July 29, 2010

Wily Wylie

The story starts with the Wylie Agency realizing that ebooks rights aren't stipulated in many of its authors' contracts. And "being very smart, recognizes that [ebook] rights are valuable, and so sells them [to Amazon] to make boatloads of extra cash for themselves and their Very Famous Authors."

Random House gets mad because now it can't make boatloads of extra cash for doing what, heck, I do. Remember when the music industry made boatloads of cash burning CDs from the master tapes in its vaults, and sold them to people who'd already bought the LPs and cassette tapes?

Remember what happened next? Remember how the music industry responded with cool heads and innovative, forward-looking business plans? No?

Random House, the country's leading trade publisher, announced Thursday that it would conduct no new English-language business with the Wylie Agency, which earlier in the day launched an e-book line that would release works by John Updike, Salman Rushdie and other Random authors through online retailer Amazon.

Random House lost a similar e-rights case with Rosetta Books a few years back. So, in the words of Authors Guild President Scott Turow,

[Random House isn't] gonna take anything out on the behemoth Amazon . . . [they're] gonna walk down the beach and kick some sand in the face of the 99-pound weakling [i.e., the midlist authors Wylie represents].

The problem is that, as Lynn Neary further explains on Morning Edition, "Publishing [used to be] about putting books on shelves. If you don't need to put books on shelves, you don't need the [traditional] publishing houses."

Seth Godin echoes this sentiment, wondering why publishers act as if they are in tree-growing or papermaking or offset printing or shipping businesses. He concludes,

Many businesses act as if they have a stake in their suppliers and other vendors. Instead of scaling the part of their business that can move quickly and well, they defend the part they don't even own. [He expounds more on the subject here.]

Unlike Wylie, the problem with poor Wile E. Coyote is that no matter what his goals when he starts out, he always ends up in the ACME anvil & explosives business, not in the bird-eating business.

UPDATE: Jeff Bezos talks about the Amazon vision and the new Kindle 3 on Charlie Rose. Bezos understands what business he is in (and I'm glad he's still avoiding the touch screen).

UPDATE: Wylie calls Random House's bluff big time.

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July 22, 2010

Up with introverts

My sister Kate has been discussing (part I part II ) the problem Hollywood has getting introversion right. Lately, though, in a few certain cases, it's at least been getting it less wrong. This dialog from NCIS perfectly sums up how extroverts misunderstand introverts:

CGIS Special Agent Borin: So what's your beef Gibbs? That I'm Coast Guard, that I'm a woman or that I managed to get the drop on you in that house?

NCIS Special Agent Gibbs: I don't know you.

That is exactly my reaction when strangers barge into my personal space with an assumed sense of instant familiarity: I don't know you. Don't presume that you know me.

Gibbs is a classic introvert. That business about him spending all of his free time down in the basement with his boat—perfectly content holed up in his cave—is such an introvert thing (and not because the introvert in question is lonely or depressed or otherwise psychologically impaired).

Women assume he's an alpha male extrovert. What they get is an alpha male introvert. For Gibbs, trying to "build" a new relationship just isn't worth it. He's a Darcy (or Seeley Booth), and if they're not Elizabeth Bennet (or Temperance Brennan), they're never cracking that shell.

Granted, this is a way of showing that Gibbs is "damaged goods." Otherwise he'd be like, well, DiNozzo. But that only proves the point. As C.S. Lewis has observed, the desire for solitude has become, in the modern world, a malady that must be "cured."

DiNozzo, in contrast, behaves like an extrovert and McGee behaves like an introvert, but as Kate points out, neither really is. (I don't know whether this is a purposeful mistake or not). My term for McGee is unselfconscious nerd. There's a big difference.

(David, by the way, is Gibbs's id, which I think is done brilliantly.)

Because extroverts, in Rauch's words, "have little or no grasp of introversion," they define introversion in terms of what they observe introverts doing (especially if it runs counter to their own tastes). And then treat that behavior as a marker for introversion in general.

The best example of this is Sheldon on Big Bang Theory. (This series is so right in so many ways I have to believe one of the producers is writing what he knows, or is an extraordinarily skilled observer.)

