31 January 2012

Religious charities as employers

I see there is some brouhaha about whether religious organizations which provide services to people of other faiths will be required to pay for their employees' birth control.

Both Stephen Bainbridge and Megan McArdle have good commentary on this, with which I agree. Please read their posts. To avoid repeating what they have already written, I will say only this:

A religious employer has a certain relationship with its employees. It also has a certain relationship with the people it provides services to. Kevin Drum, et al. are telling me that the church has to alter its relationship with its employees based on the nature of its relationship to the service recipients. That strikes me as exceedingly odd.

Imagine a law which requires schools to offer teachers lengthy maternity leave. It would make very little sense to me to exempt schools whose student body was all boys. Making decisions based on the composition of the faculty is one thing, but the characteristics of the students seem entirely irrelevant.

Similarly why would the faith of the people using a soup kitchen or homeless shelter or clinic affect the relationship between the charity sponsoring these services and the people they pay to operate them?


I gather that Gingrich has been running his mouth in Florida about a moon base. I've seen people debate the feasibility of it, the politics, the budgetary consequences, but I haven't seen anybody talking about why.

Seriously, why bother? What is achieved — besides Ozymandian grandeur — by establishing a moon base that couldn't be done on Earth?

Should we do it to beat the Chinese? That's a pretty petty reason. So what if they want to spend money on white elephants?

Should we do it to mine Helium-3? That sounds like a solution in search of a problem. I didn't realize there was such a pressing need, nor that it was the Federal government's responsibility to meet it. Every other mineral, including "rare earth metals"*By the way, the reason the Chinese are mining almost all the world's supply of these isn't because of geology, it's be-cause they're the ones most willing to accept the environ-mental consequences of the mining operation. If we suddenly decided getting our hands on some was a priority we could find them domestically, and the clean-up would probably be a lot easier than going all the way to the moon and back. seems prohibitively expensive to transport back to Earth, not to mention the risks of all the fixed-costs to set up the operation.

Should we do it in the name of scientific research? I'm all in favor of science, but federal science spending is divided up into weapons, spying, medicine, space and everything else. NASA already eats up a massive chunk of the non-defense research budget. Why should human space travel be made even more of a priority for the fisc?

Should we do it so that humanity doesn't have all its eggs in one basket? Okay, fine, but if I proposed spending multiples of the GDP on systems to protect us from plagues and asteroid strikes and bunkers full of supplies and records and genetic materials people would think I was an apocalyptic maniac. But if I propose a lunar outpost I'm a visionary. I get that everyone wants to be Magellan/John Carver/Michel Ardan. It's romantic and fantastic and inspiring and all. Fine. But I am not interested in spending my real dollars for your fantasy.

Spending has been growing monotonically, through booms and busts, and is a hair's breath from sending us off the rails completely. And Ginrich — Gingrich the Republican — wants to spend how many trillions on a massive new Federal program? And he's supposed to be the one with the smart ideas? How can any fiscal conservative look at the US budget, look at NASA, and think anything other than "bring me a hatchet; I've got some chopping to do"?

30 January 2012

The value of heterogeneity

The Economist: Buttonwood | In praise of pessimists

Barely a week goes by without a report on the level of confidence among consumers, businesspeople and investors. Optimism is what’s wanted—Keynes talked of the “animal spirits” that influence economic activity. Pessimists are routinely denounced as Jeremiahs. Those who try to bet on falling prices find their activities are restricted.

A cheery disposition may be necessary for societies to function. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel economics laureate, has a chapter in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” which describes overconfidence as “the engine of capitalism”. No entrepreneur can be sure that his planned investment will succeed but if no one took a risk, new products and jobs would never be created. A certain blindness to the odds may be necessary. According to Mr Kahneman, the chances of an American small business surviving for five years are just 35%. But ask individual entrepreneurs about their prospects and 81% think they have a better than seven-in-ten chance of success.
They write "just 35%" as if that's obviously the wrong number. Is it too low? Surely they aren't implying the ideal number is 100%, with zero failed businesses.

