voices of the key characters like the old narrated radio shows.

3. Sam Spade, the main detective character who may be crooked to be in that business (like sleeping with partner’s wife and sleeping with the beautiful client, Brigid, or coming up with a “fall guy” before the cops got to him, but he drew the line where he saw justice must be done for his partner, Miles Archer, despite his “love” toward Brigid, the conniving woman who tried to take advantage of his favoritism toward her.

4. “I won’t play the sap for you” was repeated several times by Sam Spade when he was trying to get a confession out of Brigid, who turned out to have killed Sam’s partner in the dark alley.

5. The woman, Bridgid O’Shaughnessy, turned out to be the ultimate villain in the novel. At the end, she went quietly with the police, still acting like a lady. Nowadays, she would’ve thrown a tantrum and become a monster with violence.

6. The novel went against the woman’s instinct of the secretary, Effie Perine, that Ms. Wonderly AKA Bridgid is NOT a bad person. Obviously, the author didn’t high regard for women. The three women in the novel didn’t come out to be the “modern woman” nowadays.

7. Several stereo types were cast in the novel: the fat man — Casper Gutman, a boy-lover — Joel Cairo, the young punk — Wilmer Cook, and the chain-smoking, street-smart detective — Sam Spades.

8. How the Maltese Falcon came about was based on some historical facts: a gift for the King of Spain from the Knights of Malta as part of the condition of giving them tree islands, Gozo, Tripoli, and Malta, after they were chased out of Rhodes back in 1523. I heard a similar story when I was at Rhodes Island, Greece while on vacation last month.

9. Ironically, at the end, the Maltese Falcon was a fake one and four men died in vain, all because of greed. Sad.

Overall, it’s a good novel and a classic detective 1929 novel. Humphrey Bogart was phenomenal in the 1941 movie, though the dialog in the movie was hard to understand, probably because of the poor audio quality and idioms of that era. I had to read the book to figure out what happened. The plots were somewhat believable with enough twists and turns to be a good detective novel and the San Francisco street venue was mostly true and traceable by some – a real treat for the locals.

Book Review: “Think Like A Freak” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

I utterly enjoyed the previous two books by the “Freak” economists. Click Super Freakonomic Review here.

In this book, the authors talked about several subjects:
1. The three hardest words in English: “I don’t know.” We don’t do enough experimentation because of tradition and lack of expertise. Perhaps, we should learn from children who are more likely to say “I don’t know.”

2. What’s your problem? Define or re-define the problem you’re trying to solve. Here’s a how a young Japanese man figured out how to be a hot-dog eating champion by studying how best sequence to swallow the hot dogs, beating the record by 2x (50 vs. 25 1/8). You can see how he broke his own record at 69. Instead of asking “How do eat more hot dogs?”, he asked “How do I make hot dogs easier to eat?” He sees it as a sport so he experimented with ways to improve the ease of eating (like wetting the bun first) and he didn’t take the record as the ultimate limit.

3. Like a Bad Dye Job, the truth is in the roots. Finding root cause is hard work that people tend to shy away like why legalized abortion reduces the crime rate and why Protestants make 1% more money than Catholics – better work ethics established centuries ago? and why American blacks are 50% more likely than American whites to have hypertension – gene selection during slave trades to avoid dying during the long journey to America. Also Robin Warren found that H Pylori bacteria contributed to ulcer; he proved it by injecting bacteria into himself.

4. Think Like a Child: To solve problem as a child, think small. For example, giving free glasses to a poor Chinese village raise their learning by 25~50%. Also, don’t be afraid of obvious like in the case of Barry Marshall’s discovery of the H Pylori bacteria’s causing ulcer. Finally, have fun! Like tying lottery concept in a savings account to entice more savings.

5. Like Giving Candy to a Baby: People responds to incentives. Giving a baby candy for going to the toilet could invite a different set of behavior. We tend to follow the herd (“join the neighbor”) in doing something than for the goodness (like environmental issues). Giving people to choice to stop charity solicitation works magic (as in Smile Train example) and can be explained by three factors: novelty, candor, and control. Changing the framework of relationship can work magic: like China’s Ping Pong diplomacy. Why incentives fail? 1. getting out-smarted by people gaming the system, 2. people may not respond as you might expect, 3. rule changes, behavior changes too. To design the right set of incentives: 1. figure out what people really care about, not what they say they care about, 2. incentize with something valuable to them but cheap to you, 3. heed people’s response. If unexpected, try something different, 4. switch the frame from adversarial to collaborative if possible. 5. people may not always do the “right” thing as you perceived. 6. know that some people will game the system.

6. How Do King Solomon and David Lee Roth Have in Common? They all used some sorts of game theory like a “self-weeding garden.” King Solomon got the baby to the right mother in a dispute. David Lee Roth put in a less-than-obvious clause (no brown M&M’s) at the end of the concert rider to ensure the local promoters follow the guidelines to the letter. More examples like Zappo’s paying trainees $2000 to quit before starting and ancient “ordeal” where people in the “suit” would be subjected to a torture by God if lied. The last example is about the Nigerian email scam to get you to pay the scammer a large sum of money upfront to claim the award money. Why keep using the “Nigerian” story, because it screens out the “gullible” victims. The same tactic can be used to catch the terror lists.”

7. How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to be Persuaded. Tips: 1) Don’t pretend your argument is perfect. 2) Acknowledge the strengths of your opponent’s arguments. 3) Keep the insults to yourself. 4) Why you should tell stories (not anecdotes).

8. The Upside of Quitting: Why people don’t quit: 1) Churchill’s “never quit” speech (being brain-washed) 2) notion of sunk costs (Concorde example) 3) focus on concrete costs, not opportunity costs. Celebrate failures instead of demonize failures which cause people to avoid trying anything. Practice “premortem” (find out what might go wrong before it’s too late.) with anonymity to encourage participation. The two authors gave their own stories how they quit their dream jobs (golf pro, and band) to start writing books.

Rome Tour – Vatican – 2015-08-03

This was highlight of the trip and the last of the tour videos. In it, we visited the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, The Vatican Church, and St. Peter’s Square. It’s an awesome, and must-see place to visit at Rome. Going with the early morning 8am guided tour allowed us to cut the line and avoid the crowd. The story of Michael Angelo’s rebellion against the Popes added spice to his master pieces on the roof and the wall of Sistine Chapel. The Vatican museum were too huge and lack center pieces – looked like a hodge-podge collection of donated or “acquired” jewelries. The church was grand and worthy of being the capital of the Catholic church and the center of political power in the old days. But I didn’t care for the dried-up/dead Pope bodies in the church. St Peter’s Square were full of tourists. Some of them were admiring the Swiss Guards and their “funny,” clown-like uniforms.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the saying goes, and couldn’t be seen and enjoyed in a day.

Rome Colosseum – 2015-08-03

This is one of the favorite spots for tourist to visit at Rome. Not much has changed since I visited here more than 20 years ago and probably not since thousands of years ago either. Some interesting tidbits were told by the tour guide about the customs of watching the gladiator shows that most people including the dignitaries were standing except for the emperor, who was most likely lying as it signified authority. Also the turning up or down of the thumbs to the performance of the gladiators were probably not quite right as shown in an old movie. Terminating/killing the losing gladiator was so expensive, as someone or the promoter would have to pay a huge prize. Most likely, they were being left injured and died days later – saving the liability cost to the gladiator owners. It’s a cruel sport nevertheless.

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