Leonard, Sheldon's roommate and fellow physicist, is a frustrated introvert who fancies being "cured." Because Leonard and Sheldon share the same hobbies and interests—professionally and personally—extroverts will assume that Sheldon is the same sort of introvert too.

He's not. When the rest of the world is not behaving the way Sheldon expects it to, he berates it and bosses it around, loudly and shamelessly—and often successfully—until it complies.

Sheldon is unselfconscious about himself in ways that make Leonard (or any true introvert) wilt. What is "introverted" about Sheldon—the same goes for McGee—is how he spends his time. As with Darcy, the "normal" interests of extroverts are boring, insipid, and beneath him.

But in situations where Leonard—and Darcy—would suffer in silence, Sheldon says so pointedly and leaves. Sheldon is not a "social" or "retiring" introvert. And not an extrovert. I would call him an "apavert."

The same way an "apatheist" has concluded that atheists care way too much about whether nor not God exists, for an "apavert," the distinctions between "intro" and "extro" are beside the point. The id and the superego are fused into an undifferentiated mass.

Many introverts grow up as apaverts until the cruel, hard world makes it clear that if you're not an extrovert, you're nothing. At which point they develop an introverted shell to defend themselves from noisy extroverts. Or become Garrison Keillor's "Norwegian bachelor farmers."

I am, but remain intrigued by the contrasts, so end up following the advice to "write what you know." The Path of Dreams is one long exercise in making a male romantic lead out of an introvert. And unlike Twilight, my vampires are introverts too. In chapter 28 of Angel Falling Softly:

Wolves lived in packs, far from the madding crowd. [Milada] lived alone, but alone among many. It amounted to more than the simple utilitarianism of keeping her food close at hand; that incalculable need to maintain the illusion of her humanness kept her at once insulated from the teeming city, yet cheek by jowl with the peopled world.

Frankly, it'd be pretty stupid for a vampire not to be an introvert (David Boreanaz's Angel gets this right). No matter how sparkly they are.

Related posts

Life is a sim
Caring for your introvert
Understanding Japanese women (and introverts)
Real introversion versus Hollywood I
Real introversion versus Hollywood II

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July 19, 2010

You can't "jump" an EV

The Nissan Leaf is getting plenty of positive press these days. But when it comes to the pragmatic demands of the American market, the technology of the Chevrolet Volt trumps that of pure electrics.

The Volt miniaturizes the diesel-electric system that's been powering locomotives for more than half a century (minus the batteries). The internal combustion engine provides zero torque at zero RPM (hence the clutch), while an electric motor provides infinite torque at zero RPM.

Very useful when accelerating massively heavy objects from a dead stop.

But this is why the inherent advantages of hybrid systems mostly disappear at cruising speed. However, I suspect the costs associated with the Volt's steeper engineering curve (including battery R&D) will make the Nissan Leaf the more affordable pure "green" buy in the near future.

Even with the Leaf, though, that green will cost you a whole lot of green. Lexus prices for a Corolla ride.

The all-electric is a simpler engineering challenge. But it has a big problem. You're not going to drive one across Nebraska. Or, in my case, barely to the airport and back. If all-electric vehicles become as popular as the advocates hope, what happens when they run out of juice?

I've drained my ordinary lead-acid car battery twice by leaving things on. Two batteries have failed (one exploded). The last one had enough life left that I walked to the auto shop and borrowed a portable jump starter like this cute unit. It had just enough oomph to start my car.

I've run the tank dry once. I walked across the street to a gas station and bought a gallon of gas. I had a motorcycle in college. It had a reserve tank you could access by flipping a valve under the main tank. Of course, once you've used it, you can't not know it's there.

But the energy density of gasoline is so high that a motorcycle can go fifty miles just on the reserve. This is why (a la Seinfeld) when your car's gas gauge reads "empty," you've got a big safety margin.

An electrical metering system, on the other hand, reports exactly how much power is left. One "fail-safe" technology is a low-current "limp home" mode that kicks in when the battery is drained. But how many people want to spend a couple of hours covering the last twenty miles?

