## Tool Review: Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag

Overview: Simply the best messenger bag out there

5out of 5

Pros: Delightful To Use, Roomy , Excellent Design and Engineering,  Napoleon Pocket, Lightweight , Great Strap Length, High Quality, Attractive, Great Craftsmanship, Comfortable , Durable

Best Uses: Commuting, School, Office, Day Trips, Computer Laptop, Airplane travel

I spent quite a while (months/years) looking at almost every messenger bag in existence (and even contemplated designing my own) for my mobile office and for weekly trips to study abstract mathematics at UCLA. I’ve been through dozens of bags (including one that could only charitably have been called a “murse”) and had problems with all of them – particularly shoulder and neck problems from carrying around so much weight. The Timbuk2 Command messenger bag (\$139, medium, black) seems to have remedied all of that. My neck and shoulder pains have gone away because this bag is simply so comfortable it feels like I’m carrying half the load that I used to.

The two length adjustment mechanisms on the shoulder strap of this bag should be a requirement for every bag on the planet. I simply don’t know how I managed without them for all this time and now I can never go back. One makes it dead simple to take the bag on and off and the other allows for additional easy length change – the combination makes the bag wear incredibly comfortably.

As an engineer I can readily appreciate some of the very subtle design and manufacturing elements that truly make this bag a wonder. It’s not only functional and sturdy, but it’s both beautiful inside and out. Timbuk2 has certainly put some serious thought into how to make a bag. In particular the velcro strips at the top of the the flap to keep water out, the Napoleon pocket (so one doesn’t have to completely open the bag to retrieve frequently used items), the plastic strips sewn into the lining to provide additional internal structural support, and an ingenious custom pocket at the bottom of the bag for my cables and computer power brick are simply genius.

My only minor caveats about the bag are:

Although there are quite a number of great and useful pockets, I could do with maybe half a dozen more for daily use to keep either small items (I carry my desk in my bag) or organizing additional papers from floating around inside the bag. One can’t really fault Timbuk2 for this as it’s personal preference on my part and I haven’t seen any other bags on the market with a better designed grouping of pocket spaces for such things.

Having a slightly larger water bottle carrier on the outside of the bag would also be excellent, but it’s nearly perfect for my Zojirushi stainless steel thermos and most small (<16 ounce) plastic water bottles. I’ll mention that one of Timbuk2’s line of Classic messenger bags includes internal water bottle pockets for those that desire something like this — or who need full waterproof interiors. The Command bag is roomy enough that I’ve also contemplated using a Camelback-type of fluid reservoir and drinking tube inside for longer day-trips.

As a comparison, the next closest high quality bag I’ve seen in my research is Tumi’s Alpha Bravo Benning Deluxe Messenger Bag (\$275). It rates incredibly high for design and beauty, but slightly lower on the functionality scale (which still makes it one of the top 0.1% of bags on the market in my mind, so if you’ve got the money, it’s definitely worth it).  It’s almost twice the price and though it’s got equivalent design touches and is made from some equivalently excellent materials with fantastic craftsmanship, it is missing some of the more interesting engineering touches including the engineering work on the shoulder strap.

## Tool Review: Zojirushi Stainless Steel Mug

Designer/Artist William Morris once said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” My Zojirushi stainless steel mug is one of the few things I’ve ever owned that I feel truly meets both of these criteria.

The design, materials, manufacturing and workmanship of the mug are nothing short of outstanding; the aesthetics and heft in the hand are truly fantastic. I really could not want for more out of such a product. I love looking at it, I love holding it, and I love using it.

I hope one day to come back and write a review worthy of how truly great this travel mug is, but for now, suffice it to say that I’m in love. I spent a LOT of time reading reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, and searching stores and vendors to find the best thermos/mug on the planet and settled on this one. Not only is it easy and intuitive to take completely apart and wash thoroughly (too many I’ve come across are impossible to take apart and clean properly, if at all), but it seals completely and doesn’t spill.

