September 24, 2015

All about Comiket

NHK produced this fair and informative look at Comiket, the world's largest comic book convention. Comiket specializes in self-published doujinshi (with booths starting at less than $100), but has branched out to embrace every imaginable medium and genre.

Big publishers pay close attention (and mostly overlook not-for-profit copyright violations). Comiket is the equivalent of the NCAA Final Four, a rich recruiting ground for new talent and a venue for professional artists to experiment outside their market niches.

For four decades, Comiket has showcased the growing integration between the established business world and creative entrepreneurship that is becoming the inevitable future here in the U.S. too (whether the "legacy" publishers like it or not).

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September 17, 2015

Something Ventured

Ostensibly a documentary about venture capital, this 2011 film by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine is an engaging exploration of real-world capitalism. Better, it doesn't so much tell as show you what risk-takers and brilliant minds can do when given access to capital and free markets.

Here is a system that turns the old feudal order upside down. Marx asserted that the wealthy profited off the labor of the poor. In the world of venture capital, the monied search out unmonied entrepreneurs whose only assets are their bright ideas and willingness to work hard to see them realized.

If the bright idea fails, the monied financiers end up with less money and the unmonied entrepreneurs are back to where they started.

But when they succeed, not only can the investors become fabulously rich but the wealth gets widely spread around. Here is the closest thing to creation ex nihilo since Genesis, turning common bacteria into medicine and beach sand into computer chips.

The dreams of the alchemists—to transform worthless lead into priceless gold—have come true. In 1976, a $250,000 investment created Genentech, which twenty-five years later was sold to Roche for $47 billion. When Apple went public in 1980, it immediately spawned 300 millionaires.

In Triumph of the Nerds, Bob Cringely ruefully recounts how he worked one summer for a fledgling Apple Computer and insisted on being paid in cash, not stock. That's not nearly as bad a miss as Atari president Nolan Bushnell passing on an offer to own one third of Apple Computer for $50,000.

Apple today is worth over $600 billion.

But this story is more about people than calculations of profit and loss.

William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, was a highly eccentric man whose dysfunctional management style eventually alienated his entire senior engineering staff. Fed up, they decamped en masse to Fairchild in a deal brokered by future venture capitalists Arthur Rock and Alfred Coyle.

Fairchild Semiconductor pioneered the planar process, shared a patent with Texas Instruments for the integrated circuit, and was the first company to introduce an IC operational amplifier. In the mid-1960s, Fairchild was one of the few profitable semiconductor manufacturers in the U.S.

Unfortunately, Fairchild's East Coast managers ran the West Coast company like a 19th century corporation. The peons were supposed to work to enrich their betters. Except when the value of an enterprise resides in the minds of its employees, those employees can walk that IP right out the front door.

Which they did in droves, founding spin-off companies known as "Fairchildren." Shockley's and Fairchild's disaffected brain trusts created today's Silicon Valley, but only because venture capitalists were willing to risk millions on cash-poor, hard-driving entrepreneurs and their outrageous ideas.

By contrast, this interview about venture capital in Japan details the difficulty the concept has overcoming age-old cultural hurdles. And note how well Steve Jobs matches the Asian ideal of a startup CEO—a charismatic leader in total control of his company—hence his iconic popularity in Japan.

Something Ventured can be viewed on Amazon Prime.

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September 09, 2015

The La Brea Fly Pits

Utah's hot, dry summers are not kind to flies, mosquitoes, and other annoying insects. The combination of heat, low humidity, and ultraviolet light (the average July UV index in Salt Lake City is 10; in New York it's 6) is as lethal as DDT.

And at 4700 feet in elevation, summer mornings can be quite cool, even when the temperature reaches 100 degrees (Fahrenheit) in the late afternoon. I can open the door and windows and let the warm air out and the cool air in without ushering in a bunch of uninvited guests.

Conditions get wet and cool enough in the spring and fall to bring out the bugs in annoying numbers. Even during the summer, a couple will find their way in and spend the day banging off the glass and buzzing me, no matter how wide open the windows (wasps seem particularly stupid in this regard).

We're talking bugs with a serious death wish. They're like, "C'mon, Darwin, give me some of that natural selection!"

Splat. Wish granted.