And even if you have a fast-charge battery, the laws of thermodynamics say that tow trucks will have to haul around huge, industrial-sized generators (diesel-powered). A 49 KW fast charger for the Leaf will set you back $16,200. Except the typical house can handle only half that load.

By "fast charge," we're talking 15-30 minutes, instead of 8 hours plugged into your home outlet. In the brave new EV world, you'll need an insurance policy just for the "roadside assistance." The Volt has a gas-powered battery charger under the hood--hence the high cost but great range.

Alas, the main obstacle here--the laws of physics--cannot be overcome by throwing lots of money at it. Recall that before the Manhattan and Apollo projects began, the underlying scientific challenges--the liquid fuel engine (1926) and nuclear fission (1941)--had already been solved.

Back during the waning days of Apollo (yes, I was alive back then), we were assured that fusion was just a few billion dollars away from becoming a reality. Forty years on, the basic scientific problem has still not been surmounted, let alone all the engineering hurdles if it was.

Lithium-ion batteries have an energy density of .72 MJ/kg. A conventional lead acid battery has an energy density of .14 MJ/kg. So production EV batteries are only five time more efficient than a technology invented in 1859. Gasoline has 62 times the energy density of a lithium-ion battery.

A lithium-ion battery pack that would give an EV the same range as the average gas-powered sedan would weight twice as much as the car itself.

So it makes a whole lot more sense to just use up all the natural gas and oil first, then synthesize butanol (less corrosive than ethanol and can be piped). Or diesel from algae, if that ever works. Butanol has an energy density of 37 MJ/kg, only slightly less than gasoline and LNG.

But if you really want to go electric (and carbon dioxide upsets you), first build lots of nuclear power plants. One pound of enriched uranium-235 has the same energy density as a million gallons of gasoline. The U.S. has tons of that too.

While we're at it, Japan produces energy efficient cars not because of CAFE standards, but because gasoline in Japan costs $5/gallon, and gas guzzlers are taxed within an inch of their lives. And yet the streets of Japan are not crowded with EVs. Electricity has high costs too.

The low power densities of solar and wind in particular will require huge electrical grids, which depend on the mining and smelting of millions of tons of aluminum, copper, and iron ore, not to mention importing the lithium and rare earths for the generators, PV panels and batteries.

For the uninitiated, this is what a copper mine looks like:

A more realistic solution is the "greenest" and is the fastest growing in China and Japan: electric bikes. But their utility is due to high population densities, which are the product of high relative energy and land costs. And they are an order of magnitude more dangerous.

I'm not sure where you'd put the car seat. Or the groceries. Or how you drive one when there's two feet of snow on the ground and it's 20 below outside. (Or for that matter, how far a Leaf battery will last stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam with the air conditioner on full.)

Ironically, strict CAFE standards have the opposite effect: they lower the unit-cost of gasoline and encourage sprawl, just as houses get bigger when insulation and HVAC systems improve. We'd rather spend energy savings on making our lives more comfortable, not on saving the planet.

That's no less true of two billion Indians and Chinese. If you want to "save" the planet, you'll have to get a handle on human nature first.

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July 16, 2010

He says "bucket loads"

This pitch-perfect parody raises the question of what to call a parody of a parody when the former makes a more serious point than the latter (in this case, a hilarious series of Old Spice body wash commercials mocking body wash commercials).

And if you didn't think he said what I thought he said before the closing shot (a bit of a jolt, that!) and seeing it was produced by the BYU Lee Library, then your soul is purer than mine (though that'd be funny too--hey, material for another parody).

UPDATE: CNN misheard it too and bleeped it. It's a lot clearer in the "making of" segment.

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July 15, 2010

Brotherhood of the Wolf

Brotherhood of the Wolf is a French art horror film. Or rather, it's what you'd get combining a kung fu flick (they brought in Hong Kong director Philip Kwok for the action sequences), a period bodice ripper, and a bunch of screwed up French nobles who really ought to have their heads cut off.

The story is based on an historical incident, the "Beast of Gévaudan," a wolf-like beast that terrorized the south of France during the mid-18th century, killing at least a hundred peasants. It is the source for the modern depiction of the loup-garou or werewolf (though no actual werewolves show up).