If every prototype a designer builds works, they aren't pushing the envelope enough. If every hypothesis a scientist investigates is found to be true, they aren't asking difficult enough questions.

You need to balance exploration with exploitation. Not every start-up should be a success.  We need a diversity of business approaches to suss out the landscape of the market space, to figure out what works, what can be improved, what can be done.  That means some attempts will fail.  That's nothing to be sad about, because you can only find out what works best by also finding out what doesn't work.

PS See also:
There are good charter schools and bad charter schools. But even the bad charter schools can do good, because they provide data.
I think it's interesting that the people who talk the most about the value of diversity and the important of evolution seem to be the least interested in exploring policy problems using diverse approaches and evolutionary selection mechanisms.

29 January 2012

TV Repair Bleg

I'm not a hardware guy.  I haven't done any work with actual, made-from-atoms circuits since my logic design class about a decade ago. And even then, we were just plugging things into a bread board, not working with production-level stuff. (Although we did build a calculator from scratch which could handle addition, subtraction and multiplication, which I think is pretty neat.)

Anyway, I now find myself trying to diagnosis a real piece of hardware, specifically the power supply to my old television. I have — I think — three blown out capacitors. That's what these look like to me, anyway.

One of them has leaked into whatever component that black and yellow boxy thing in the bottom photo is. The sticker on it identifies it as a BCK-25-1611/ROH, but I can't figure out what that is.

I'd like to be able to get this thing back in working order, for my own pride more than actually needing the TV.  Unfortunately I'm not really sure where to start. Where do I even buy replacement capacitors? Everywhere online I've come across wants to sell them to me in thousand-piece lots.

The leaky buggers are soldered into the board. Once I get replacements, do I just cut the old ones off? Then solder new ones in place?

And will that mysterious BCK-25-1611/ROH need to be replaced as well?

Anyone have any ideas about this sort of thing who can point me in the right direction?

I could get a whole new power supply, but the vendors seem a little dodgy.  And besides, where's the fun and accomplishment in that?

27 January 2012

Skipping a step

An Economist's View | Mark Thoma | "A World with Healthy Middle-Class Societies"

I hate to be Mr. Negative today, but I'm less than fully convinced that we are anywhere near embarking on a path that places the welfare of the middle class at the forefront of economic decisions.
I'm sorry, but is that something we even want? I don't read Thoma often, so maybe he's already laid out reasons for why the middle class should placed be "at the forefront of economic decisions." In lamenting that we are close to achieving this goal it rather seems as if he's skipping over a very important question about whether that's actually a goal we should be trying to achieve.

Sure, it plays well to say "put the middle class first!" but why should we? It sounds nice, it seems intuitively correct, but it's directly at odds with plenty of other priorities that also sound nice. Why not put the least fortunate at the forefront of our decisions? Or the most deserving? Or the most creative and innovative? Or the most productive? Or those who create the most gains for others? Or the young? Or the old? Or generations in the future? How are we even defining "middle class" in this context? By income? Wealth? Consumption?

Why is the current median by any of these metrics the most morally deserving of priority?

(via Arnold Kling)

26 January 2012

This does not make me want to buy your orange juice

You know what really grinds my gears?

Television actors who appear in commercials, clearly playing their current character, but under their own name rather than the character's.

Jane Krakowski is on 30 Rock playing Jenna Maroney, an exceedingly vain, psychotic, easily confused woman.  Krakowski also appears in ads for orange juice as a vain, psychotic, confused woman named Jane Krakowski.

She claims to be endorsing Tropicana as herself, but behaves in the same way that her entirely fictitious character does. This means one of two things is true: either Krakowski's real personality is that of a punishingly narcissistic fool just like her character, or she is pretending to be someone else, and that someone likes Tropicana. Either way that's a terrible endorsement.