Even better it keeps my beverages piping hot or cold for far longer than I wish it would. There have been days that I’ve filled it with hot coffee or tea and come back several times to drink it hoping that it had cooled a bit only to find it still too hot to consume. After several rounds with this over an eight hour span, I finally opened it up and put in some ice so I could finally drink my coffee. Now I often just leave the cap open (or off) to let it cool a bit more quickly, although even this is a fairly slow process. Now I try to put my beverages in at the temperature I want to drink them knowing that that’s generally the temperature they’ll be when I get around to drinking them.

I love the fact that the cap is designed with a two stage opening mechanism (which probably won’t be noticed by most users because it’s so subtle). One pushes the button and the top opens just a few millimeters. Then letting go of the button allows the top to spring back and click neatly into place so that it doesn’t fall forward and bonk one on the nose when attempting to take a drink.

When I first came across it, I will admit I was a bit reticent at it’s relatively high price (particularly in comparison with cheaper mugs on the market, many of which I’ve tried and been highly disappointed with), but the Zojirushi is certainly worth ever penny; I would not hesitate for a moment to buy more of these.

As a small aside, I will mention that due to physics and the design of the mug that it can occasionally leak a bit when filled with carbonated beverages and then shaken. Doing this creates additional interior pressure that pushes up the internal seal mechanism on the cap that allows a small amount of liquid to escape. Beyond this small category of fluids, which I infrequently use with the mug (and I’m sure others probably won’t either), it has been absolutely airtight and worry-free.

Rating 5 out of 5 stars.

Review by Chris Aldrich

## Lecture Series Review: “Augustine: Philosopher and Saint” by Phillip Cary

Augustine: Philosopher and Saint byProfessor Phillip Cary, Ph.D., Eastern University (The Learning Company, 1997)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This series of 12 audio lectures is an excellent little overview of Augustine, his life, times, and philosophy. Most of the series focuses on his writings and philosophy as well as their evolution over time, often with discussion of the historical context in which they were created as well as some useful comparing/contrasting to extant philosophies of the day (and particularly Platonism.)

Early in the series there were some interesting and important re-definitions of some contemporary words. Cary pushes them back to an earlier time with slightly different meanings compared to their modern ones which certainly helps to frame the overarching philosophy presented. Without a close study of this vocabulary, many modern readers will become lost or certainly misdirected when reading modern translations. As examples, words like perverse, righteousness, and justice (or more specifically their Latin counterparts) have subtly different meanings in the late Roman empire than they do today, even in modern day religious settings.

My favorite part, however, has to have been the examples discussing mathematics as an extended metaphor for God and divinity to help to clarify some of Augustine’s thought. These were not only very useful, but very entertaining to me.

As an aside for those interested in mnemotechnic tradition, I’ll also mention that I’ve (re)discovered (see the reference to the Tell paper below) an excellent reference to the modern day “memory palace” (referenced most recently in the book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything) squirreled away in Book X of Confessions where Augustine discusses memory as:

Those interested in memes and the history of “memoria ex locis” (of which I don’t even find a reference explicitly written in the original Rhetorica ad Herrenium) would appreciate an additional reference I subsequently found in the opening (and somewhat poetic) paragraph of a paper written by David Tell on JSTOR. The earliest specific reference to a “memory palace” I’m aware of is Matteo Ricci’s in the 16th century, but certainly other references to the construct may have come earlier. Given that Ricci was a Jesuit priest, it’s nearly certain that he would have been familiar with Augustine’s writings at the time, and it’s possible that his modification of Augustine’s mention brought the concept into its current use. Many will know memory as one of the major underpinnings of rhetoric (of which Augustine was a diligent student) as part of the original trivium.

Some may shy away from Augustine because of the religious overtones which go along with his work, but though there were occasional “preachy sounding” sections in the material, they were present only to clarify the philosophy.

