Swinging for the Fences?

I've been hearing quite a few rumors recently about Apple developing a tablet-like device (iSlate?). But this post at Daring Fireball congealed some thoughts for me. It says:
The Tablet, I say, is going to be Apple’s new answer to what you use for personal portable general computing.

I think that's not quite right. I think it's going to be for all sorts of media consumption, but nigh-useless for media creation and editing. And I think gaming will be restricted to iPhone app-like games. Why? Mostly because the interface will be too clunky for that, but too smooth for consumption to be ignored.

And I think the only video output will be HDMI (or maybe mini-DisplayPort, sold with a to-HDMI adapter).

So it will replace the Apple TV (hence no meaningful revisions to that in so long), but give nice portability functionality as well. And, in a pinch, it'll function as an iPod or Kindle as well. And, of course, it'll let you browse the web while on the can. :)

I'd have no problem finding uses for that. But if the Kindle part is right, they better skip DRM on books and magazines.


Ignore the crowd behind the curtain

I got into photography over the last year quite a bit. I'd been a bit dissatisfied with my old Olympus SLR (it was cool when it came out, but seven years is an Ice Age to a digital camera), so when I tried my dad's Nikon after my daughter was born, I was hooked.

After doing some research, I got my own Nikon (being able to borrow nice lenses is not to be overlooked), ending up with a D90. I've been very happy with it; an FX sensor would be very nice, as would a few extra frames per second for sports, but those are both minor things.

Anyway, that's gotten me reading some photography blogs. (I suppose it's not a coincidence that they're all primarily Nikon shooters. :)

Anyway, the latter of those just did an interesting write-up looking at what Nikon should be doing, moving forward (I can't do a direct link; it isn't set up for it, but search for 'Inverted Razor Blades'). He talked about the old Gillette give away razor/sell blades business model, and how that can work well in different markets. He then went on to talk about how you leverage free stuff to sell expensive (or, at least, high-profit-margin) items, and how Apple's done that with the iPod/iPhone.

He's not quite right on all his facts (Apple does make a tiny profit on each paid music download, and a significant one on all app downloads), but it does raise some very interesting thoughts. His idea is for Nikon to document their internal software interfaces, and allow other people to write apps for their cameras.

While this could lead to problems (poorly written apps could cause problems), it could also lead to some really nice possibilities. Imagine, if you will, in-camera panoramas or HDR. Ok, you'd really want a better LCD on the back, but still. And imagine if someone else could write the high-ISO and give you the equivalent of an extra stop. Ok, that last one would be especially dangerous, but add in a way to back out stuff like that painlessly, and there's a lot of potential there.

There'd be a lot of implementation details that would be very important, especially the checkpointing and restoring, but the potential there is pretty amazing.

Go for it, Nikon!


Flying High

My wife and I took half a day off today, and went together to see our first movie since our daughter was born. We caught Jason Reitman's Up in the Air.

It was a very forthright and honest movie, and the timing of releasing a movie about someone who's flying around the country firing people was quite interesting. I can't decide if it's low, or genius (at the very least, it led to some quite blunt scenes at the very end, where St Louis people who've recently been laid off were interviewed about the experience).

The firing man, Clooney's Brigman, is on a quest to reach 10M airline miles. Why? Because fewer people have achieved that than have walked on the moon. Of course, those people who went to the moon probably don't have that many miles traveled, thinking about it.

I was thinking about it, he mentioned traveling 350k miles in the prior year at one point; at another point, he said he'd traveled ~320 days in that year. So one would assume that that's a pretty heavy traveling year for him. But it would still take 30 years of that to reach 10M. Yes, yes, he charged pretty much everything to a credit card that gave him miles; that would help. Still seems awfully tough to do.

And I must admit that my first thought when they described his life was that it was about as lonely as I can imagine. I certainly wouldn't be able to do something like that; not even if someone else was paying for it.

But he does meet Alex fairly early on in the movie; their relationship was quite entertaining.

And his biggest challenge in the movie is a newcomer to his company; she's setting things up so that people can be fired via teleconference. Geeze; could you possibly be more heartless than that? It's like breaking up with someone over text message. It's hard to imagine someone that callous.

So he has to show her what the job is like, which is eye-opening for both of them.

Meanwhile, Clooney is finding time (occasionally) to keep up with Alex; they have something like a relationship. How much of one? Well, she shows up at his sister's wedding with him.

Don't want to get too much into details there; suffice it to say that I was surprised with what happened with them. It made sense, but I still managed not to see it coming.

The one weakness with the movie was the ending; in particular, they seriously missed an opportunity by not having him get fired (probably by telecon) about two minutes before the end of the movie. That would have been a perfect full-circle ending.

But despite that omission, it was still a very good movie, and a very insightful look at what "big business" can lead to.

Juno is still Reitman's best, but this was a solid second place.


pre-mortem of a daily?

There's been a lot of noise recently about how the newspapers are dying. This is a bit of a misrepresentation, as most newspapers are doing pretty well (at least, they're profitable, if not by a lot). Some, however, are dying quickly, largely due to having huge debts due to unwise purchases.

In any event, a lot of hoo-ha has gone on about how the big papers are dying quickly.

The big problem, as I've noted previously, is that the newspapers, too often, aren't providing value to the customer (I'm ignoring craigslist's annihilation of the classified ads, which were the single largest profit center in the paper). In particular, they've largely given up on standing up to power.

For the most part, they've decided to sit back and just mindlessly repeat the blatherings of anonymous government people spitting out the official party line. That's what's called propoganda. That's why Pravda was mocked for its uselessness, many years ago.

In any event, I was looking at this article, and this line struck a bit of a nerve.

There was concern about how this device would lead to destroying quality reporting, getting people to focus more on the quick hits, and that there would be less reason to do "real" reporting -- leading to more annoying opinion writing, rather than actual journalism. Sound familiar?

I think this is another part of the problem; the newspapers (and other news sources, even more so) are trying to get stories out too quickly, and so they'll report on something before they actually have something to say about it.

Once again, we come back to the question: what are we providing of value to the customer? If they don't have something coherent to say about an event, they're not going to be showing that value. If they aren't verifying their facts, then they're potentially reducing that value (being lied to about an event is much worse than not knowing about the event at all).

Update: Not sure what to make of this, but it's an interesting point of comparison.

Update 2: And this goes to show what happens when you just appease those in power. (And, btw, that update that it was an editorial aide? What difference does that make? Either way, it was in-house.)


Moments in hopelessly bad advertising

I saw an ad today for a drug for COPD. I'm not going to name the drug, because I'm skeptical about the usefulness (it strikes me as one of those where they made up the "syndrome" to match the drug, rather than the other way around), and because I really don't agree that drug companies should be advertising to consumers directly. (Or that they should be able to bribe doctors, but that's a separate issue about which I know virtually nothing.)

Anyway, this commercial started out, "I took [drug x] five minutes ago, and I'm already feeling better." So, we're supposed to believe that you agreed to do a commercial, signed a contract, went through costume and make-up before you actually took the drug? That's really what you want to say?

And no, there was no disclaimer in there about the person being a paid actor in simulated circumstances, or some such.

So it starts off completely believably.

And then, at the end, it goes completely cliche (with a cliche you really don't want to go along with), where they say that [company Y] might provide your first prescription for free. Yeah, I've heard that "The first one's free" is a common offer by drug dealers. And you somehow agreed to let this go on the air?

What were these people thinking?


Plugging a new product

Well, ok, it isn't available yet (and is only relevant for the UK, at least directly), but I just wanted to call attention to a design by Min-Kyu CHOI. I just think that's incredibly cool.

It might have sturdiness issues (maybe not, that's just something I would think would need a lot of care about), but it's just all sorts of cool.

The wilds of outer Mongolia

I finally got around to watching Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan. Since I was pretty sure my wife didn't want to see it, I had to wait a bit longer than I might have, otherwise.

One thing occurred to me around the beginning of the movie that made things feel a little bit weird. Mongols were originally caucasians (indistinguishable from Russians, I would guess, which might, now that I think about it, go some distance towards explaining the Russian director and crew). It wasn't until Genghis Khan's time, when they conquered the Hans and heavily interbred with them, that they developed the mongoloid eyes (irony there, I know) and other asian characteristics.

But the movie would definitely feel even weirder (and, who knows, maybe offensive to today's Mongols) if it was a bunch of white people running around speaking Mongol. It might well feel to them similar to how Japanese probably feel upon seeing Mickey Rooney's performance in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

As far as the movie itself, it was an interesting attempt to re-envision Genghis Khan as a deeply feeling person. While I'm not without some skepticism, this is the sort of thing I love to watch or read. Kind of a redemption of a person widely perceived as evil.