Put that aside for a minute. Why would you want your product endorsed by an unlikable character? Yes, Krakowski's Jenna Maroney is a funny sitcom character, but she's not likable. I'm glad she's in the show — as one-note as she is — but there are literally no people in the audience who want to be more like her. None with healthy psychological profiles, anyway. No one is sitting on their couch thinking "I want to be just like Jenna Maroney! I should start by drinking the same juice as her!"

Mindy Kaling does the same thing for frozen meals.

Oddly, Kaling's character on The Office is also vain, stupid and manipulative, like Maroney. Again, that's not a character I would want to associate with myself or my product.

I think half the cast of Modern Family has done the same thing in different commercials, including the gratingly precocious kid, the clueless dad and the Latin bombshell, so this isn't a trend limited to vain bimbos.

I am obviously no genius of marketing, but I can see no reason to do this besides hoping that the punters will make a lizard-brain connection between the product and some face I've seen before in a positive context and stop thinking before they realize they are getting an endorsement from a real person pretending to be a fake person pretending to be their real self, and that the fake person in an asshole. "Buy this because you recognize this person!" is half a step above "Look at this hot chick in a bikini! Buy our stuff!"

25 January 2012

Elsevier boycott thought

Daniel Lemire | Should you boycott academic publishers?

There is a growing list of famous scientists who have pledged to boycott Elsevier as a publisher. If I were in charge of Elsevier, I would be very nervous: academic publishers need famous authors more than the famous authors need the publishers. After all, famous scientists could simply post their work online, and people would still read it.
One wrinkle: the famous scientists' post-docs and grad students still need these publishers.

My advisor isn't quite famous enough for him boycotting Elsevier to matter to them, but let's pretend he is. Since he is a co-author on almost all the papers I write, his boycott means that I am also boycotting, by default. Even if not appearing in the journals currently recognized as top-tier doesn't matter to him at this point in his career, it would very much matter to me. And since he's a good advisor, he cares that I have a lot to lose even if he does not.

This is not to say that Elsevier, Springer, etc. don't have a lot of problems, or that they don't deserve boycotting, or that there aren't a host of other problems with academic publishing. The divergent preferences of co-authors makes trying to solve these things more complicated.

20 January 2012


Enough ink has been spilled about this already by other people, and I've already written up way more than I should have about it on a message board my friends and I use.

But there is one aspect of this debate that I want to mention, and that's the tendency to reduce the question "should this legislation regarding piracy be passed?" to the question "is piracy a problem?"

There's a really destructive trend in politics for thinking like this:
1. There is a problem.
2. Something must be done.
3. X is something.
4. Therefore X must be done.
As a result, both the pro-X and anti-X crowds tend to line up and debate #1, as if determining if there is a problem, and how severe it is, is the end of the line. Relatively little attention is paid to whether X will actually work, or whether X is an appropriate, proportionate response to the problem.

By my recollection, we spent most of the HCR debate arguing about whether insurance and medical costs and bankruptcies were a problem, and didn't really bother so much with whether ObamaCare would actually solve those problems. Same deal with Dodd-Frank. Same thing with most security or gun-control legislation that follows some National Tragedy.

Take a look at Greg Mankiw's post about SOPA. His entire line of thinking deals with whether protecting intellectual property from infringement is important. That's fine, but it doesn't tell us anything about whether SOPA is a good idea.

He's graceful enough to admit he doesn't understand the technical details, which I appreciate. I don't want to pick on Mankiw too much; his is merely the first example of this problem I put my finger on. People asked him to weigh in, and he did, with caveats. But those caveats are little comfort. If I was a public figure with no zero understanding of finance, it would be irresponsible of me to weigh in on some new property and lending legislation with "Well I think foreclosures are just terrible!" Okay fine, but is this new legislation a good idea? "I'm against foreclosures!" Terrific.  Good to know.