I’d certainly recommend this series of lectures to anyone not closely familiar with Augustine’s work as it has had a profound and continuing affect on Western philosophy, thought, and politics.

View all my reviews

## Brief Book Review: “Make Your Own Soda: Syrup Recipes for All-natural Pop, Floats, Cocktails, and More”

I ran across this at random and picked it up on a whim as I often do with books about concocting drinks–particularly having recently picked up a SodaStream machine for fashioning my own seltzer and sodas at the beginning of the new year. Certainly with some lovely photographs it does a reasonable job of harkening back to an older time. There are a handful of small asides and historical facts – though not nearly enough in my mind and it could have included some photos of early and mid-century soda fountains for all its talk about them. The real star of the book has to be the litany of recipes of which I’ll begin trying a few (and hopefully posting up reviews of those over time.)

I’d put this book in a similar league with my all-time favorite Charles Schumann‘s American Bar: The Artistry of Mixing Drinks which is dense with some great information and recipes for the bartender. This book isn’t quite as “hard core” as Schumann’s, but seems to come pretty close to his rigor for the art of mixology. I read an e-book version, which was generally passable, but I would likely have given it 4 stars had I read what I’m sure is a richer experience in print.

View all my reviews on GoodReads.com

## Information Theory and Paleoanthropology

A few weeks ago I had communicated a bit with paleoanthropologist John Hawks.  I wanted to take a moment to highlight the fact that he maintains an excellent blog primarily concerning his areas of research which include anthropology, genetics and evolution.  Even more specifically, he is one of the few people in these areas with at least a passing interest in the topic of information theory as it relates to his work. I recommend everyone take a look at his information theory specific posts.

I’ve previously written a brief review of John Hawks’ (in collaboration with Anthony Martin) “Major Transitions in Evolution” course from The Learning Company as part of their Great Courses series of lectures. Given my interest in the MOOC revolution in higher education, I’ll also mention that Dr. Hawks has recently begun a free Coursera class entitled “Human Evolution: Past and Future“. I’m sure his current course focuses more on the area of human evolution compared with the prior course which only dedicated a short segment on this time period.  Given Hawks’ excellent prior teaching work, I’m sure this will be of general interest to readers interested in information theory as it relates to evolution, biology, and big history.

I’d love to hear from others in the area of anthropology who are interested in information theoretical applications.

## Forthcoming title on “Information Theory for Bioinformatics”

While reading today I ran across a notice on Wiley’s German-based website that Viswanathan Arunachalam has a text on Information Theory for Bioinformatics which is scheduled to be released in June 2014.

From the publisher’s website, they provide the following synopsis:

This book discusses information theory as a means of extracting data from large amounts of biological sequences. Utilizing the Shannon theory, the book explains using the information theory principles to interpret sequences and extract vital information. It provides a detailed overview of the practical applications in bioinformatics and includes coverage of diversity in nucleotide and amino acid sequences, sing-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) and indel sites, binding sites in promoter regions, splicing sites, and more.

If I can manage to get an early copy, I’ll provide a review shortly.

## New Routledge Text on Systems Theory

Over the holiday I ran across a press release, which follows with web links added, for a new book on systems theory. It promises to be an excellent read on the development and philosophy of systems theory for those interested in cybernetics, information theory, complexity and related topics.

MIAMI, Fla., Dec. 19, 2013
Dr. Darrell Arnold, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Institute for World Languages and Cultures at St. Thomas University, has published an edited volume with Routledge entitled Traditions of Systems Theory: Major Figures and Contemporary Developments. Hans-Georg Moeller, of University College Cork, Ireland, notes that the book “provides a state-of-the-art survey of the increasingly influential and fascinating field of systems theory. It is a highly useful resource for a wide range of disciplines and contributes significantly to bringing together current trends in the sciences and the humanities.” The book includes 17 articles from leading theoreticians in the field, including pieces by Ranulph Glanville, the President of the American Society for Cybernetics, as well as Debora Hammond, the former President of the International Society for Systems Sciences. It is the first comprehensive edited volume in English on the major and countervailing developments within systems theory.