This is the reason why Mists of Avalon is my favorite telling of the Arthurian cycle. (And searching for that link was the first time I'd run across the movie version. Have to think about seeing that.)

In fact, this movie ends up painting Temudjin as someone worthy of a great deal of respect, rather than fear. It rather contradicts basically everything I'd heard of Genghis Khan, as far as his values (particularly his way of treating subjugated peoples), but I've no idea where the truth in that lies.

It also leaves mostly unanswered how he built power after several times being reduced to just himself, with no followers. Regardless of the truth, it makes for a very compelling story, told around some absolutely gorgeous scenery. Whoever did the location scouting (forgot to search the credits for who it was) did a fantastic job.

Once more into the breach?

As someone who decided to vote for Obama as soon as he threw his name in the ring for the election, my wife was very surprised to hear me ask her to turn off his speech the other day.

While I think it will end up having been a very important speech for his presidency, I just couldn't bear to listen. I knew once he started talking about adding another 30k troops, that I'd just get really mad, and probably start yelling at the TV.

The one bad part about not listening to the speech was that I missed him talking about withdrawing in 18 (or so) months. And as long as that's a drop-dead date, I think it's very encouraging. Of course, the White House itself can't decide whether or not that's the case.

What I've read elsewhere, though, suggests that the "strategy" consists of: take control of the population centers (with those extra troops) and train more Afghanis so they can defense themselves.

The question the administration failed to ask, however, was whether or not the Russians tried the same thing. And the first part of that is a yes. And how did it work out for them? Well, they succeeded in that mission, but it obviously didn't help them all that much.

As for the second part, while it's a great theory, there's something missing there, as well. The Afghan army's desertion rate over the last couple of years has varied between ten and thirty percent. In fact, twenty-five percent seems a good estimate.

That being the case, a) we're wasting a lot of time training people who won't be around for long and b) we're likely training more than a few Taliban sympathizers (or, at least, would-be insurgents). How is that likely to work out for us? I'm thinking that it's more tens of billions of dollars of money down a hole.

Finally, let's consider this. Assuming that everything goes right for the administration, there's still two huge problems. If everything goes right, and we pull out on schedule, what's to keep the illegitimate government (really: we've made a lot of mistakes in dealing with Afghanistan, but allowing the last election to be blatantly fixed was probably the biggest) from immediately collapsing.

And even assuming that it doesn't collapse, and Afghanistan becomes a stable, prosperous nation, who benefits? It ain't us, except, perhaps, in the most peripheral of ways; it's the Russians and Chinese (and Pakistanis, I suppose, which could redound some slight benefit upon us).

So what are we doing spending these tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars in extra money?

Am I forgetting about al-Qaida? I'm not; setting up an international police operation to catch them (and yes, that would involve assets up to and including US special forces) seems a lot more likely to keep them from settling in any one spot. So why don't we spend a couple of billion there, and otherwise withdraw from the region.

Let's remember that staying in the region as an occupying power (even if that isn't nominally the case) is providing an endless stream of recruits for both insurgents and for al-Qaida.

And there's also the minor issue that those tens or hundreds of billions of dollars can be put to much better use right here in the USA. Maybe by preventing 45k people annually from dying due to lack of health insurance. And stopping medical care from causing half of all bankruptcies in the US (remembering that 60% of those bankruptcies are people who DO have health insurance). And maybe we could employ a few more of the people who want a job. And educate some of those who can't find a job.

Does that stuff sound worthwhile? More to the point, does it sound more worthwhile than killing brown people?


finally some time for movies

My wife and I haven't had time for movies in ages; just too much stuff going on. We hadn't watched anything in a couple of months. But we finally managed to catch Up, The Proposal, and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. At home, of course; going out would have even bigger problems. But at least we don't lose a lot in quality of presentation that way. Not nothing, but not a huge amount.

We enjoyed all three, although we were a bit surprised that our daughter didn't enjoy Up more. She liked parts of it, but there were actually parts that were too slow for her (she's only a year old). Mostly she liked the parts with Dug (we knew she'd like those parts). But we thought it was fantastic.

My only gripes with it were that Muntz should have had more trouble moving around than Carl. After all, he was significantly older. The part where they both had their backs go out while fighting was a nice nod to that. And the part where Carl finally read's the exploration book was a tad sappy, even for me. Although I can't argue that it didn't work.

But it detracted noticeably due to screaming out, "Second Act ends HERE!" But those really were the only low points for a movie that hit a great many high points.

The Proposal was also quite enjoyable. We laughed at it quite a bit. The only real big problem with it was the whole idea of them falling in love. It seems a bit of a stretch to fall in love with someone in a couple of days that you've been calling "Satan's Mistress", and similar endearments. If you can ignore that (and we mostly did), it was a pleasant surprise (expectations were not all that high on it).

And speaking of low expectations, my wife took one look at the cover of Nick & Norah when I bought it, and said, "This movie looks terrible". But I convinced her to watch it nonetheless, and we both enjoyed it quite a bit. It definitely owed quite a bit to Juno, especially artistically (having Michael Cera in both didn't hurt that impression, of course, but it was really the credits that drove it home).

As a side note, while the soundtrack was quite good, it suffers a great deal in the comparison with Juno. But then, most movies do.

But getting back to Nick and Norah, their interaction was very good. They were both very smart; Nick had a couple of very sharp off-the-cuff observations, and Norah alluded to being valedictorian/salutatorian in her school. I'd like to make some snide remarks about the few stupid things they did vis-a-vis each other, but then I think back on what I was like at that age. Not a pretty picture.

My only complaint about the movie was the gum. What the heck was that all about?!? Aside from being occasionally gross, it didn't seem to serve any purpose.

Plus, lesser complaint that I never really could figure out why Caroline and Norah were friends. Well, I could certainly see why Caroline would want to be friends, but not so much for Norah.

But in high school, it doesn't really need more explanation. I'd've just liked to've seen it.

Anyway, we'll see if I can do any more anytime soon.

new computer

My old Macbook Pro has been getting a bit long in the tooth for quite a while. The tipping point came when trying to edit some photos, and having the hard drive start thrashing. Given that a memory upgrade wasn't an option, a new one was getting to be a requirement.

So I was waiting for a while, hoping for Apple to come out with an i5 or i7 Macbook Pro (presumably Arrandale), but there's still no foreseeable prospect for that.

And then I poked my head in on the new 27" iMac; I'd never owned an iMac (other than, for a couple of weeks, a first-gen one that I gave to my Mom some years ago), and didn't envision myself ever owning one. But my jaw dropped when I saw that it had a monitor that would be an upgrade from my 24" Dell monitor (also getting a bit old, but a much less immediate need), could also drive an external monitor, and had a Nehalem i7 as a CPU option. Support for 16GB of RAM was the icing on the (very tasty) cake; 12 months same-as-cash financing and company discount were the sprinklies on top.

Well, I wasn't about to spring for that much memory, but 8GB wasn't too much extra.

So I stuck the iMac next to my old monitor, plugged it into the KVM, and now have a disgustingly big desktop. Being able to have Aperture take over the big screen, and still have what used to be a full desktop available. Oy. I'm feeling really spoiled now. The only way to improve it would be to replace the dell with an Apple 30" Cinema Display. Once they fix the backlighting on those, that is. :)

(For those wondering about the speed, I keep Rosetta@home (a distributed protein folding application) running all the time. It crunches a unit about 22% faster than the old MBP, and runs four times as many units at once. Score! And with all that stuff running, I still have significant free memory. Life is definitely good. :)

Update: Well, one slight flaw has raised its head; no support for jumbo frames (a requirement for taking advantage of gigabit ethernet).


Fantasy through a lens

I really need to get my thoughts on The Time Traveller's Wife down; it's been blocking me for a month, now. For the nonce, I'll just say that there was some stuff I liked, and some I didn't, and the balance between the two is what's been holding me back.

But in any event, I was watching Jeopardy again yesterday, and the champion (Christie Cavada? I tried to make a note of it, but I'm terrible with names, and forgot it again) mentioned a project of taking pictures of science fiction authors. This reminded me of a book I'd bought a number of years ago, probably when I was in the Sci-Fi Book Club, called Faces of Fantasy.

Back when I bought it, I looked through it a bit, read the pages written by favorite authors (each author is mentioned with a picture and a page that they wrote along the lines of 'Why do I write?'). But I think I didn't read it particularly carefully.

In any event, watching Jeopardy again tonight, I was reminded of the book, and pulled it out this time. Obviously, I was wrong about the association, since it's by Patti Perret, but I started reading parts of it again.

And I started paying more attention to the photos. And my recent experience taking pictures informed that attention.

It's a very good book; some of the authors have very deep things to say, particularly about fantasy as a genre/medium. While I've again mostly paid attention to stuff written by authors I already know, there are a couple whose books I'll be seeking out.


