Wild, Half the Sky, Killing Kennedy, One Hard Day, My secret life as a CIA agent (aka ARGO), and Mugged.

As I might have mentioned, the Kenosha Library now lends out Nooks.  They’re really nice!  There’s no glare, ever.  I’d love to know how they do that.  The lightest touch makes the page advance.  The menus aren’t too complicated, it feels good, it looks good.  I like the Nook.

 

This particular Nook came preloaded with six books on it.  I read them all, one a day, and shall be reviewing them here and now.  The books are:

Wild, Half the Sky, Killing Kennedy, One Hard Day, My secret life as a CIA agent (aka ARGO), and Mugged.

 

I’ll go from best to worst.

 

Half the Sky

 

This excellent book is about charities that focus on women’s rights and health in third-world countries.  The author discusses the operations, the history of the site, and larger geopolitical concerns, one case study at a time, complete with photos.  Its a glimpse into a touching and horrifying world us privileged westerners will never comprehend.

 

Each chapter is more fascinating than the last.   It goes from slavery in Thailand to self-made businesswoman in Kenya, to hospitals in Cape Horn to workers rights in China.  Did you know the most cost-efficient way to increase women’s rights is to hand out blocks of iodized salt?  The sales increases the economy, and the increased health of the population results in more girls in school.  Since most charities are religion-based, you’ll find out if teaching abstinence as a method of controlling HIV works.  You’ll find out if Muslims are sexist.  Anyone who has any interest in women, sex, religion, education, health, civil rights or the rest of the world should read this book.

 

My only complaint, if you could call it a complaint since its a result of my ignorance, is it seems to be geared towards female readers.  It’s written by a man, but it talks a lot about female biology and reproduction, things I, and most men, know nothing about.  I could figure out much by the context – for example, being in labor for six days is a bad thing – but why is it bad?  You mean you’re not supposed to jump up and down on the stomach to force the baby out?  That sort of thing.

 

Final Grade:   A

 

 

Wild

A memoir of one crazy girl’s solo trek up the Pacific Costal Trail.  It follows the standard memoir format – a blow by blow account of interesting moments interspersed with flashbacks that piece together one individual’s life.

 

It is extremely well written.  The author carried a ton of books with her on her trek (Yikes!), and her extensive literary background shows in her writings.  It’s smart, funny, humble and honest.  It reminded me a lot of Prozac Nation.  Little quirky reminiscences like “‘Wow’ said the one who’d said ‘yeah’.  ‘Yeah’ said the one who’d said ‘Wow'” made me giggle.

 

The best parts are not the stories of the trail (being attacked by frogs!) or her flashbacks of her messed-up childhood, but her interactions with the quirky characters she meets on the trail.  They are almost all men, and she’s a lost, attractive girl wearing a pack that’s way too big from her – of course they’re going to try to help her, and us readers get a ringside seat to the subtle dramas that ensue.

 

It’s a satisfying and entertaining read and made me wish I were a hot girl who gets free food and drinks from every guy ever.  My one negative is more of a personal thing.  I found her fear towards men annoying.  She judges the men she meets as attractive or not, and from that first description, you can predict how she will interact with them.  If they’re younger or handsome, she becomes best friends and hangs out with them.  If they’re not handsome, she’s quiet and afraid and always checking to make sure her Swiss army knife is close at hand.

 

Final Grade:  A-

 

 

My secret life as a CIA agent

 

This is the book Argo is based off of.  If you thought the movie was boring, fear not, the book is much better.  It details his career through the CIA and how he was instrumental in helping bring down the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war.

 

The guy is an artist and is trained to become a master forger.  The first parts of the book are about the technical intricacies of the job and some of the techniques he uses.  The rest is about his missions overseas, usually involving getting a defector out of the country quickly.

 

He successfully forges some documents under a tight deadline, and quickly advances through the hierarchy to be the one leading and running missions.  He builds disguises and thwarts the KGB again and again.  It’s one thrilling spy story after another.

 

The Argo mission is just one small chapter.  While most of the stuff in the movie never happened in real life, the book will take you on a ‘behind the scenes’ of things that were never explained in the movie, like how Ben Afflack’s character knows so much about Iranian security or how he is able to forge stuff so quickly.