Dr. Arnold writes on 19th century German philosophy, contemporary social theory, as well as technology and globalization, with a focus on how these areas relate to the environmental problematic. He has translated numerous books from German, including C. Mantzavinos’s Naturalistic Hermeneutics (Cambridge UP) and Matthias Vogel’s Media of Reason (Columbia UP). Dr. Arnold is also editor-in-chief of the Humanities and Technology Review.

I’ve ordered my copy and will be providing a review shortly.

## Renaissance for Information Theory in Biology

This year is the progenitor of what appears to be the biggest renaissance for the application of information theory to the area of biology since Hubert Yockey, Henry Quastler, and Robert L. Platzman’s “Symposium on Information Theory in Biology at Gatlinburg, Tennessee” in 1956. (I might argue it’s possibly even bigger than Claude Shannon’s Ph.D. thesis.)  It certainly portends to create a movement that will rapidly build upon and far surpass Norbert Weiner’s concept of Cybernetics and Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s concept of General Systems Theory.

This week John Baez has announced an upcoming three day workshop on “Entropy and Information in Biological Systems” to be hosted by the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis in Knoxville, TN, tentatively scheduled for October 22-24, 2014.

Apparently unbeknownst to Baez, earlier this year Andrew Eckford, Toby Berger, and Peter Thomas announced a six day workshop on “Biological and Bio-Inspired Information Theory” to be hosted by the Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery scheduled for October 26-31, 2014 – just two days later!

What a bonanza!!

The BIRS workshop will be a bit more general in its approach while the NIMBioS workshop has a slightly tighter view specifically on maximum entropy as applied to biology.

Even more telling (and perhaps most promising) about the two workshops is the very heavy mathematical bent both intend to make their focus.  I have a theory that the bounds of science are held below the high water level of mathematics (aka are “bounded by” in mathematics-speak), so there is nothing more exciting than to see groups attempting to push the mathematics and its application further. It was both the lack of mathematical rigor and the general youth of biology (and specifically genetics and microbiology) in the 1950’s which heavily hampered the early growth of cybernetics as a movement. Fortunately this is no longer the case on either count. Now we just need more researchers who are more readily conversant in the two realms simultaneously.

## Marsden and Weinstein’s Calculus Series

A friend tipped me off that Marsden and Weinstein’s entire Calculus series is available for free online now.

I remember using volume III in Dr. James Martino‘s class many moons ago and enjoying its style. I do however have to credit all my facility in the subject to Dr. Richard Joseph who taught it to me by means of the steepest gradient possible – that of electromagnetic theory.

## Starbucks Causes Cancer!?

Coffee is about as likely as anything to cause cancer, so putting up a sign about it isn't really going to help anyone but the "sign lobby."

Apparently Starbucks has learned well from big tobacco and they’re getting ahead of the whole cancer thing whether or not they really need to. This morning while picking up my morning tea (and apple fritter), I ran across a Prop 65 warning very prominently posted–ironically above the aspartame, though that wasn’t mentioned specifically in the notice–about the cancer risks of acrylamide.

I’ve read a fair amount about acrylamide in the past two years following the news that just about anything cooked or fried has small trace amounts of the substance, so I know there’s not too much to be worried about. The biggest “scare” was apparently over french fries–particularly those served at fast food restaurants. Apparently after the scare blew over the general public – the subject just didn’t seem to catch any traction aside from a few snippets in the mainstream press–Starbucks has decided to get out ahead of this “non-issue” just in case. (I will admit that the State of California has actually sued and won against major corporations under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, Health and Safety Code section 25249.6, also known as “Proposition 65,” that businesses must provide persons with a “clear and reasonable warning” before exposing individuals to these chemicals which includes acrylamide.)