CDP's Spouse

I started this post months ago, but I've been having trouble working through my feelings on this book.

I didn't hear about The Time Traveler's Wife until I saw a commercial for the movie earlier this year. I wasn't too sure what to make of it, but the idea sounded pretty interesting. Kind of like Quantum Leap meets an old movie about a 16th century sailor, or some such.

But I didn't think a whole lot more about it until I was looking for something on Amazon a couple of weeks later. I'm not sure whether I just remembered it then, or it showed up as related to something else I was looking at, or what, but I decided to buy it.

It then sat on the shelf for a month or two longer, while I read a couple of other things, but eventually I remembered it was there.

When I started it, I was surprised to find that it didn't work at all the way I expected. I didn't expect it to be a subconscious/uncontrolled ability, and that really changed a lot in the story.

Let's start with what I liked about it, though. I thought it was really cool the way the characters are brought together, where they're kind of working backwards (relative to each other, that is) as they approach meeting. That is, chronologically they first meet when he knows her very well (married for years, actually) but she doesn't know him at all. They continue like this, working in a weird order through his life, but she gets to know him better and better, until they finally meet when he isn't time traveling.

When they get to that point, he doesn't know her at all, but she knows him very well. Complicating matters, he's just broken up with another woman with whom he'd been together for quite a while.

As a story, it's very nice. Their relationship is very well described, and due to the chronological twists and turns it takes, it's very interesting in its own right.

But where it falls on its face is where most stories involving time travel do. That is, in causality. Most everything in the book is driven by events caused by the future. Think of it as the universe as a self-started system. It just doesn't make any sense.

How pervasive is this? Well, their meeting at all is caused by it. The doctor he sees to investigate the phenomenon of his involuntary travels he goes to only because he's seen that doctor in the future. Them having children. The daughter playing violin. Finding the house they bought.

I'm sure there's other instances that I've forgotten about. But the point is that the whole book is driven by events that have no initial cause. And I don't mean that we don't know the cause, I mean that they're self-caused events.

Frankly, that's just bad story-telling. Characters can't learn and grow if they're driven by events with no cause. There's no growth there, just a sequence of events. Kind of like later Heinlein books, really.

The sequence might make for interesting reading, and the character interaction might be good (think Eddings; very weak on plot, but so good at character descriptions that you just don't care), but there's no plot per se.

There's also the issue of him controlling his "power". For the most part, it seems completely random, but when he decides that he wants to win the lottery (and it was a conscious decision that they discussed), he's able to do it on demand. That was also never explained.

All of this leaves me a bit undecided about whether it's actually a good book or not.

Perhaps, like Avatar, it's interesting in spite of being deeply flawed.


Sword Dancer

I was poking through my paperbacks a week or two back, and ran across one I'd had for a long time, but had never gotten around to reading: Sword Dancer, by Jennifer Roberson.

Since it had been sitting on my shelves for years (possibly as many as ten), and since I bought it at a used shop, I'm not sure what it was about it that caught my attention.

It turned out to be an interesting read; the main character was pretty interesting. I wouldn't have guessed, based on the beginning, that he was as successful as he later was revealed to be. But his point of view was pretty entertaining, above it all and sarcastic.

I did have some quibbles with the book, in terms of realism: I have my doubts about their ability to recover from some of the injuries suffered over the course of the book in the time described. In fact, I have my doubts about ever being able to recover from one or two of them (in particular, the exposure to that much sun, especially for Del). Oh, and Tiger's endurance could be minimally called superhuman.

I also wonder what the sand tigers could eat, out there. There didn't seem to be anything, and a meat-eater that big's going to need a lot of food.

I also question a couple of things about their strategy for crossing the Punja (the more severe desert than just a desert). One, why don't you bring something to shade yourself, even if only while stopped? Two, can't you find better animals than horses (horses wouldn't be the worst choice, but ponies or something camel-like would be a lot better)? Three, wouldn't it be better to rest during the day and travel at night? Four, is it even possible for a horse to carry enough water for them?

One thing I did find very surprising: I expected the story to be all about Del, but while her quest drove the plot forward, the ins and outs of getting there were all about Tiger.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the book, but I'm still undecided about getting the rest of the series (I suspect I didn't get the rest originally because I didn't know it was a series).


Big Animals/Small Animals

Whenever I read a fantasy novel with very large animals (generally dragons, but there are similar issues with stuff like giants as well) and/or animals in dungeons or hidden deeply in caves, I start thinking about stuff like this.

To see why, you only have to look at the tiger’s relatives in the Americas. A male mountain lion weighs in at about 150 pounds — about a quarter the size of a large tiger. To keep itself fed, a mountain lion prowls an area ranging from around 50 to as much as 400 square miles. The American bobcat is a considerably smaller animal. At 25 pounds, it’s about one-sixth the size of the mountain lion, and it makes do with about one-sixth the area. In the eastern United States, there are no mountain lions left (barring the few who may have been turned out by exotic pet owners having second thoughts). Bobcats in the eastern United States number in the hundreds of thousands.

Well, my contemplations are usually not quite about territorial size, but more about energy balances. In particular, how much food such an animal or population (a bunch of elves or dwarves, for instance) would require.


Let's take a Holliday...

I was looking at Fangraphs earlier today, and they were discussing Matt Holliday's home/road splits, particularly last year as it related to predicting this year.

I was going to say something there about how Coors doesn't play nearly as biased the last couple of years as it did previously. And that's true, but not as much as I thought. It still has a 7-8% bonus for the offense (not obscene, but still significant).

But what I found more amusing was looking at Holliday's performance this year compared to last. In particular, his home/road split is actually even more extreme this year than it was last year (ok, not hugely... 130 pts OPS, rather than 110). Still, I found it interesting.

The Future of Publishing?

Paul Graham just wrote an interesting article about publishing, and about selling content (news, music, movies, whatever). In it, he says,

The reason I've been writing about existing forms is that I don't know what new forms will appear. But though I can't predict specific winners, I can offer a recipe for recognizing them. When you see something that's taking advantage of new technology to give people something they want that they couldn't have before, you're probably looking at a winner. And when you see something that's merely reacting to new technology in an attempt to preserve some existing source of revenue, you're probably looking at a loser.

I think the key point here is the same as it is in any business.

  • Give the customer what he wants.
  • Add value for the customer.

A few years ago, a coworker of mine went to interview at Microsoft. And the big question he remembers being asked wasn't a puzzle or anything like that. It was, "how do you compete with free?"

Microsoft, at the time, was deeply worried about linux, and was still trying to figure out how to answer that question. My friend, who liked Linux, didn't really have a good answer for this, and probably didn't get the job because of it. And at the time, I must admit, I had no idea of the answer either.

But the answer is actually pretty simple: Provide value to the customer. If your product is good enough, they will be willing to pay the premium.

In fact, now that I phrase it that way, it occurs to me that this is what a number of companies (shareware, in particular) do. They have a free version, and a paid version that is, in some fashion, improved. Hopefully (and, I think, usually), you'll get enough people paying for the premium version that you don't mind giving away the basic version. In fact, that free version is basically just marketing.

Anyway, to get back to publishing, this shows why DRM not only does not, but in the long term can not, work. Because it removes value from the customer, and it fails to give the customer what they want.

It really is that simple.

So when the newspapers go to hang themselves by adding paywalls around their content (as they've been talking about for a while), you can see exactly why they will be shooting themselves in the foot.

Also keep in mind that it means that they won't be found by search engines. The way most people work, that means that they will be irrelevant. It's the new twist on the old saw: "If I post to my blog, and google doesn't get the update, did it actually happen?"

And the answer is the same as the older variant: "Who cares? It makes no difference."


consulting martian child, or, why batting average is overrated

A while ago, I watched Cusack's Martian Child. I thought I'd written up some thoughts on that, but I can't find it now, so I must not have saved it. *sigh*

Anyway, it was a fairly sappy, if enjoyable, movie about a sci-fi writer adopting a boy shortly after the death of his wife. The boy he ends up adopting thinks he's from Mars, hence the title.

They go through quite a bit of awkwardness as they try to accept one another. There's some good dialog there, and some very good, if limited, special effects in a couple of scenes where they're talking.

But what I wanted to talk about today was that one of the ways Cusack's character tries to get the boy to connect with people around him is through baseball. And he tells the boy something like, "Baseball is a great sport, because you can succeed three times out of ten, and be a good player. Succeed a little more than that, and you'll be a superstar".

I couldn't find the exact quote, and can't check with the movie right now (my copy is in storage), but the quote is in there in two variations, and I recall one of the variations saying that if you hit .350, you'll be a superstar.

And that kind of bothered me, because I knew it was overstating things, but I wasn't sure how much so. A few days ago, I finally decided to work that out.

