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.