As an aside, I will mention that placing the warning on the condiments counter which I visit only after I’ve made my purchase seems a bit after-the-fact – it would have done me more good in front of the cash register. For the ambulance chasers, this is probably great “grounds”–pun intended–for a major class action.

While I laud their savvy general counsel, do we really need this type of notice in our lives? Humankind has been living with acrylamide cancer risk since the dawn of the Holocene when man first learned to use fire to cook, is there any reason to worry about it now?

I’m reminded of Jared Diamond’s book The World Until Yesterday and some of the things that primitive societies simply learn to live with, but which our overly litigious society just can’t seem to deal with logically. Simple things didn’t fool primitive societies like: don’t sleep under trees that look like they are dead or possibly rotting–just in case the tree falls over and kills you in the night while you’re sleeping. Yet somehow some of us need additional warnings about our coffee from McDonald’s being served hot  or cautions not to operate our toasters in the bathtub.

Next I fear that we’ll discover we need signs telling us that pinecones might fall out of pine trees.

I sure hope that Henny Penny copyrighted, registered, and patented everything about the concept of “The Sky is Falling” as I’m sure it’ll have made her the richest chicken in the world.

## How to Sidestep Mathematical Equations in Popular Science Books

In the publishing industry there is a general rule-of-thumb that every mathematical equation included in a book will cut the audience of science books written for a popular audience in half – presumably in a geometric progression. This typically means that including even a handful of equations will give you an effective readership of zero – something no author and certainly no editor or publisher wants.

I suspect that there is a corollary to this that every picture included in the text will help to increase your readership, though possibly not by as proportionally a large amount.

In any case, while reading Melanie Mitchell’s text Complexity: A Guided Tour [Cambridge University Press, 2009] this weekend, I noticed that, in what appears to be a concerted effort to include an equation without technically writing it into the text and to simultaneously increase readership by including a picture, she cleverly used a picture of Boltzmann’s tombstone in Vienna! Most fans of thermodynamics will immediately recognize Boltzmann’s equation for entropy, $S = k log W$, which appears engraved on the tombstone over his bust.

I hope that future mathematicians, scientists, and engineers will keep this in mind and have their tombstones engraved with key formulae to assist future authors in doing the same – hopefully this will help to increase the amount of mathematics that is deemed “acceptable” by the general public.

## Book Review: Gregory Chaitin’s “Proving Darwin: Making Biology Mathematical”

Gregory Chaitin’s book Proving Darwin: Making Biology Mathematical combining biology, microbiology, mathematics, evolution and even information theory is directly in my wheelhouse. I had delayed reading it following a few initial poor reviews, and sadly I must confirm that I’m ultimately disappointed in the direct effort shown here, though there is some very significant value buried within. Unfortunately the full value is buried so deeply that very few, if any, will actually make the concerted effort to find it.

This effort does seem to make a more high-minded and noble attempt than what I would call the “Brian Greene method” in which an academic seemingly gives up on serious science to publish multiple texts on a popular topic to cash in on public interest in that topic through sales of books. In this respect Chaitin is closer to Neil deGrasse Tyson in his effort to expound an interesting theory to the broader public and improve the public discourse, though I would admit he’s probably a bit more (self-) interested in pushing his own theory and selling books (or giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the publisher has pushed him to this).

Though there is a reasonable stab at providing some philosophical background to fit the topic into the broader fabric of science and theory in the later chapters, most of it is rather poorly motivated and is covered far better in other non-technical works. While it is nice to have some semblance of Chaitin’s philosophy and feelings, the inclusion of this type of material only tends to soften the blow of his theoretical work and makes the text read more like pseudo-science or simple base philosophy without any actual rigorous underpinning.