 

Final Grade:  B+

 

 

One Hard Day

This is the book ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is based off of.  But just like the Argo book, the killing of Osama Bin Laden is just one small chapter of what is basically this guys biography.

 

His childhood dream is to join the SEALs, and that’s what he spends his whole life doing.  Each chapter is his recollections of a mission he went on.  He picks the best and most exciting missions, but after a while they all sort of blur together.  Get a midnight helicopter ride to a suspected terrorist house, sneak in, shoot everybody, fly out.

 

One mission does stand out:  They have to rescue a hostage in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  They jump from the plane from over the horizon so the terrorists don’t see them.  They parachute for miles.  They ride the boat they jumped with for hours.  They get into scuba gear and swim around with sniper rifles.  They wait for hours for the third terrorist to poke his head up, and when he does, they kill all three terrorists at the same time.  Now that’s seriously bad-ass.

 

While exciting at points, I found the book a bit shallow.  I was hoping for something more cerebral.  Reading about killing after killing with only a trite explanation of the larger picture just isn’t my thing.  I recommend watching the movie instead.

 

Final Grade:  B

 

 

Killing Kennedy

By Bill O’reilly of the O’reilly factor  (apparently some kind of popular TV show)

This appropriately named book isn’t content to just walk you through the details of his assassination, but seems to try to assassinate Kennedy again and again by detailing screw-up after screw-up.  There’s Kennedy’s killer and how Kennedy’s security screwed up, the bay of pigs invasion and how Kennedy screwed up, a bit about Vietnam and how everyone screwed up- but the emphasis of the book is about Kennedy’s lesser-known… ah.. how shall I put this… his um, um – Oh what the hell, it’s about sex.  Sex sex sex.  Lots and lots of sex.

 

Did you know Kennedy had sex every day?  Every day!  He claimed it was a medical necessity.  If he didn’t have sex at least once a day he would get terrible headaches. At least!  Implying he had sex multiple times a day!  And not with his wife!  According to the book, the Secret Service was always on edge when Jackie Kennedy was around, because when she was, JFK would be tense and irritable;  the implication being he had a headache and therefore wasn’t having sex presumably because Jackie might catch him.

 

Kennedy swam every day in the White House pool around 1 pm.  Nude.  He insisted real men swim nude, and that was that.  The secret service would stand guard outside and not let anyone inside, not even Jackie; not for his privacy, but because he was swimming nude with some girl.  Also nude.

 

He had sex with so many girls the secret service stopped keeping track.  If she arrived on the arm of JFK’s campaign manager, they just assumed she was for JFK and let her through.  One of these girls was a nineteen year-old who was also sleeping with some aide in the Soviet Union embassy.  Inconceivable!

 

Maybe it’s just my sexually frustrated Id, but after reading about his dalliances I couldn’t concentrate on the rest of the book.  How does a guy have sex every day?  Where do you get the women?  I assume we are not talking about homeless old bag ladies here.  While the ages of these women were not discussed, they did talk about the one nineteen year old.  What kind of nineteen year old would sleep with some guy she doesn’t know?  How did they find her?  I assume JFK himself didn’t go out and hit on random girls on a college campus or the mall or whatever.  So how does it work?  His forty-year old campaign manager sees some girl walking down the street and goes “hey, want to go have sex with the president?”  Maybe flashes her some hundreds?  Inconceivable!

 

And apparently this was the norm for all the Kennedy boys.  Their father lived the same way.  HOW??  I mean, maybe I can see it working if you are the freaking President of the United States, maybe, but his father was just some rich guy who worked for the mob.  And the boys were just sons of some rich guy who worked for the mob.  Did the mob supply these girls?  If so how did they get them?  Did they ship them in?  How did they have so many girls?  I assume they had to share?  Maybe not.  Augh!  Sex!  Inconceivable!  Sex everywhere! *head explodes*

 

 

 

I’m going to take a cold shower now.