So I hypothesized a slap-singles hitter, who would be a lead-off hitter (hits .350 without power? Gotta have him leading off) unable to take a walk. So, he'd have something like 750 PA, 15 sacrifices (hits and/or flies), and no extra base hits.

So how good a hitter are we talking about, here? -0.027478 runs/PA, for -20.6 RAA, and -0.1 WAR. That is to say, you can hit .350, and still be a replacement level player. Of course, many baseball people being what they are, that BA will probably keep you employed for a long time, but you won't be helping the team. (For those unfamiliar, replacement level means, approximately, the level of talent available for free (minor league free agents, and the like).)

I should point out, I suppose, that you can still be a useful player if you're quite good on defense, and can even add some value via baserunning skills, but you're not adding value with your bat.

"I can see for miles..."

A lot of SABRmetrics, it seems to me, is trying to provide an easy answer to the question of, "How good is this player?"

And most of it is trying to do so with a number (OPS, OPS+, wOBA, VORP, UZR/150, ERA, ERA+, FIP, xFIP, tRA, WPA/LI, WSAB, WAR, etc). But Beyond the Boxscore's Justin Bopp just came up with a different way. In a very good decision, they decided to do it graphically.

It attempts to give you a "diamond's eye view" of a player's contributions on offense, defense, and on the bases.

It's a very cool idea, although I think the implementation might need a bit of work. Take a look at Adam Dunn's graph in the article. While it looks very cool, I think it shows a potential problem. To wit, if a player has a sufficiently negative fielding value, and sufficiently small slugging, they would end up with a negative area. And while that would look pretty neat, I don't think anyone would argue that it isn't too useful. (The easy way to fix this, of course, is to set the middle (50% at 0 UZR/150, and set the extremes at +/- the largest absolute value UZR/150 in the league.)

But that does lead to a neat idea. If it could be weighted appropriately, it would be really neat if we could look at that, and the area within the polygon bounded by the player's four values would give a good proxy for a player's overall value. To do that, of course, the four quadrants wouldn't be equal (on base would be significantly larger than slugging, for instance). Taking it one step further, making it a really neat overview would be to find a way to make the area within the boundary equal (in some sense) to, say, WAR.

Of course, maybe that would defeat the purpose of the exercise. If the purpose is to see how someone's component skills compared to the rest of the league at a glance, then that might not work. That is, the baserunning component would be so small as to be impossible to make comparisons, most likely. But it would still be cool.

One minor quibble with the overall method (about which I don't have any idea how to deal, at the moment), is that someone's values can change from one day to the next, even if they didn't play on a given day.

Glove slaps: tango, neyer.

Update: I forgot that I wanted to mention: did Pujol's defense rating end up so low because of positional adjustment? I expected his to be much higher.

I'd also be curious to know what Nyjer Morgan's graph would look like.


O's lots of hope?

I've been hearing that the O's are going to be great very soon now, and haven't really thought much about it beyond that. Pirates record not withstanding, twelve years of futility needs to end soon.

But I just looked at their record, and they're only one game ahead of the Royals this morning! Yes, the Royals, who've lost more games over the last seventeen years than those Pirates you're hearing so much about.

I can't say that that's iron-clad proof of anything; I do remember the beginning of the '89 season when everyone said they'd suck, and they ended up leading the AL East for most of the season. But it sure don't look good.



I just finished (well, re-finished) Zelazny's classic, Lord of Light.

It's about a space colony, presumably centuries or millenia in the future. The world was not peopled by humans before the colonists' arrival, but there were native beings to be conquered.

Once those beings were conquered, the colonists and their descendants peopled the world. The colonists forced their descendants into a very rustic lifestyle, providing them immortality via reincarnation as their only "modern" convenience.

Presumably because of the reincarnation, the colonists styled themselves after (and were eventually accepted as) Hindu gods. I was very amused to run across the third picture in this collection a few minutes ago, showing one who featured prominently in the story.

The story starts, as I said, hundreds or thousands of years later. Two of the gods are reincarnating another (from the ether, rather than from another body), who was known variously as Kalkin, Gautama, Buddha, Maitreya (Lord of Light), and Mahasamatman. But he preferred to drop the maha- and -atman, and just go by Sam. As a resistance to the Hindu gods, he had resurrected Buddhism.

The story documents the struggle between him and the Hindu gods. Interestingly, though, after starting at the one point, it then drops back some length of time (probably 50-70 years, although it never actually says, so I'm guessing) and covers the build-up of how they got to that point. After spending most of the book on that build-up, the last couple of chapters document the final confrontation in the present.

I think I'm probably most amused by the extreme cynicism of the storyteller.
He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, however, could.

And yet, even in this cynicism, and even with admitting later that he had founded a religion he believed not a word of, he was still able to bring another to enlightenment. And I think that enlightened one did a great deal to rescue the cynicism.

And let's not ignore that it's a pretty compelling story, very well written.

It's Zelazny at his best, and that's saying quite a bit, in my mind.

"We'll be much stricter next time. I promise."

Not one of Obama's bright and shining moments, here. He's been very good in some ways, and very bad in others (particularly in personal liberties). Regardless, he's who we have, and is still far better than the alternative with which we were presented in the election.

I had really hoped, though, that he would be significantly better in corporate governance. Bush was a disaster, and perhaps he's better than Bush was, but he certainly hasn't been good.

And his current, "Yes, we emptied the treasury to save these companies once, and, by golly, we're not going to do it again," rings just a little bit hollow. He's right that we need regulation, and really, we need it sooner than 4 years from now, but he doesn't exactly have any credibility on the, "We won't do it again".

I'm fully in agreement with Robert Reich that we need to split up these too-big-to-fail companies as part of any regulation. And frankly, we need the regulation before these companies fall on their faces again. Given the state of the economy, they can't do well over any significant time frame.

What they're doing is just continuing the concentration of wealth at the top of the pyramid. My biggest hope with Obama surrounding the election, and the reason why I decided to vote for him as soon as he threw his hat in the ring, was that he would arrive with far fewer IOUs than any president in history.

And that might still have been true, but he certainly hasn't acted like it. Healthcare reform is showing some signs of bucking that trend, but a mandate without a public option would be the biggest possible way of continuing that trend. And he has shown at least some signs of finding that an acceptable end of the debate.

I sincerely hope not.

But to get back to the financial sector, and leave healthcare alone for the moment; think about this column from Robert Cringely. He's mostly an IT-industry commentator, but he had a really good thought here. Unfortunately, I wish the thought had come about early enough to be useful. It would have been a fantastic way of breaking the chain of concentration.

To be sure, it still would have concentrated things a little bit (since rich people have more expensive homes), but nothing like what ended up happening. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that my wife and I would have made out quite well on this idea, but the point is that it would have been far cheaper, and wouldn't have put all the money into the hands of the already-obscenely wealthy.)


pneumatic cpu?

Just ran across this article on a pneumatic CPU (8-bit only; tie not included).

Looking at this, though, I had to wonder if they looked at the targeting computers on the USS Iowa-class battleships. I think those ran on water, rather than air, but they had to be pretty similar. And what I remember reading about them at the time (this was late-80s) was that the only advantage there would have been to switching to a digital computer was greater available space. And they weren't exactly pressed for space.


NL RoY thoughts

Was looking at Neyer's review of the NL RoY race, and I was a bit surprised by a couple of things.

First, I was surprised that Colby Rasmus wasn't mentioned as a contender. This is the second time I've seen this happen, and I still don't know why. He's clearly a rookie, looks likely to get enough place appearances to qualify, and is playing quite well. In fact, at 2.5 WAR, even if most of that is based on defense and position (he's below league average, purely based on offense), he's pretty valuable.

McCutchen does come out as a slightly better player, at 2.8 WAR player, showing as a very solid hitter and so-so defender.

My one objection to what Neyer said:
That said, McCutchen's right behind Coghlan, OPS- and PA-wise, and he's got more doubles, more triples, and more home runs. Oh, and he's also far more valuable with the glove.

In particular, the problem is with that first sentence (the second is dead-on, and important; the difference in defense is very large). If OPS and PA are about equal, and one of the two has more XBH, then you'd prefer the one without all the power. Why? Because marginal OBP is far more valuable than marginal SLG. How much so? I seem to recall it being about a 3:1 margin. Maybe even 4:1. It's the power of not making as many outs.

And if we look at wOBA, we see that Coghlan is slightly ahead.

But, as noted, we need to add in defense, and McCutchen destroys Coghlan there. So it really looks like a toss-up between McCutchen and Rasmus as to who's worth more overall. I guess the final month will determine it.

But why didn't Rasmus get more than a passing mention (as being qualified)?