I also want to pull out this one part of Mankiw's post:
In a free society, you don't have the freedom to steal your neighbor's property. And that should include intellectual property. Moreover, it is the function of the state to enforce those rights. We don't leave it up to civil litigation to protect property rights (although that is part of the solution). We give the state substantial powers to stop theft.
I could use that same observation to oppose SOPA.

One of the major problems I have with it is that it would remove the State from the process.* Under SOPA, someone who thinks their IP is being infringed could demand that the offending website be taken offline, processing of payments to it cease, and advertisements for it stop being placed, all within five days of the complaint. At no point is their an investigation to determine if the accusation is correct, and at no point does the accused get to step in and defend themselves. The accusation is the beginning and end.  The clock starts ticking when the accusation is made, and it doesn't stop.  That's not giving the State "substantial powers to stop theft," that's giving substantial powers to whoever in the room is most willing to fling accusations around.

(* I can't believe I just typed those words.)

Yes, we want the state to protect property. But that doesn't mean I can walk into a pawn shop, claim some goods in it are stolen property, and force the shop eeper to take them outside and burn them within the hour on my say so. I must go to the police, who go to a prosecutor, who goes to a judge, who initiates a robust, adversarial process for determining the legal status of the goods in question.

Mankiw continues:
Just as owners of tangible personal property have good cause to call for a police force and a system of criminal courts, owners of intellectual property have good cause to ask the state to stop those who would infringe on their rights.
Yes, but the legislation necessary for this already exists. This is a good argument for piracy to be illegal, but piracy is already illegal.  This is a problem we already have a solution to, and so Mankiw's claim doesn't tell us anything at all about SOPA.

This situation reminds me of much of the proposed legislation after Giffords got shot. Attempted murder is already illegal. Are crazed gunmen going to be deterred if we write specific new legislation making it extra-illegal to kill people at political rallies? But that doesn't matter, because There Is A Problem and Something Must Be Done.

19 January 2012

Danny MacAskill in Edinburgh

I usually refrain from posting videos with seven-figure viewership, but in this case I'll make an exception.

That is all.

18 January 2012

Myth of the American Sleepover

Filmspotting has this thing called "The Golden Brick," which is an award they give out every year for an under-appreciated move. I'm a year late on recommending "The Myth of the American Sleepover," but that's my Golden Brick. See this movie.

This A.O. Scott review sums it up well. Scott identifies "longing" as the central theme of the movie, which I think is spot-on.
What [Director David Robert] Mitchell gets splendidly right in this quiet, observant film, is the unsteady mixture of sophistication and naïveté that is central to the modern American teenage way of being in the world. These children — the oldest character is home from college, and there is not a parent in sight — hardly know what, or who, they are supposed to want, but yearning seems to be both their birthright and their responsibility.
I think MotAS nails the fun-mixed-with-sadness feeling that permeates many adolescent nights.

One big question I did have while watching this is when it is supposed to occur. The idea of "sleepovers" seems somewhat antiquated already. The clothes and grooming are modern, but the cars and many props are indistinctly old, and there's not a cellphone in sight. Did this happen a long time ago, or has the present not yet arrived in this sleepy Michigan suburb?

I'd guess this vagueness is mostly on purposes, because it allows people of pretty much any age to latch on to nostalgia by setting the movie to no more specific a date than "sometime in the last 25 years."

Edited to add — I forgot to mention that the acting is a little rough.  This didn't bother me, because these characters are supposed to be awkward. Awkwardly delivered lines reinforce the theme of the movie, rather than detracting from it.

"Still Russian"

Taki's Magazine | John Derbyshire | Down, But Still Russian

Walking around central Moscow, the thing you notice is the Russians—I mean, the near-total absence of non-Russians. [...]

That small tourist element aside, well-nigh everyone here is ethnically Russian. The cab drivers are Russian. The waiters and waitresses are Russian. The staff in barbershops and nail salons are Russian. The maintenance men in the subway and the ladies issuing subway tickets are Russian. The beggars are Russian. The guy selling fags and candy from a sidewalk kiosk labeled PRODUKTY (“stuff”) is Russian. The girl serving me in the pharmacy is Russian. The models shown in ads for escort agencies and “Private Club and Restaurant” are Russian (just as they are in New York, come to think of it).