But Brotherhood of the Wolf hardly strives for verisimilitude (the more sober La bête du Gévaudan tries harder). It gets so ludicrous (especially once the obviously digital monster starts prowling about) and takes itself so seriously every step of the way, it's hard not to like for all its straight-faced pretentiousness.

Especially Mani (Mark Decasacos) as an Mohawk Indian pretending he's a Kwai Chang Caine. He pretty much upstages everybody, even with his four lines of dialogue.

The ludicrosity (ought to be a word) reaches its peak when our action heroes, preparing for battle, test out their groovy 18th century weapons on a bunch of pumpkins. Pumpkin mayhem ensues! It's a pumpkin apocalypse! No pumpkin was left alive!

The movie's big problem, though, is that it is, well, French.

On the one hand, that means gratuitous nudity. I've no complaints about that. On the other, it goes on and on. And on. Ninety minutes in, the good guy (a botanist who met Mani while doing politically incorrect things in Canada, for which he dutifully bears his white man's burden) has the case pretty much solved.

But in order to dredge up numerous tangential excuses to discuss political hypocrisies in pre-revolutionary France, he doesn't look at his map again for forty more minutes. You find yourself saying: Okay, the movie could end here. Okay, the movie could end here. Okay, the movie could freaking end here.

But, no, everybody's got to get killed first, and a Catholic priest has to be ironically devoured. Perhaps mindful of the U.S. market, though, they do deliver as happy an ending as you could expect--from the French.


July 12, 2010

"Pathological" and real science

On 18 December 1953, Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir (1932, Chemistry) conducted a colloquium on "Pathological Science" at the General Electric Research & Development Laboratory in Niskayuna, New York.

Many of those in attendance remember it as "the most seminal exposition on the topic." My father, a recent Caltech graduate, was in the audience (Robert Hall, who transcribed the talk, worked in the lab next to his), and says it reminded him of what Richard Feynman stressed in his lectures about common pitfalls in the empirical process.

Langmuir distilled his analysis into the "Six Symptoms of Pathological Science":

1. The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.
2. The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability; or, many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results.
3. Claims of great accuracy.
4. Fantastic theories contrary to experience.
5. Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.
6. Ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50 percent and then falls gradually to oblivion.

As Langmuir keenly observes, "These are cases where there is no dishonesty involved but where people are tricked into false results by a lack of understanding about what human beings can do to themselves in the way of being led astray by subjective effects, wishful thinking or threshold interactions."

Incidentally, during the 1950s and 1960s, GE R&D Labs spun off scientific luminaries as prodigiously as did Xerox PARC during the 1970s. My dad's colleagues included Tracy Hall (1919-2008), inventor of the artificial diamond (a different Hall than the one above), and Ray Noorda (1924-2006), founder of Novell (also both Mormon).

We all heard the story growing up, but Hall's obit in the Los Angeles Times credits my dad as the first person to duplicate the "Hall process." It's nice to see it "officially" documented somewhere.

Hall repeated the experiment several times, achieving the same results. On New Year's Eve, GE chemist Hugh H. Woodbury [sic] used Hall's equipment to perform the experiment, becoming the second person to make artificial diamonds.

Just to set the record straight, it's "H. Hugh" (a Utah Mormon naming quirk) and he's a solid-state physicist, not a chemist.

Related posts

The God Complex
Scotch tape X-rays

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July 08, 2010

Baseball according to Drucker (4)

Blogger Tudor pointed out this Economist article about 「もし高校野球の女子マネージャーがドラッカーの『マネジメント』を読んだら」 ("What if the Girl Manager of a High School Baseball Team read Drucker's Management?"). A nice summary, though I have to say that only a slightly stodgy British periodical would describe a high-school heroine as "gamine."

Related posts

Baseball according to Drucker (1)
Baseball according to Drucker (2)
Baseball according to Drucker (3)
Baseball according to Drucker (5)
Baseball according to Drucker (6)

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July 07, 2010

The Medicator (they'll be back!)