Update: I should point out that it's because of reading Neyer's columns many years ago (before he first went Insider-only) that I know about marginal OBP being more valuable than marginal SLG.

tendon loading limits?

Was just looking at this very interesting discussion about Tim Lincecum, the SF Giants ace, and especially about his pitching motion. Most of it is pretty specific, and I don't have a whole lot to say about Lincecum, in particular. However, there was this passage:

While in the loaded position, the shoulder and elbow bear the equivalent of about 40 pounds of force pushing down. When the ASMI biomechanists wanted to know how much more force an arm could take, they brought cadavers into the lab and pulled and pushed upon the elbow joint to find the breaking point. The cadavers's ligaments blew apart just after 40 pounds of force. "So a pitcher is just about at the maximum," Fleisig says.

There are two things I wonder about with this. One, how much variation is there from person to person in tendon strength? And two, how much can working on your countering muscle groups help?

The first, I wonder about, because the people achieving things at the extremes of human accomplishment are people who are physiologically different, in most cases. There was an 800m woman runner this year who destroyed the field, and there were comments made that she had an unfair advantage because of an unusually high testosterone level. While I wouldn't argue that that testosterone wouldn't help her, the idea of banning her from competition because of it (it was suggested) is absurd. Unless there's a reason to believe that that testosterone level was achieved by chemical enhancement (and I've not heard even the vaguest of intimations that it was), then it's just a natural advantage.

Competitors in sports get those kinds of natural advantages all the time. To get back to baseball, and specifically pitching, banning her for that would be morally equivalent to MLB banning anyone over 6'10" (or pick some arbitrary height) from pitching. Even getting back to that article, there was a note that Prior was liked because of his size. Same thing.

There was also a note in the article about sprint times improving so regularly. And Usain Bolt certainly makes it look easy, no question. But it's rather amusing when compared against this article on Bolt. (And as a side note, how frickin' cool is it that the man's name is Bolt? Makes me wonder if that name was what got him started in running.)

And getting back to the other point I mentioned, I read a long time ago that if you wanted to improve a specific action (say, placekicking ability), the key was not to improve the muscles that power that action. The key was to commensurately improve the muscles that counter that action at the same time. Because your body won't let you push harder than you can stop that push. Or at least that was the theory. I wish I knew more about that.

you're standing too close

A coworker of mine has an uncomfortable habit of sitting or standing much closer to me than I am comfortable with. Fortunately, we don't end up doing the old joke where I back up, he steps forward, I back up, ... all the way around the room. I generally only need to back up once or twice. Thank goodness. If we did that in the rolling office chairs in which we sit, it'd look awfully silly.

But an article in time appears to show some evidence of whence that tendency comes.

I must admit to a bit of skepticism about the article, however. It completely ignores cultural tendencies in this sphere. People from the middle east, for instance, have a much smaller "private space" than europeans or americans.

Why is that? I'm not sure, but it most go back an awfully long ways.


video game thoughts

I was just reading this article, and had a few thoughts on the end. I've gotta admit, I very much doubt his statement about Sony not making another $400 video game console. Although I also don't really see much in the way of new consoles in the foreseeable future. I'm really not sure where the next generation of console games will get something different at all, for that matter.

Nintendo could start doing hi-def, I suppose. And I suppose that Sony and Microsoft could copy nintendo's controllers. But I certainly hope there's something more to it than that.

Maybe better graphics controllers on all three systems, and bit more CPU and memory.

But these all seem like tweakish things, nothing really new.

Anyway, I'm sure better minds than mine will come up with something. And while I won't say it definitely will cost $400, I wouldn't be surprised if it did.

And as far as his comments about games... I don't believe it. So far, what these challenges have meant is that they fall back on proven formulas. How frickin' many shooters, racing games, and one-on-one fighting games do we need?

Seriously, going to arcades has gotten boring; there just aren't enough different types of games.

So, while I wish this would push the companies to make better games, I just can't say as I can see it happening.


deflation is healthy?

I ran across this graphic earlier today, which is both interesting and informative. It overtly says that fighting wars is a bad idea; I certainly agree with that. It should never be other than a last resort (as in, 'I need to keep this person from killing me', not as in, 'If you don't clean your room right this instant').

It also strongly implies that inflation is a bad thing, and weakly implies that deflation is a good thing. If the latter is true, well, that certainly doesn't gibe with opinions I've heard from any economist. It's certainly true that a lot of inflation is a bad thing, but a little bit is generally a good thing.

Why is that? Because most people are debtors to some degree (granted, some are so by choice, rather than necessity, but that's an awfully small category). And if you owe money, a small amount of inflation reduces the burden of that debt. This is also why deflation is bad: it INcreases the burden of debt. Think about that for a minute. Think that mortgage is expensive now?

The graphic ends with the thought, how would it feel if your dollar went twenty times as far as it does? Well, that would be nice, but unless you've been holding on to that dollar for over a century, it's not relevant.

Yeah, I'd love for my dollar to go twenty times as far as it does, but if it did, I'd also make 1/20th what I make now (probably; certainly something close to that). So really, what's the point?

Asking the wrong friend?

Just caught these millionaire clips. Not a big fan, in general, (prefer Jeopardy) but I have watched a few episodes. But what I thought was most interesting was when he went to phone a friend, and showed his three friends. Was the third one, the Dan from Cambridge, the same Dan from Cambridge who won his semifinal round today (well, ok, it was shown today; I don't know how long the tape delay is) in Jeopardy's Tournament of Champions? Sure looks like him, but I'm not very good with faces, so I'm not certain.



I've heard an awful lot of crap about health reform, most of which is not even meant to be informative. But here's a very informative look at that old canard of tort reform.

I've heard a lot about how health care reform needs to start with tort reform, but we know that'll never happen. Before looking at the actual facts involved here, consider that any tort reform will inevitably end up putting a dollar value on a human life.

It's a brutal necessity. The worst that can happen in medical malpractice is that the patient dies. Ok, the family sues. If you cap what they can win, you've put a price on a human life. I can't imagine that that would ever be politically possible.

Nevertheless, getting back to the article, read it. It's worth the time.

But consider this: malpractice claims, according to this, are only 40% of premiums. So doctors are paying 2-1/2 times as much for the insurance as the insurance companies are paying out. Can you say PROFIT?

This is vastly overpriced insurance. Insurance should operate as arbitrage with the insurance companies employing actuaries to know the odds of bad stuff happening better than those who buy the insurance. So the profit margin on insurance should be pretty small. Most of the profit should come from investing the proceeds of the premiums.

So, is it legal for doctors to do without? If not, that tells us what will happen if the health insurance mandate for which the Blue Dogs are pushing happens without the public option (which they are pushing to remove).

Get those dogs out of the house!


Mordant's Need

I just finished reading Mordant's Need (Man, those covers are dreadful; glad I've got the original editions). I've read it a time or two before, and there are a number of odd things about that.

The first was that I ever started the first book. I read it in high school, when I was an absolutely voracious reader of anything sci-fi or fantasy that I could get my hands on. What makes it odd, though, is that I had previously tried to read Donaldson's Thomas Covenant, and, despite being solidly in the target audience, just couldn't push my way through them. I tried four of the six books, and was only able to get through one of them by it being my last unread book on a plane flight.

And I wasn't exactly overwhelmed when I finally made it through that one. So I'm not at all sure why I picked up Mordant's Need at all. Nevertheless, I did.

But here I'm wondering about another thing, as to why I actually finished it. At the beginning of the book, the two main characters are a cipher and a bumbler. Generally, when I really enjoy a book, it comes from significantly identifying with (one of) the main character(s). But I can't figure out how I would have identified with either of them; I've never been clumsy, nor have I ever had a significant lack of self-confidence. I certainly couldn't understand Terisa's reaction to Master Eremis.

And those seem like the defining characteristics of those two. And yet, they grow into intelligent, passionate people with purpose (one weakness of the books is that Geraden grows out of his clumsiness; I can't say as I've ever seen anyone manage to do that).

And while I can't understand Terisa's reaction to Eremis, the interaction between those two was quite amusing, finishing on quite the high note.

So despite all the hurdles in the way of me finishing the series, I have ended up doing so several times. And enjoyed the books each time.

Fortunately, I've waited long enough each time to forget the main reason for why the kingdom is in such peril until it became clear from the story. It would seriously spoil things, I think, to know in advance about the doddering old king.

The only real weakness I saw, was some tactical elements around the final battle. Terisa (or Geraden, come to think of it) could have used her powers to circumvent most of the biggest threats in that battle, without ever leaving their initial position there. And one or two details describing troop movements seemed... unlikely, to put it generously.