Even—good grief!—the lady who cleans our hotel room is Russian. She spoke fluent Russian, anyway, though her features had a slight Mongolian. To make sure, I asked her. Yes, Russian—from Yugra, up in the north Urals somewhere, and so presumably with some Siberian-aboriginal blood contributing to the physiognomy. Where in the Anglosphere nowadays would you have your hotel room cleaned by a native of that country?
Grand Rapids, MI, where everyone from the scullery maids to the burger flippers looked like extras from a Mellencamp video.
Does this tell us that there are Jobs Russians Won’t Do? I doubt it. There are plenty of fair, blue-eyed Russians down there among the Kyrgyz and Buryats doing the drudge work. The overwhelming impression in central Moscow is of a city populated almost entirely by Russians. I have not had the opportunity to call any major firm or government office in Moscow, but I feel fairly sure that if I did, I would not be instructed to press “1” for Russian.

To see how striking all this is, imagine yourself wandering around central London, Manhattan, Los Angeles, or even—more rapidly this past few years, it seems—Washington, DC.
Simple reason: Russia is not an appealing place to move to. Few Ethiopians or Jamaicans or Filipinos or Vietnamese are scraping together enough money to move to Moscow, or hoping their cousin can find them a job in Yekaterinburg, or camping out in the front of a consulate to enter a visa lottery to move to Novgorod.

Russia is only a slightly more appealing place to move to than Namibia and significantly less appealing than Rwanda, judging from world-wide migration statistics.

It has nothing to do with the sinisterness Derbyshire sees in Western immigration policies, it's just that people from elsewhere have no preference for moving to Russia.

Rule of thumb: if you can find numerous immigrant workers from Country A in a developed nation B, you will not find people from B emigrating to A to work.

Derbyshire goes on about how "globalists" and other upper-crust Americans and Brits have encouraged immigration in order to benefit from cheap labor, "smashing up any kind of national feeling," etc. Then he contradicts his own argument by saying the Russian ruling class hasn't gone in for that.
None of this [increased immigration] has got much purchase in Russia—an odd thing, since Russia’s ruling classes are even more corrupt, unscrupulous, and contemptuous of their lower-class citizens than are Britain’s and America’s.
There are four ways to explain Derb's supposed paradox:

1. What benefits posh Anglo-Americans (in this case, cheap immigrant labor) would not benefit posh Russians. Hard to see why this would be.

2. Ruling Russians are far more nationalist and xenophobic over the last several decades than Westerners. This is not in evidence, and also fairly hard to believe.

3. Ruling Russians are unable to implement open borders in the way Americans or Brits have been. Again, why? What's stopping them? Is there some Super-Arpaio that's stopping the famously corrupt Russian oligarchs from throwing open the gates?

(Don't miss that link; it applies equally to explanation #2.)

4. Something else is driving immigration besides the nefarious plots of the upper income groups.

The explanation for this paradox Derbyshire gives is:
Perhaps that’s why Russia’s rulers, as cynical and ruthless as they are, hold off on bringing in Muslims and Africans to break the ethnic back of their people. Nobody has yet managed to make any large number of Russians hate their own ancestors.
My explanation is far simpler: "rulers" in both the West and Russia don't allow immigration for the purpose of "breaking the ethnic back of their people" in the first place. Boom. No paradox to explain.

Nature-Inspired AI : Wings :: Good Old Fashioned AI : Blimps

NY Times | Steve Lohr | Creating Artificial Intelligence Based on the Real Thing

I work on the algorithms/software side of biologically-inspired computing, not the hardware side this article describes, but I still really like this overall approach.