 

Final grade:  B-

 

 

 

And last and least,

Mugged

By Ann Coulter

 

This book can be described in one word:  Angry.  It is just one continuous, incoherent rant against ‘liberals’, whatever they are.  It goes like this:  Give her version of a story from the news.  Give someone else’s version of the same story.  Criticize the hell out of them.  End with some nonsensical, sarcastic comment.  Repeat.

 

The sarcastic comments might have been funny.  Too bad they never made sense  A few examples: “But no, they forgot to give him his cookie!”, “How many blacks work for Micheal Moore?”, or my favorite “Those blunderbutts!”.

 

I read every agonizing 300 pages, trying to figure out her point or why she was so mad.  The only semblance of any order or organization or outline was the chapter on Rodney King, and the chapter on OJ Simpson.  The former she criticizes these ‘liberals’ for questioning the criminal justice system because it declared the cops innocent.  The latter she criticizes this same criminal justice system when it declared OJ innocent.

 

It’s just bad.  She says Bob Jones University’s policy of not allowing interracial dating is not racist.  She’s insane.  And angry.  I can’t believe someone would publish this trash.  More proof that brand-name recognition matters more than quality content or a shred of sanity.  Stay away.

 

Final Grade:  F

Review of ‘Sex and God at Yale’

Just finished reading ‘Sex and God at Yale’. Did you know Yale has a ‘sex week’? Although people said the same thing about my college and I never saw it.

The book is well written. You can see why the guy got a perfect verbal score on his SATs. It keeps describing in detail all the stuff that goes on in Sex Week with tounge-in-cheek sarcasm. Words like denigrating, puerile, and evil were bandied about.

I had mixed feelings. The stuff he described, like naked parties (apparently they take them very seriously), felt wrong but I couldn’t define why. So I tried to find a logical argument for my feelings, and it should have been easy considering I was reading a well-written book arguing that exact issue, but I couldn’t.

The author’s main argument is that sex week is degrading to women – but what about men? Why is porn demeaning the dignity of women but not men? And how is it degrading? What is dignity, that it is so easily lost? The whole book felt hypocritical, especially since he was criticizing all these ‘educational’ classes so he could write a book, and hence ‘educate’ us.

Anyways. Good book, funny without meaning to be, irreverent yet moral, slightly preachy, good descriptions of Yale and the ‘old-school’ east-coast British style education, and makes me content not to attend an Ivy League college. Not, anyway, for academic reasons.

‘the case against Barack Obama’ review

Just finished reading ‘the case against Barack Obama’. Has anyone else seen the giant billboard in Milwaukee saying ‘Obama has ruined this country for 220 days – don’t let him ruin it for another 220’? Hysterical facebook comments are one thing, but when the hysteria is in 10-foot high letters overlooking the busiest intersection in Milwaukee – that’s something completely different. So I went to the library to find out what Obama has ‘ruined’.

There is, as there is for every president, a voluminous amount of writings in the library, either praising the president or denouncing him. I picked ‘the case against Barack Obama’ because it seemed the least hysterical, the most reputable, of all the books whose cover I perused. It claimed to use facts and references and to not be the half-assed slander that is most books. Yet it still was half-assed slander.

These books seem to lack Critical Thinking skills. It was full of interpretations and, well, hysterical, comments like ‘The truth doesn’t matter to Mr. Obama’. A specific example: it spent a whole chapter arguing that because Obama abstained (Voted neither Yes nor No) on a bill that tried to defined exactly when a Homo Sapiens becomes a human being with all the rights of the Constitution, he is therefore pro-abortion. Whether he is or isn’t isn’t the point. It’s the logical fallacy used to prove the argument. The book is full of this sort of stuff.

Another example: he voiced his opinion for ‘Immediate Withdrawal’ from Iraq. Yet as President, he did not order an Immediate Withdrawal – therefore he is a hypocrite. That’s saying, if you give me the choice between a red shirt and a blue shirt, and I say I prefer the red, then later go out and buy a purple shirt, I am a Hypocrite. If this is the best people have against Obama… *shakes head sadly*

Review of the ‘D’ soccer licensing course

If you’re reading this, you know what the soccer coaching licenses are, and you are thinking of getting one; E, D, C, maybe eventually the expensive B or A.  Hopefully this review will let you know what to expect.