I tried traditional fly paper and caught one fly in an entire month. Maybe they've evolved an aversion to the stuff. But as I said, not really worth spending a lot of time and money on. Still, a couple of flies droning around the room are like little kids running up and down the aisle during a cross-country flight.

I'm pretty sure fly paper--well, duct tape--would work on them. As it turns out, fly paper, like duct tape, is the right idea. It only needs a little tweak.

A $6 pack of Catchmaster "Bug & Fly Clear Window Traps" did the trick. You place a plastic sheet of the stuff it in a corner of a sun-facing window (or any window where you observe bugs congregating). Stick it to the window and peel off the protective backing, exposing a film of transparent goo.

I was amazed at how quickly it worked. An hour later, flying annoyances gone. Or rather, permanently stuck. That's how long it took them to randomly wander into an insect version of the La Brea Tar Pits. I resisted tenting my fingers like Mr. Burns and cackling as the parasites went to meet their maker.

But I've got no sympathy for flies. Spiders, on the other hand, I respect. They're cold-blooded (literally) predators, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend (as long as they don't crawl on me).

It got me thinking that what we have here is the making of a cool science project. Leave a strip up for the whole summer and you'll end up with a veritable insect abattoir, including the teeny-tiny no-see-'ums you never guessed were there. You could stick traps all over the place and see what you collect where and how many over a span of time.

The downside is grossing out the teacher. But in truth, it's not any more disgusting than butterfly collecting. It's just that the little critters look so disgusting.

Okay, make that a big upside for the average kid.

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September 03, 2015

Window fans

One nice thing about living in the high desert is that while summer daytime temperatures can climb to 100 degrees (Fahrenheit), they often sink to a comfortable 65-70 degrees at night. Except then the problem is getting the hot air out and the cool air in.

Building codes in the U.S. stipulate wall and ceiling insulation ratings but rarely Whole House Mechanical Ventilation. And in an apartment (especially a forty-year-old one)? Fuhgeddaboudit. Unfortunately, because ventilating an apartment would be easy.

(The air conditioner and refrigerator in mine are as old as the apartment; the hermetically sealed compressor pioneered by General Electric is an amazingly rugged piece of machinery. But they are power hogs.)

When I was a kid back in the prehistoric times, my dad installed a WHMV system in our big baby boomer house. That plus tons of insulation in the attic made a huge difference, and was orders of magnitude cheaper than central air conditioning.

My solution has always been to buy a box fan and attach screws to mount it in the window. The first one was the best, with metal blades that were quiet and didn't turn too fast. They've been plastic ever since and noisier. But the last two really disappointed.

My previous Aerospeed fan wasn't unbearably loud but became steadily unbalanced (like a wobbly wheel). I started hearing what I thought was outside helicopter traffic (not that unusual where I live). It was the fan putting on a convincing ventriloquism act.

Its replacement, an inexpensive Lasko B20301, was well-rated on Walmart. That thing is a screamer, a turboprop ready to take off. I'm sure it'd be fine in a barn or a 2000 square foot house. It was too loud even from the bedroom.

So it was time to get a purpose-built window fan. The top-selling twin fan on Amazon is the Holmes HAWF2021. But the bad reviews (always read those) consistently mentioned the noise, and that made me nervous. I didn't feel like rolling the dice again.

In the reviews, somebody recommended the HDX FW23-A1 as the superior choice. HDX is Home Depot's store brand. Having decided I couldn't live with the Lasko, I took a closer look at the Home Depot listing.

Several reviews mentioned how quiet it was. That sold me. I trundled down to the local Home Depot and picked one up. It truly is the quietest fan I've had so far, and just ten bucks more than the Holmes. Plus, the airflow can be reversed with the flick of a switch.

Granted, it won't blow a gale through your living room; more like a gentle breeze. And in reverse, it's better than the air conditioner.

The accordion expander needs work. You have to play tug-of-war to get it out as far as in the picture. I wish they'd enclosed more than one of the Lego-like expansion "feet" instead. But the gap was easily filled by a piece of foam board.

The one disadvantage is that, unlike my old box fan kludges, when the HDX FW23-A1 isn't on it doesn't let much air through, which minimizes passive airflow. But that also means you don't have to hastily remove it with every change of the weather.

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