Other than "yeah! more of this please!" I don't have much to say about the article as a whole or the research project.  I can address this part though:
If it succeeds, the project [to make neuromorphic chips] would seem to make peace with the “airplanes don’t flap their wings” critique. “Yes, they are different, but bird wings and plane wings both depend on the same aerodynamic principles to get lift,” said Christopher T. Kello, director of the Cognitive Mechanics Lab at the University of California, Merced. “It’s the same with this project. You can use essential design elements from biology.”
I've run into the "airplanes don't flap" objection before.  My stock answer is to compare our current computing paradigm to hot air balloons.

Imagine a world where no one ever invented planes, and never tried all the wacky Da Vinci-like flapping flying machines. But this world does have a lot of hot air balloons, and even some blimps, and some people were researching dirigibles. Those are all cool and all, and they're up in the air like birds, and they even have some advantages over birds. But they're nothing like birds, and they have a lot of limitations that birds don't.  Furthermore we've been hearing about how lighter-than-air machines are going to catch up to birds any year now for decades, and they never seem to get there.

In that world doesn't it make sense to look into wings and airfoils and more natural methods of flying? Maybe you don't end up with something flappy, but shouldn't you start looking there?  Doesn't it make sense to take a good long look at birds, and make sure you know how they work before you write off airfoils as a method of flight?  Or do you really want to ignore the one example nature gave you of flight and stick it out with Good Old Fashioned Flying Machines?

16 January 2012

Redbox Missing Features

In the last month Mrs. SB7 and I have been making heavy use of our local Redboxes. It's a great service, especially as a complement to Netflix streaming.

I'm struck by two missing features with Redbox, though.

The first is the ability to save movies currently in theaters to a list and be reminded when they are eventually released on DVD. This is partially available, but as far as I can tell, only for movies which are being released on DVD in the next month or two. I want to set a reminder right now that I want to see Hugo, for instance. (Maybe there is a way to do this, and I haven't noticed.)  Instead, according to Redbox, Hugo doesn't exist.

The second feature is a wish list. There are several movies out now on DVD that I want to rent at some point, but not tonight. I'd to be able to make a list of these, and have Redbox remind me what they are. They could also pre-sort my list to the options currently available at my location. That would short-circuit the this recurring conversation:
SB7: Do you want to rent a movie tonight?
Mrs. SB7: Sure.
SB7: What do you want to see?
Mrs. SB7: I don't know.  What do you want to see?
SB7: I don't know. What's out?
Mrs. SB7: I don't know. You choose something.
SB7: Well what are you in the mood for?
Both of these, and especially the second, seem pretty trivial. Why don't they exist? What am I missing?

The Angel Hunter

A friend of mine, L.B.D., is doing some PR for a fantasy novel, set partially at my alma mater, and asked if I would like to review it. This isn't something I've ever done before, but I feel like a real professional, getting a free promo copy and everything. Since writing a proper book review isn't something I've ever tried before, I'm going to go about this the best way I know how, which you might see as off-the-cuff rambling, but I prefer to think of as a non-linear collection of thoughts. Here goes nothing.

• The book is J.A. Leary's The Angel Hunter. The main character is a young, windowed business executive whose infant twins are kidnapped under mysterious circumstances. It becomes clear that she, and her offspring, have a particular destiny. She struggles to recover her children, with the help of a modern day alchemist/archeologist/mad scientist, while trying to outwit two different secret organizations and a skeptical policy force.

There is also some corporate espionage, organized crime, a secret cabal of clergy, intelligence organizations, nazis, shadow governments, zombie hitler (well, sort of), the ark of the covenant and other relics, the antichrist, fallen angels, occult wisdom, and what I can only describe as computational astrology. Oh, and a landmark on the Notre Dame campus is actually a cosmic gateway.

• If this seems like a lot, it is. The Angel Hunter has lots and lots of ideas. Which is great!