Getting in the class is easy..  You sign up online at your state youth soccer website and pay the money.
When the day arrives you drive 2 or 3 hours where you rent a hotel or bum a bed from a friend and then spend eight hours a day in one big, long soccer practice.  It’s just like soccer practices you did as a kid: you listen to someone talk about what you’re going to do, then you do it, then they talk about how you did it.  Dribble through cones, 1v1, whatever they ask, you do it.  You spend several minutes on each drill, then move on to the next person and their activity.  Eight hours a day of this.  In the open sun.  Bring sunscreen.

There are also classroom bits where you go inside and do classroom stuff: take a quiz, watch a video, listen to someone lecture.  Topics of discussion were: Tactics, rules of the game, how to fill out a lesson plan, and maybe a drill diagrammed and walked-through on the board.  Each of the instructors – the guys in charge of everything – took turns lecturing.  There were also guest speakers – various retired coaches from the area.  Some were good, asking the occasional question to keep the class interested, and throwing in tips and tidbits on how they coach.  Some just repeated everything in the supplied book.

But these classroom sessions were scarce.  They lasted on average an hour, which isn’t much compared to the seven hours you spend outside.  They were also informal.  While you couldn’t exactly sleep during them, you didn’t need to take notes, and you weren’t graded on anything said there.  The focus of the course definitely depends on what happens outdoors.

The format of the outdoor activities is, everyone gets a chance to be a coach coaching everyone else.  how long everyone gets to coach depends on the amount of people in the course.  We had about forty people, split into two groups, so the math meant we each coached only three sessions during the week, each session being about 10-15 minutes.  The rest of the time is spent listening to everyone else and doing whatever it is they ask of you.  Most everyone had specific drills requiring a set number of people, so if you were bored you volunteered, else you just sat and watched.  Everything soon became tedious, even tried-and-true drills like 1v1 or 2v2.  Enthusiasm ran high the first day but was gone by the next.  Shooting drills were the only drills where everyone summoned energy.

At the end of each day is homework.  Reading assignments, a take-home test, and a lesson plan were standard.  Sometimes there were two tests, or a second lesson plan, something specific to train a player for specific situations.

The last day or two you are ‘graded’.  You do exactly what you’ve been doing, i.e. coaching and participating.  The instructors do exactly what they have been doing – standing and watching – they just do it with a pen.  They have a standard form that they tick off the boxes and write comments. They don’t share the notes immediately.  Instead they are mailed, along with your results.  If your grade was above a certain amount of boxes checked, you pass, otherwise you fail.  Get every check box checked, and you get a ‘National’ license as opposed to a state license.

If all of this sounds routine, it’s because it is.  Standard community college meets youth soccer.  But there is one significant difference.  If you desire to commit the time and money for this course, there is one thing for which you should be prepared:  Philosophy.

The Dutch Method

There is something out there in the soccer stratosphere called ‘The Dutch Method’.  It’s a method of teaching soccer, based on the Ajax academy in The Netherlands.  The academy is famous for selling its youth to premier soccer teams for millions.  Here is the New York Times article that sells Ajax.  If you don’t want to read the article, here is a quote from it that summaries it well: “Here, we would rather polish one or two jewels than win games at the youth levels.”  Another way of saying this is we should improve one or two  talented kids at the neglect of 98% of the other kids.

For better or for worse, the United States Soccer Federation has decided that The Dutch Method is the way of the future for Youth soccer in the United States.  The books the course uses are written by Dutch authors, and the instructors are trained to push the Dutch Method.

This is all well and good – one comes to a course to learn new ideas – but it becomes a problem when some of the ideas are nonsensical.

The instructors occasionally taught one of the fifteen-minute sessions.  One of them (who happened to be Dutch) did a basic 2v2 drill.  The Dutchman kept teaching that both defenders should move to the ball.  Specifically, the person closest to the ball should get on the ball and defend, and the second closest person to the ball should get behind the first defender and together the two of them try to steal the ball back.  I’ve made a little diagram here.
which way should I go
Which Way Should I Go?