I’m assuming that his purpose in writing the book is to make the theories he’s come up with in his primary paper on the topic more accessible to the broader community of science as well as the public itself. It’s easy for a groundbreaking piece of work to be hidden in the broader scientific literature, but Chaitin seems to be taking his pedestal as a reasonably popular science writer to increase the visibility of his work here. He admittedly mentions that his effort stems from his hobby as his primary area is algorithmic information theory and computer science and not biology or evolution, though his meager references in the text do at least indicate some facility with some of the “right” sources in these latter areas.

Speaking from a broad public perspective, there is certainly interest in this general topic to warrant such a book, though based on the reviews of others via Amazon, Goodreads, etc. the book has sadly missed it’s mark. He unfortunately sticks too closely to the rule that inclusion of mathematical equations is detrimental to the sale of ones books. Sadly, his broader point is seemingly lost on the broader public as his ability to analogize his work isn’t as strong as that of Brian Greene with respect to theoretical physics (string theory).

From the a higher perspective of a researcher who does work in all of the relevant areas relating to the topic, I was even more underwhelmed with the present text aside from the single URL link to the original much more technical paper which Chaitin wrote in 2010. To me this was the most valuable part of the entire text though he did provide some small amount of reasonable detail in his appendix.

I can certainly appreciate Chaitin’s enthusiastic following of John von Neumann but I’m disappointed in his lack of acknowledgement of Norbert Weiner or Claude Shannon who all collaborated in the mid part of the 20th century. I’m sure Chaitin is more than well aware of the father of information theory, but I’ll be willing to bet that although he’s probably read his infamous master’s thesis and his highly influential Bell Labs article on “A/The Mathematical Theory of Communication”, he is, like most, shamefully and wholly unaware of Shannon’s MIT doctoral thesis.

Given Chaitin’s own personal aim to further the acceptance of his own theories and work and the goal of the publisher to sell more copies, I would mention a few recommendations for future potential editions:

The greater majority of his broader audience will have at least a passably reasonable understanding of biology and evolution, but very little, if any, understanding of algorithmic information theory. He would be better off expounding upon this subject to bring people up to speed to better understand his viewpoint and his subsequent proof. Though I understand the need to be relatively light in regard to the number of equations and technicalities included, Chaitin could follow some of his heroes of mathematical exposition and do a slightly better job of explaining what is going on here. He could also go a long way toward adding some significant material to the appendices to help the higher end general readers and the specifically the biologists understand more of the technicalities of algorithmic information theory to better follow his proof which should appear in intricate glory in the appendix as well. I might also recommend excising some of the more philosophical material which tends to undermine his scientific “weight.” Though I found it interesting that he gives a mathematical definition of “intelligent design”, I have a feeling its intricacies were lost on most of his readership — this point alone could go a long way towards solidifying the position of evolution amongst non-scientists, particularly in America, and win the support of heavyweights like Dawkins himself.

I’ll agree wholeheartedly with one reviewer who said that Chaitin tends to “state small ideas repeatedly, and every time at the same shallow level with astonishing amount of redundancy (mostly consisting of chit-chat and self congratulations)”. This certainly detracted from my enjoyment of the work. Chaitin also includes an awful lot of name dropping of significant scientific figures tangential to the subject at hand. This may have been more impressive if he included the results of his discussions with them about the subject, but I’m left with the impression that he simply said hello, shook their hands, and at best was simply inspired by his having met them. It’s nice that he’s had these experiences, but it doesn’t help me to believe or follow his own work.

For the technically interested reader, save yourself some time and simply skim through chapter five and a portion of the appendix relating to his proof and then move on to his actual paper. For the non-technical reader, I expect you’ll get more out of reading Richard Dawkins’ early work (The Selfish Gene) or possibly Werner R. Loewenstein’s The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication, and the Foundations of Life.

Though I would certainly agree that we could use a mathematical proof of evolution, and that Chaitin has made a reasonable theoretical stab, this book sadly wasn’t the best one to motivate broader interest in such an effort. I’ll give him five stars for effort, three for general content, but in the end, for most it will have to be at most a 2 star work overall.

This review was originally published on June 17, 2013.