Still, I enjoyed the series again, as in the past.

crazy like a fox

Just looked at yesterday's Foxtrot, and I must admit that my first thought (before I'd noticed any details besides the screen) was that he wanted a 106" screen, not 100". Because 100" would be 4:3, not 16:9 (and if you're going to do a projector system, not doing HD is really, really silly).

Update: Looked at Herd Thinners shortly after. I must admit that I thought it was a perpetual motion machine, not wrestling.


Hitting in the clutch

Tom Tango, one of the authors of The Book, and generally a very interesting writer wrt baseball, wrote an article a while ago at The Hardball Times (a site I visit several times a week). I'm not sure why he wrote it there, but the article inspired several questions for me.

Basically, what the article talks about is a survey comparing performances of so-called clutch players, and their performances compared to more talented, but less "clutch" players. His main point was generally that talent will win out.

But his results were interesting. The "clutchier" players actually did show a small (and likely insignificant) bettering of the more talented players.

The questions it left me wondering about were:

  • Would you be better off taking the "clutchier" player if they have the platoon advantage, as well. Offhand, my guess is yes, but I'm not sure I have the tools to verify that.
  • Has anyone done a study of fielding in, say, late/close situations? Ie: you hear managers (probably bloviating) talk about putting pressure on the defense. Is there anything to that? Again, my guess is no, but I'm far from certain.
  • Are 3TO (three true outcomes: BB, K, HR; ie: at-bats that are purely pitcher vs hitter. Defense optional. Think Adam Dunn or Jim Thome)-type batters more vulnerable to good pitchers. That is to say, would Adam Dunn or Gary Sheffield be hurt more by facing a really good pitcher? Or is it a wash?
  • Lastly, is it more worthwhile to put the ball in play in a late/close situation than it would be normally?

Skin in the game

I played ultimate frisbee for eight or so hours on Saturday. I can't say as I was happy with the results; we rather collapsed at the end. But it was still a fun season; I certainly can't complain about the season as a whole.

The reason I bring it up, though, is that I ended up with quite a bit of sunburn. Which, as one would expect, left me peeling quite a bit yesterday (and a little bit today, as well).

This got me thinking about a short passage in one of the last two Dresden books where Harry makes an aside about how careful he has to be about making sure not to leave any bit of himself around for rival/enemy thaumaturges to find. And I wonder how he manages to never get enough sun to be peeling.

I think it'd be interesting if he were framed for a crime in the next book, where he had to provide DNA evidence. Would he let it happen?


Peavy to the white sox?

I read about this one in the paper a couple of days ago (yes, I should post more promptly), and I still can't understand it. His home/road splits aren't quite as bad as I expected them to be, but San Diego's park is still very well suited to his style of pitching. And the cell tower is particularly badly suited to it. I just don't see it working out well for either of them.

And that's doubly true when you add in moving from the NL to the AL. For those unaware, the AL is a far more competitive league than the NL. The AL didn't dominate the NL quite as impressively this year as the last couple, but it was still a solid margin.

I guess we'll see what happens once Peavy returns from the DL.


Camp St Charles

When I talked about The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy previously, I forgot that I wanted to bring up my first introduction to H2G2. It was a summer camp that I went to for several years when I was growing up, called Camp St Charles.

It has apparently changed a bit since I attended; it's now coed, for one thing. And that, by itself, is so big a change that it's hard to imagine. Still, I wish that had been the case back when. Between going there, and going to an all-boys middle/high school, I ended up awfully sheltered from the fairer sex.

The good part of that was that, going to RPI, with its (then) 5:1 ratio, I looked at it and said, "Hey! There's girls around."

The bad part was that I got there woefully unprepared to deal with those girls.

Anyway, to get back to my original point, when I went to summer camp, one of the counselors (a Dave Mudrock, IIRC, who I knew because he was also the archery instructor (I liked archery a lot back then)), when telling stories in his cabin at night (and occasionally at other times and places) would recite from H2G2. Since I never stayed in that cabin (and he wasn't there every year, either), I only got a small sampling of the silliness, but even that little bit was enough to make me respect it.

For better or for worse, I was only able to find the Dirk Gently books when I went looking for H2G2 (go figure!). Still, I liked those an awful lot, and had no trouble finishing them.


What's the big deal?

Picture 8 in this montage shows a picture of a cow mowed into a field, noting that cows this year spent more time outside than in.

I have to wonder why that's significant. Keeping cows mostly indoors seems a bit... weird.

Maybe it's typical for factory farms?


Hikaru no Go

When I first rediscovered the local libraries, a year or so ago, I found a few unexpected things. The biggest and best of them was a manga ('the library carries manga?!? Cool'), called Hikaru no Go.

As one might expect (and definitely would if they could see, and read, the chinese characters of the title), it's about a kid named Hikaru who plays go. Check that link if you want details of the game; I don't really want to go into it (and I suck at the game, come to that :).

The main character finds a go board in his grandfather's house in which resides the spirit of an ancient go master. When he touches the board, the spirit talks to him, and they can understand one another.

After some badgering, the spirit talks him into learning how to play.

The story follows Hikaru's growth in life and go for the next couple of years (I forget the exact length), and it's a fantastically well told story. I was never really able to put it down, although finding later volmes quickly became difficult.

What I really wanted to talk about, though, was the ending. Because the ending basically just dropped off a cliff. That is to say, it ended very abruptly.

And the last page really made me wonder what the point of the whole series is. That is, I didn't point out that the Go master in question could only talk to Hikaru. He could occasionally play other people, but only when Hikaru agreed to be his go-between. And even then, he pretty much needed it to be anonymized somehow, so it didn't ruin Hikaru's own games.

So, in the last couple of pages, Sai (the master in question) disappeared. No real explanation as to why. But that's not really what bothered me. There were three things that really bothered me about the ending; the first two were that a number of people were looking for the 'divine move', I believe it was called. I figured that that was significant in some form. And there was the question of why Sai appeared to Hikaru, in particular.

Well, the 'divine move' was a canard, which was slightly disappointing. And as for why Hikaru? Well, it seemed that it might be because he was such a special talent, or some such (maybe he was going to be the one to play the 'divine move'? Or maybe he was going to end up better than Sai?).

However, after the disappearance, on the last panel, Sai appeared again (presumably to someone else; I forget, maybe there was an expressed time period between?). So, if he appeared to someone else, then it couldn't have really been something about Hikaru's play, or ability. Which begs the question, what was it?

Random luck is an awfully unsatisfying answer, and terrible writing technique, if so. And it doesn't appear to have been skill; Hikaru himself said, shortly before the end, that he wasn't good enough (to match Sai).

My suspicion is that the manga-ka, Hotta-sensei, just put it in to answer the certain clamor of people complaining about Sai going away to begin with. And I must admit, I was disappointed with the disappearance as well. But I think she didn't consider what that reappearance implied.

It also renders the "dream" (I put that in quotes because the sequence seems rather more like a vision) where Sai appeared to Hikaru a bit nonsensical. The whole point of that sequence was that Sai was pleased that Hikaru was playing well, and was content to move on, permanently. But if Sai was going to reappear, then why worry about it (other than to say good-bye, of course)?

Anyway, enough about that, I suppose. I mentioned that there was a third reason why I was disatisfied; that has to do with Hikaru's friend Akari. One would assume, since she appeared on page one, that she would be a very central character. But one would assume wrongly here; not only was she not central, but she disappeared completely for long stretches of time (whole volumes) repeatedly. There was also the issue that she always seemed to like Hikaru, but I could never figure out why.

He never treated her well; in fact, he frequently treated her very poorly. And to reinforce the suddenness of the finish, it appeared that he might be starting to be nicer to her (perhaps even to return his feelings). But all he ended up doing (and that, unwittingly) was to inspire her to do better with her studies. Important, perhaps, but damned boring.

I should also point out, I suppose, that there is an anime series to go with the manga, but I can't really say anything about it, beyond that friends have told me that it is good. One of these days, I'll track it down for myself.


Dusting off memories

A week or so ago, I walked by a used book store that I'd seen before, but never stopped in to see. I decided I had at least a few minutes, and would check for a couple of specific items. I didn't find those books, but did happen across Gaiman's Stardust, the movie of which I talked about before.

Anyway, I got around to starting it yesterday, and, being too tired to finish it last night, I did so today (greatly aided by my little one taking an extended nap this morning).

I had figured, what with Gaiman being one of the producers of the movie, that the two versions would be pretty similar. After all, as producer, Gaiman would be in a position to enforce that. I had expected not much in the way of changes, other than as needed to shorten it.

I was greatly surprised, then, to find that the two bore very little resemblance to one another. In fact, only in the very broadest of sweeps are they even similar. Only one sequence remained pretty intact, which was the in the Inn of the Chariot. And even that one had some pretty sizable changes. It had the same people doing mostly the same things. Oddly, the differences were pretty much all in the movie version being longer (plus one character ending up dead in the book and another getting an injury).