The problem with his way is there is an offensive player left wide open.  The player with the ball merely has to pass it to his teammate and both defenders are beat.
you just got beat

You Just Got Beat

And this is exactly what kept happening in our Dutch instructor’s drill.  The defenders weren’t beat every time, but enough.  And each time, the Dutchman had instructions on what the defenders did wrong:  they should have run in faster, or slower, or not let themselves be split, whatever.  It was not the system that was at fault, but the individuals.  And yet the defenders were beat again and again.

We all thought it: ‘this doesn’t seem right’.  Eventually someone spoke up.  And the instructors response was ‘The Dutch Method’.  Specifically, one of the prime attributes of defense, according to our Dutch-written book, is pressure.  Pressure on the ball.  Immediate attack on the player with the ball by two or more players.  Not ‘marking the open man’.  Thus, The Dutchman was teaching us correctly, and our suggestions, however well-intentioned, were wrong.  Because the book said so.

This is just one example.  Other teachings of dubious merit were:  Playing a game of soccer is a hindrance to actually learning soccer – the kids might get hurt.  Instead, time should be spent in practice, doing technical drills.  Teamwork and tactics is not as important as technical skill.  Don’t specialize.  Don’t play to win.

The word ‘professional’ was also bandied about.  Coaches should not participate in the activities – its unprofessional.  Caps and clipboards were bad, sunglasses ok.

Many of these teachings caused concern amongst the class.  Some spoke up.  Politely, the instructors listened, then dismissed them.  After several days of this, the instructors made it clear that they had been teaching this a long time, had heard all of these objections many times, and they were tired of it.  Stop saying ‘Yeah, But..”, they told us.  ‘Do as we say, or you are going to fail.’  And so we were polite and listened, and the few individuals who did not received cold looks and very likely a failing grade.

Personally, I think the instructors misunderstood much of the Dutch Method and our book, but even correcting for their misinterpretations, they still are teaching a losing system.  I have both coached with and been coached by coaches who adhered to these methods.  Losing was common, motivation scarce, and enthusiasm nonexistent.

Regardless of which method is right or wrong, the licensing course is less like attending a soccer camp and more like attending a bible camp.  Your experience did not matter.  Free ideas were not welcome.  You had to do the drills they did, and coach the way they coached, or you failed.

I give the course a ‘D’, that is, one step above failing.  Don’t take it unless you have to.

Result from the Canny Edge detection algorithm

The search for Eve

Artificial Intelligence.  The next great breakthrough in technology, and my ticket to fame and riches.  Well, not quite.  First I have to invent it.
Previous attempts didn’t go so well.  I concluded that AI requires at least two sources of input –  a confluence of two systems.  One system is language.  The other system is one of the five senses.  In this case, vision.  Without combining vision with language, inventing AI is akin to teaching a blind, deaf paraplegic newborn Chinese.
Step one: identify shapes/objects.  I started with a still image.  It was fairly easy to get my webcam to save a photo to my computer.  Here’s what I got:
Handsome feller, ain’t I.   gray-me-1

grey-me

And then I needed a line detection algorithm.  And here I was stumped, because I couldn’t find anything ‘out of the box’, like I had for the webcam photo.  Lots of technical articles, but no actual code.  Finally I found something:
$conv_x = ($pixel_up_right+($pixel_right*2)+$pixel_down_right)-($pixel_up_left+($pixel_left*2)+$pixel_down_left);
$conv_y = ($pixel_up_left+($pixel_up*2)+$pixel_up_right)-($pixel_down_left+($pixel_down*2)+$pixel_down_right);  // no differnce in speed noticed

$angle = 90 + rad2deg( atan($conv_x / $conv_y));
//euclidean distance
$gray = sqrt($conv_x*$conv_x+$conv_y+$conv_y);
</pre>
Which turned out to be wrong.  See the + instead of the * ?

Grr how do i turn off preformatted.