Only three out of 254 foreign applicants passed Japan's national nursing exam this year. In 2009, 15,382 nurses from the Philippines alone took the U.S. exam. The language barrier in Japan may prove an insurmountable problem. Hence the desire for "nurses" that can be put together on an assembly line. Marketwatch reports that

The Japanese government has spent one hundred million dollars in grants [to Japanese firms] over the last [decade] to develop personal robots for their own eldercare crisis, yet no viable solutions have been developed by them to date.

But Atlanta-based GeckoSystems boasts that it is getting much love from Japan and China because it is

a dynamic leader in the emerging mobile robotics industry revolutionizing their development and usage with "Mobile Robot Solutions for Safety, Security and Service."

Based on what I've seen so far, be prepared to be totally underwhelmed. Frankly, I think a medical translation system would be a more achievable goal. I can't help thinking of two already-proposed "solutions."

In Ghost in the Shell: Solid State Society, the computer running the Medicare system comes up with an ingenious solution to the problem (pretty much the opposite of Soylent Green), and then goes all HAL 9000 on anybody who gets in the way.

Though the whole concept of an "Elder Care Robot" sounds eerily like the one satirized in Roujin Z. The movie was released way back in 1991, making it all the more prescient.

My brother points out that this really isn't about language. A foreign nurse who would even attempt to take the qualifying exam will likely speak and understand Japanese better than any robot ever will.

It's not as bad as the silly business about Japanese not being able to eat American-grown rice back in the 1980s, but there is clearly regulatory capture going on.

The examination system in Japan long ago devolved into a tortuous sorting machine, not an evaluation of thinking ability. The Japanese equivalent of Stand and Deliver focuses more about test-taking strategies than mastering a complex subject like calculus.

For every ministry (and the industry group backing it) that wants A, another ministry and industry group wants B. But rather than debating it and committing to a single course, group B "graciously" concedes A, then renders A meaningless with gatekeeping strategy C.

Like passing a law and then "forgetting" to fund it.

In this case, all B has to do is nobly insist on the "same standards for everybody." The examination system (credentialism run amok) is Japan's "third rail," a prisoner's dilemma writ large, that everybody knows is hopelessly flawed but the entire society is hopelessly wedded to.

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July 01, 2010

Attack of the Clones

Yes, it's back to the future again to beat up on poor George Lucas. Hence the dated references to Malcolm in the Middle (which, if you remember the show, I think hold up well). I really did write this before listening to the enlightened opinions of "Mike from Milwaukee, Wisconsin," so I guess demented minds think alike. But I haven't seen Revenge of the Sith and it's not in my Netflix queue.

One good thing I can now say about The Phantom Menace: it was crap, but it was endurable crap. Attack of the Clones is just crap. I asked myself over and over, scrunching down in my seat in empathic chagrin for those grossly overpaid SAG members: Have worse lines been uttered before in the history of talking pictures? I suppose so, but by actors being so handsomely rewarded to behave so pretentiously in the service of such bad directing while pretending otherwise? I doubt it.

In fact, Attack of the Clones pretty much settles the question of whether good acting can overcome a really bad script. It can't, not if everybody insists on keeping a straight face.

Unless, that is, if George Lucas is actually a Vogon, the speaking of whose words physically lobotomizes skilled thespians of talent and common sense. Had I not known that actors such as Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson had previously acquitted themselves is productions that didn't totally reek, I could have imagined that a bunch of George's drinking buddies showed up at the ranch one day to appear in one of them, you know, talking pictures, with the promise of cab fare and free beer in the offing.

Only Christopher Lee, the prince of B movies, manages not to embarrass himself. Maybe because he knows he's in a B movie and acts accordingly.

Granted, things do pick up once the shooting starts (after an initial chase sequence, you've got to wait a whole bloody hour), and the camera starts bouncing around so much you can't see anything and you realize you're not missing anything. The problem is, none of the action sequences make sense in the context of, you know, common sense. In the first chase scene we're dealing with a bunch of assassins who can't hit the broad side of a barn. And notice how our lady's Praetorian Guard goes galloping off after them, leaving their charge completely exposed.