Robert De Niro's character might as well have not even existed in the novel, for all that he appeared. And there certainly wasn't any discrepancy in his appearance vice his reputation. And the novel was worse for it, I'll admit.

And the final confrontation with Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer's character) bore not even the slightest resemblance to that in the movie. In the movie, Tristran fights with her; in the book, he doesn't even realize the encounter takes place.

Without getting too deeply into details (I'm trying to avoid spoilers as much as possible, here), I'm at a bit of a loss as to which I like better. The movie lacks some cohesiveness (the encounter that results in Tristran being born feels much less contrived in the book, and a few things just happen much too quickly in the movie), but it does have a more poetic ending. And, it being a fairy tale (not from the brothers Grimm), this makes a lot of sense. Plus, the build-up of the relationship between Yvaine and Tristran is much better in the movie (it's assumed too much in the book, although that might be, at least partially, a function of target age. And no, I'm not talking about sex; just that we can see a build-up of affection for one another much more in the movie).

But as I said, the book does a much better job of getting all the little things right.

So where does that leave us? Enjoying them both, I suppose.


milles bornes

I play Milles Bornes on my computer with a fair bit of regularity (it gets my head out of what I'm doing for a few minutes).

FWIW, the version I'm using is called macbornes, and it's a nice port of the game. Not without flaws (like counting the winner of a hand as the one with more miles, rather than more points. I count that as a flaw because the game is won and lost on points, not miles. It also has occasional GUI issues, where the image of a card being moved across screen will stay in one spot (along the track)), but it's still pretty nice.

I just wanted to point out this game I just played; in the last three hands, I got a total of 5 green lights (one of which went to the end of the deck, and the second of which was within seven cards of doing the same). But here's the result:

The save rule

Something I saw in the last couple of days got me thinking about the absurdity known as the save rule. If I remember correctly (and I'm much too lazy to go look it up, even knowing that it's on MLB's website), the save rule states, essentially, that a reliever earns a save by entering the game with a lead, and getting the batter, the man on deck, or the person batting behind the man on deck to be in a position to tie the game. Oh, and finishing the game (if they don't, but leave with the lead, they'll just get a hold (which might just be an even more useless stat)).

While there is some logic to this rule, it results in all sorts of ridiculous situations. For instance, a Rangers reliever got a save a few years ago in a 30-3 victory (over the O's, IIRC).

Anyway, my point is that the rule does a terrible job of what it is supposed to do (identify the critical reliever, I think). What makes that truly pernicious, though, is that most current managers let that rule dictate their bullpen usage. That is, they refuse to bring in their 'closer' unless it is a save situation.

In games tied in the ninth inning or later, especially when on the road, this frequently means that your best reliever stays on the bench, because no save situation will arise.

To take a step back, I'm not a big fan of the stats WPA/LI. My biggest problems with them are two-fold. The first is that it has little or no predictive value. It'll tell you who did the best job in critical situations over the prior season, but gives little or no insight into who will do so over the next season. My other problem is this (and hopefully I can explain it so that it makes sense).

A home run in the first inning is just as valuable to winning a game as a homer in the ninth inning. But if you take them both out of context, and just say that the homer in the first inning only adds, say, 10% to your team's chance of winning, while the same homer in the eighth or ninth might add sixty or seventy percent. And while I can't exactly argue with this analysis, I think that it is missing one critical element.

That is, look at a specific game. If a batter comes up in the ninth inning, and hits a homer, we say that the chance of winning the game rose by, say, fifty percent. And if he had hit that homer in the first, it would have raised the chance by a tiny percentage. But I think the better comparison would have been, if that batter had hit that homer in the first, what would the difference be on winning percentage for that critical at-bat in the ninth.

I'm not sure, maybe what I'm saying is bupkis.

But to get back to my original point, I wonder if a better "save rule" (assuming that we actually need one) would be based on, for instance, the highest WPA (or average LI, maybe) among relievers. We don't really need to specify entering and leaving with a lead in this formulation, as entering with one and leaving without will certainly put one at the bottom of the pile by virtue of what it means.

And this would certainly put us on the track of recognizing the most successful relievers. It would also put managers back on the track of doing what they should be doing in trying to win a game. That is, they wouldn't be managing to a rule, because they wouldn't have the WPA/LI calculations handy, most likely. But it would also get out of this rut of 'this guy pitches the eighth' and 'this guy owns the ninth' (as a side note, 'Mac the Ninth' was about the coolest nickname ever for a reliever).

And then when you say that a reliever has 500 saves, you know it really means something. (Just to be clear, this was not all meant as a back-handed slap at Mariano Rivera; he's earned a higher percentage of his saves than most, as far as I can tell.)

Hitchhiking across the universe

I mentioned in an earlier post looking at The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

It wasn't the first time I'd looked at it, but several things occurred to me while reading it. The first won't surprise anyone, I think: Douglas Adams was brilliant.

The second might surprise some people, though; I found that comedy novels just don't keep my attention very well. While I enjoyed what I read of it, I had no problem putting the book down, and taking up another one. I'm not sure why that is.

It would explain why I've never read the entire series before (in fact, I haven't even finished the second one before). And it isn't the first time it's happened before, either. I started on Sir Apropos of Nothing, found it hilarious, but still put it down before I'd gotten more than ten or twenty pages into it.

I'm really not sure why that is, though. Hmm... I wonder if that's why I never finished Even Cowgirls Get the Blues? I thought that was absolutely brilliant, but it was still an effort to get through it. (And as I implied, I never succeeded in that.) Maybe it was just that it was so meandering. Or maybe it was that the language, while fascinating, just took too much effort to keep up with it. Honestly, it was ten years ago when I last tried; maybe I should try again.

Getting back to H2G2, though. I mentioned in that other post that the leather-bound edition was the closest to the one I have. When I looked at what I have, though, my copy has a more solid border, and uses a different font on the cover. I have no idea what that means. What's even a bit weirder, though, is that I have no idea why I have such a nice edition. Yes, it's a really interesting series, and all that, but since I never finished more than the first volume, why did I get such a nice omnibus edition?

Answer? I have no idea. But it definitely is something that any SF fan should read at least once.

(Oh, and if anyone's wondering, yes, the title is an homage to The Firm's "Star Trekkin'".)


Is it worth the extra money?

Seth Godin has a very short, but incisive post that points out something that never consciously registered with me.

I'm generally willing to spend more to get higher-quality goods. In the long run, with many items, at least, it's worth it. That's especially true if what you're looking at is going to be used frequently.

On the other hand, I buy almost nothing that could be considered a luxury item (in the sense mentioned here; in terms of 'necessary for survival'? Ok, I don't buy much that wouldn't be considered a luxury by that standard). Why? Well, I couldn't care less about status. I like my toys, but I won't even buy a really cool toy if I'm not going to use it. And if it's really cool because of features I won't use?

This is about the point where my wife would be pointing out the ridiculous amount I spent on my current home theater receiver. However, I'd never seen another that offered even half the features available in that one that didn't cost twice as much. At the time, I wasn't too happy with the sound of my old one. More importantly, I had already had to buy an outboard component video switcher to use with it that was out of inputs. There were also several surround standards that the old one didn't support (of prime relevance are DTS and SACD).

And then I saw the Denon receiver. It had all of that, plus a number of other surround formats I didn't need, but might use. It would also take all those component inputs and convert them to digital output if needed. Plus it had 5 HDMI and one DVI input. When I switched my system over to all HD video, I didn't need to do anything except switch inputs. Plus, I cut the number of cables approximately in half, even after bi-amping my front speakers (believe me, if you saw the rat's nest still behind it, you'd understand instantly why I noticed that).

It also does a bunch of other things that I probably won't ever use, but I'm indifferent to that stuff. But I definitely don't feel like I wasted any money on it. I just wish I had more time to use it, these days.

Ok, that's really more than I needed to say about that; my point about it is merely that it's definitely on the side of premium.

And I'm not going to go all fan-boy about it, but I buy Macs for the same reason. Perhaps a little extra cost (if you've never looked into it in detail, this point could be argued), but the extra features are more than worth it.

Od Magic

Od Magic, by Patricia McKillip, was the latest book I finished. I picked it up at the library when getting Butcher's Small Favor (which I already finished, but need to think more on before I write much).

While it had a few elements very much in common with my favorite of her series, The Riddle-Master of Hed, it was all about meeting the unknown.

And in that vein, it was very appropriate to current events.

People, in general, will react with either love or fear of the unknown. Personally, as an outgrowth of my firm belief in the Golden Rule (the original, not the more recent, very cynical, perversion of it), I've always tried to meet such things with wonder.