So It would have been faster if I invented my own algorithm.  First I had to analyze what the canny did.  So I scoured the Wikipedia page which led to finite differential operators and Big O notation.  I walked through the algorithm on paper and thought I could do better.
So I did.  Here’s my scribblings:
I coded it thusly:
<pre>
return  (abs($pixel_up_right-$pixel_down_left)+abs($pixel_down_right-$pixel_up_left)+abs($pixel_up-$pixel_down)+abs($pixel_right-$pixel_left));
</pre>
Its very simple – how do I turn off preformatted code again… Ok there we go.
It’s just finding the difference on each side of the pixel.  That’s it.
I couldn’t believe it was that simple, OR that it was better than the cobel operator.  So I ran some tests.
Here’s the cobel operation:

cobel-operator

And here’s my operator:

my-operator

Mine’s a tiny bit better, imho.

The grid in the pictures turns out to be a result of using .JPG format.  Advice for others:  don’t use .jpg format.  Use .PNG.

Turns out the Sobel operator does the same thing I do, it just considers the horizontal and vertical planes more important, presumably because those pixels are closer than the diagonals.  Either way, the explanation on Wikipedia (and everywhere else) is unnecessarily overcomplicated.

Now, in the defense of the Canny edge detector, it does do something the Sobel operator doesn’t – it detects the angle of the line.  To do that, you do need two separate measurements (horizontal and vertical) and divide the result, meaning that using the overcomplicated Sobel operator makes more sense.  Here’s what the canny, with edges colored, gets me (red for up and down, green for sideways, blues for diagonals):

colored-edges
Funky, eh?  But ultimately pointless.  Who cares what color the line is, or its angle?  Why is everyone using this canny edge detection operator?

Reading other Ph’ds and masters thesis, I discovered the next step people usually perform is an edge thinner.  Again, I couldn’t find anything specific, so I wrote my own.  It counts the edge pixels, checks that they are all grouped together, and deletes one if it’s next to another dark pixel.

if($pixel == $DARK and $neighbors <= 6 and $neighbors >= 3 and $transitions == 2){
$lumarray[$x][$y] = $LIGHT;}

Here’s the result:

skeletonized

Again, simple, and if I had just wrote my own from the start I wouldn’t have wasted so much time looking for something online.

At this point, I paused.  The result of this line thinner is technically accurate, but something seems to have been lost.  Take a look yourself.  It’s lost its vitality.  All the information is the same from the computer’s point of view, but from the human point of view, it doesn’t look right.
So what changed?  My best guess is that human vision relies on lighting, and gradients.  I decided to stick with the pre-thinned version to do my testing on.

Three days have passed at this point – I’m losing steam.  Time to go for the whole hog: invent an algorithm that traces lines.  It wasn’t too hard.  Here’s the result of the program:

line-trace
‘traced’ lines are in green.

But several problems appeared.  First, see how the line gets all wonky as it moves to the bottom right?  It doesn’t know when to stop.  Often it detects the border of the picture as a line.
Second, it finds things that aren’t lines, like shadows in the folds of my shirt.  It constantly thinks the corner of the room is part of my head.
How to solve these problems?  I created an algorithm to test for these conditions, and kept going, but then it occurred to me that I was doing exactly what I vowed NOT to do: hard code every little minutiae.
Sure, I could have kept going, and in fact I did, only to run into more problems (eg. A straight line isn’t actually straight – one pixel off, and the computer thinks it’s a corner instead of a line.)

The problem I’m running into is the same problem that dominates the whole of AI – I need a general purpose algorithm.  Something that says ‘hey, this isn’t right, back up and try something different’.

I said, ok, that doesn’t sound too hard.  Analyze our variables, and if something is unusual, throw some kind of exception.
Here’s a graph I made examining one of my variables.  You can see the results here.
It seems informative – the values follow a trend, and anything outside the trend is probably wrong.  Similar results appear for other variables.  All I have to do is detect the peaks of the graph.  Easy, right?
Wrong.  There is no reliable method to find all the significant points of a graph.  Take the graph in the link – is that blip at values 190-192 significant?  Darn right it is.  What about the small peak at 65-69?  Nope, turns out it is not.  How can a computer decide this?  It can’t.  I’d have to end up hard-coding a ‘what is significant’ algorithm.

Which is where we reach the end of my tale.  I need to invent an ‘algorithm-making algorithm’.  For inspiration, I refer you to ‘the game of life’!