Lucky for our dumb heros, the villains are even dumber. (And why don't the bad guys just shoot the good guys, for crying out loud? What is this, a James Bond flick?)

You quickly resign yourself to the dreadful realization that every strategic decision in the story will be executed with a complexity of thinking that wouldn't stump a seven year old. Proof: when Obi Wan needs to find the hidden planet, he asks a bunch of seven year olds. No kidding. So it's no surprise that World War III starts when the entire Jedi community takes stupid pills and decides to risk their collectives asses in order save their two brain-addled colleagues, one of whom, even if we didn't already know, we'd be better off without. (And, by the way, it's not Attack of the Clones; it's The Clones Come to the Rescue, Thank God!)

Okay, Natalie Portman does look quite fetching in a half torn off lycra body suit. Almost worth the mayhem. That doesn't explain Anakin Skywalker's behavior (played by Hayden Christensen, who left me puzzling whether he was a decent actor stuck with awful material, or whether he really is that big of a jerk in real life, which I don't think; is that praising with faint damns?). Well, it would explain it if he were fourteen. That's where things start getting creepy.

Bad art, even bad art that doesn't know how bad it is, is at best laughable, at worse (as in this case) painfully monotonous. What's creepy isn't what's on the screen but trying to imagine what's in George Lucas's mind. Not anything evil, but frighteningly juvenile. True love, according to Lucas, is the kind of thing normal women take out restraining orders against. Every scene featuring our two supposed lovebirds left me pondering in what possible alternate universe any romantic tension could be construed between them, that could actually lead to somebody getting pregnant.

Okay, let's posit that Anakin is one messed up kid with a mother complex, who thinks that the best way to win a girl's heart is by stalking her. What precisely does Padme (based on the previous installment, a dozen years his senior) see in him? And she declares her undying love in the last act on what possible evidence? There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hack romance writers who could strike more sparks from a sponge than this. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the very annoying and immature jerk with no social skills gets the babe. Is that what this is all about?

In the first Star Wars series, Han Solo gets the girl, not that whiny dweeb, Luke Skywalker (it runs in the family apparently). What, is Lucas regressing back to junior high school in his late middle age?

As usual, there was a good story in there, until George Lucas got the notion he was smart enough to write another installment of Isaac Asimov's Foundation. Nope, not by half. The story that would have worked would have required resetting the time line back at least five years and casting Justin Berfield (Reese from Malcolm in the Middle) as a young Anakin who's got A) "issues," and B) hormones, and C) a whole lot of barely-controlled power. And deals with A and B by bullying people and kicking butt (Justin Berfield masterfully accomplishes this without becoming totally unsympathetic or irredeemably). Obi Wan's job, then, is to sit on his head and keep him from ending up in a juvenile correctional institution.

We'll also posit that his mom is happily married, as is suggested at the end of Attack of the Clones (Lucas does way too much telling and no showing, like giving us any reason why Anakin is such a whiner), which would passably explain why Anakin hasn't given a damn about her for, like, ever. Better: Obi Wan has deliberately kept them apart (it's some monk/Jedi/cloistered life thing), more fuel for resentment. The movie begins with her being kidnapped. While Obi Wan is off looking for clones on invisible planets, Anakin and Padme run off to save her. Why? Because they're impulsive (and horny) teenagers (we're dumping the age differences in The Phantom Menace for the sake of continuity and believability).

And to drive the Freudian point home, Mom dies while Anakin is trying to rescue her, because of the way he went about it, and because teenagers are not smarter than adults simply because they think they are. Note: talk to Joss Whedon about how to write this type of sequence, how he takes a screwed up, teenage super hero, Faith, and turns her evil. And then redeems her.

But back to the real world. George Lucas needs to return to this galaxy and not so long ago, like the Renaissance, when wealthy patrons of the arts, themselves possessed of marginal talents, hired a Mozart or Da Vinci to bring their imaginations to life. Journeyman SF writers like Dave Wolverton have made a good living writing Star Wars novels. Mr. Lucas, hire one of them to write your next movie! (They owe you, big time.)

Related posts

The Force Awakens
The Phantom Menace
McKee meets the "Menace"

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