This is why Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro is one of my all-time favorite movies. Nothing else captures the wonder of everyday life, and seeing the world as a child again, like that movie.

Getting back to the relevance to current events, this is what drives most of the political discourse these days. Somewhat less so, since Obama was elected, but it was the driving force for almost everything the Bush Administration did. And they stayed in power for a second term by forcing that fear of the unknown onto a hefty chunk of the population of the US. This is why we've spent hundreds of billions of dollars killing brown people.

Some powerful people are afraid of what those people can do. They missed the main point, though, I think (likely deliberately); those people, even in the direst predictions made of their putative abilities, never were, and never will be, an existential threat to the US.

That is, they can hurt us, and kill a lot of people, but to destroy the US, you'll need to do more than kill a few (million, perhaps) people. Occupation would be a necessity for that mission. And how many people would that require? I'm not sure, but I'm thinking that the number is in the millions (maybe single-digit millions, but still more than hundreds of thousands).

Are there millions of terrorists? Of course not. The very idea is ludicrous. If there were that many of them, they'd form their own army (to go straight to the most practical of arguments).

So the idea that terrorists could ever be an existential threat to the US is absurd.

Ok, that went considerably farther than I think was useful. My whole point is that we should all try to be more like Yar, in the book.

Update: I forgot to add that conformism was another topic that was very central to this book. And this has been a very relevant issue in recent years, as well.

The previous administration spent a lot of time and effort trying to force conformity on the entire country. The entire push about the dangers of 'islamo-fascism' was one of the biggest farces in the country. In fact, 'islamo-fascism' as a term is almost self-contradictory. If you're not sure why that is, look up the definition of fascism. The idea that a religion (even a small religious sect) could be pushing fascism is absurd on its face. Fascism is all about conformity and nationalism. Unless you're in an explicitly muslim state, the concept is impossible. And much was made of the terrorists not being part of any state (that was the whole argument for declaring captured terrorists as 'unlawful combatants', remember (ignoring, for a minute, how few of those captured were actually terrorists)).


Why are drug advertisements such a big problem?

Well, I've long thought that the big reason drug companies advertising directly to the consumer was such a bad idea was that it got people to go to their doctors, and ask for drugs. After all, pharmaceuticals cure all ills, right? Isn't that what the ads say?

My wife was talking to a business partner this evening about a drug (Xicam, maybe? I hadn't heard of it before). Apparently, it can cause loss of smell (that is, lack of detection of odors, not lack of causing; the latter would sell quite well, I'm thinking). This has been known for a while, but apparently not well known.

And I started thinking about why that would be. Well, it's a known problem with media consolidation that advertisers can affect stories told by the news. If you'd like to hear about a particularly disturbing case, get your hands on 'The Corporation', and find out how Fox argued (and won) a case in court proving that the news does not have any obligation to be truthful. Big surprise that it's Fox, right? But I'm sure that particular problem cuts across all the big media companies.

So, my point is, a second reason that drug companies advertising directly to the consumer is a double-plus-ungood thing: the companies have leverage to keep the news from reporting about problems with the drugs that are out there. *Yuck*

Oh, and the third reason: I'm really not looking forward to watching a football game, and having my preteen daughter asking me what an erection is. Yes, that's years off, but still...



I mentioned in my last post that I still needed to use Verizon's ActionTec router. The reason for this is actually rather stupid.

But first, a small digression about it. Most people have their system set up so that that router gets all of its input from its coax connection. (The reason for this is that it spares them from having to run another cable to the router. If you're using existing cable TV wiring, this is a good reason. But it limits your options; you MUST use this router to connect FiOS, if you don't run that extra cable. This will detail why that might not be such a good idea (like most things related to the network, it depends on your needs).)

Ok, so you have your router plugged directly into the ethernet port on the ONT; why do you still need their router connected? Well, because the set-top boxes for your TVs need it for the guide, VOD, and similar stuff. How do they use it? They use it as a MoCA (Media over Coaxial cable Alliance) bridge to access the internet.

This seems like a pretty cool thing. Now you only need to run a coax cable (which you've already done) to each TV to get that stuff.

So why did I say that it's pretty stupid? Because the STB already has an ethernet port. And it won't use it. So, even if you've got that cat5 cable run, you still need that router to act as the bridge. And that just blows.

FiOS installation

Warning: this will be pretty long, and mostly uninteresting unless you're looking to get FiOS installed yourself.

So, I've been waiting for FIOS since verizon announced it was coming to the DC area. I believe that was in Oct of 2004. I live pretty close to the city (we sometimes walk to Georgetown for dinner, and my wife is not a walker), so I thought we would be one of the earlier areas to get it installed.

Nevertheless, I signed up for it no more than two days after it was available, took the first available installation appointment, and they came out to install it Wednesday. Almost five years. *sigh*

I'll preface the rest of this by saying that the installation guy, Chuck, did a really good job overall, and put up with a lot of me saying, "I want it done this way", even if that's not the way they normally do it.

There are a couple of reasons why I needed to be very specific. One is that we are keeping our cable modem for at least a month, to make sure everything is good in transitioning to FIOS. Another is limitations on the wiring in our house; some of it is pretty difficult (and some is very hard to find without ripping out walls. I also wanted to keep my router as the main path into the house; it accepts two WAN connections, and can do load-balancing between them (and doesn't have a significant limitation on the NAT table, like the ActionTec router Verizon provides)).

Because of the wiring limitations, I had a specific spot in the house where I wanted the Verizon equipment to go (basically, the cable intersected with a lot of wiring that I did myself at that spot). I dropped a couple of extra lines in that spot the night before the guy arrived for the install, just in case they were needed (an extra network drop, and a phone line).

Well, he showed up, and after discussing it with me for a little while, convinced me that we might as well connect their router directly to the ONT (not sure what that stands for, but it's the in-house unit that accepts the fiber line; it outputs phone lines (up to two in the standard model), coax (for TV and/or internet), and ethernet (internet only; usually not used) via coax.

The reason for using coax is that a) the router needs to have that connected, regardless, for MoCa (I'll come back to this), and b) we'd need to run another line to this box for the ethernet anyway (and I'd had trouble feeding my fish through the ceiling to enable this anyway).

We went through the steps to get the fiber into the house (I also didn't want this done the way they probably would have done it normally), and connect up the ONT. When it failed immediately, he did some investigation, and found out that he had the wrong model of ONT. Basically, it wasn't compatible with the neighborhood distribution point unit, since that is a brand-new model (like I said, I signed up immediately, so the equipment is really, really new).

To make matters worse, he didn't have the newer model. He (and his supervisor) made some calls to procure one. Eventually, they succeeded, but it was going to take a little while, and he had earlier told me he had a doctor's appointment to which he had to go. I didn't want to screw him on that appointment, so when he asked if finishing the next day was ok, I said that was fine.

It ended up being a good thing that I did, because when he left, I did some research on that ActionTec router. That's how I found out about that NAT table limitation. I also found out how to get my router to be next to the ONT. All that was needed was to connect to the ONT via ethernet; ok, I now had the time to fish another line over there.

So, when he showed up the next morning with the new ONT (a Motorola 1000, I believe he said), I told him about the need to run the extra line (I'd already done the hard part of pulling it, so I was only adding about five of minutes of work for him). He was a bit skeptical, but didn't see any reason not to do it; so after the ONT was in, we worked on it.

Unfortunately, apparently the provisioning on this ONT was also different, so he (and his supervisor) had to figure out how to do it.


Ok, this is getting so long _I'm_ starting to get annoyed. Kudos if you made it this far.

Well, they figured it out (the ethernet part was an additional hassle, figuring out, but they got that, too; apparently, nobody uses that). Eventually, after a tiny bit of stupidity on my part, I got my router to be the entry point again, putting their router behind mine. I'll talk about why their router was still necessary in another post.


Butcher-ing words

I mentioned in a previous post very much liking Butcher's Dresden series. One point I failed to make was that he's actually done a better job than any series I can think of for keeping the series fresh and exciting, especially given the number of volumes.

I was a bit irked today, though, when I went to buy the second-most-recent one (Small Favor; I actually thought it was the most recent, until I got there) at the bookstore today. The irritation came when I found out that the paperback edition is $10. That's 25% more than any other paperback novel I've seen. I'm sure the book's going to be good, but I'm not going to pay that much for it. I guess I'll just get it from the library for now; maybe it'll come down in price, later.

I do note that the kindle edition is cheaper than the paperback. Not much to see there, but at least that's the way it should be.

And I don't pay a lot of attention to hardback prices, but the hardback of the newest book in the series (Turn Coat) is $26. Like I said, I pay less attention there, but that seems a bit expensive.

Update: Maybe I earlier looked at the large print edition or something of the latter book; at least it is discounted, unlike the paperback. Maybe I'll just get the hardback.