But I can't help but think this book would have benefited a lot from paring these different subplots down. Indiana Jones tracked down the Ark of the Covenant and fought off Nazis. He wasn't also trying to find the Image of Edessa, the Crown of Prester John, and Pope Joan's pontifical knickers all the while keeping the Masons from finding the Philosopher's Stone with the help of the Theban Legion and also escaping from the US Marshals, who are trying to arrest him and the Wandering Jew for insurance fraud.  That would be a little too much.

• The stage has been set for sequels featuring the same main character, so perhaps some of the elements in this book could have been saved for later books. On the other hand, if Leary has used up a dozen or so conspiracies and mysteries and devices already in the first volume, he must have a lot more in the tank for the next volume.

• Advice for all authors of the "everything you know is wrong!" genre of conspiracy/fantasy books: nail the small stuff. I'm not going to believe that the structure of the universe is fundamentally different than I have always been told, or that there is a millennia-old conspiracy revolving around esoteric ancient wisdom, or that secret societies control the world, or that everything the Church has taught us is a lie if the mundane details are off. Incorrect trivialities may be trivial, but they makes it much harder to suspend disbelief.

For example, the main church on Notre Dame's campus is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It is, as the name suggests, a basilica, not a cathedral, as Leary calls it several times. A cathedral is not just a big, important church. It is the seat (literally and figuratively) of a Bishop. Calling Sacred Heart a cathedral hurts your credibility as a story teller and takes me out of the narrative.

I put down Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol over a matter like this. This isn't a surprise; he's notorious for being careless with details.* I could deal with secret chambers under the Capitol, and lost Masonic secrets, and even mental energy affecting the material world. Using "convergence" when he clearly means "emergence" in the middle of a monolog about the properties of emergent systems made me realize there are a ton of better books to be reading right now. You've got to nail the details if I'm going to believe the big lie.

(* Changing details in the service of a story is one thing, but getting things wrong which are irrelevant is just sloppy. See Megan McArdle's similar complaint about the treatment of Washing, DC geography in Homeland.)

• Speaking of small matters, there were a lot of problems with the typography in my copy.

Some caveats: (1) I care way more about typography than most. I keep a spreadsheet of books I've read, and one of the few columns is "type face." (2) IIRC, this was self-published, or at least somewhat so, and that's hard. I get it. I wrote up several hundred pages last quarter, with figures, equations, TOCs, lists of figures, tables, footnotes, appendices, bibliographies, and so on. Typesetting is hard, and requires a lot of work, so errors are bound to creep in. (3) This was a review copy, so perhaps it had not gotten the final proofing yet.

I understand this is hard, and most people don't care as much as I do, but damn it, I do care. Angel Hunter is, primarily, a pulp adventure. (I don't mean that to be dismissive; I love and need some pulp in my diet.) This is the kind of story that asks you to sit back and enjoy, and don't think too hard about how it all works. But that process is thrown out of whack when there are inexplicable line breaks in the middle of paragraphs, or when sections oddly switch from being fully justified to ragged right.

I've looked around, and the process of getting your text ready to print physically is not easy, apparently. I'm judging mostly by the numbers of online tutorials (eg); everything I've written and had printed has gone through an editor. Besides having editorial support, I've also created everything I've written in LaTex, which nicely removes all of the problems I noticed in Angel Hunter. To be sure, it introduces complications of it's own, but you don't have to worry about the leading changing from paragraph to paragraph without you knowing it. It blows my mind that anyone could typeset a book-length text using Word or other WYSWIG editors. Why would people subject themselves to that?

• Maybe I only feel this way because I'm an ND alumnus, but I think the idea of using Notre Dame's campus as a setting is a pretty good one.  I would have liked to see even more of that used.  Most of the stories in this subgenre are very Old World-focused.  It's always Rome and Paris and maybe London or Prague, and maybe somewhere in the Near East like Alexandria, Istanbul or Jerusalem.  And there are very good reasons for that.  Phoenix, Arizona just doesn't seem like the kind of place where occult mysteries are hidden.

But college campuses, especially older (or older-styled) campuses like ND and Princeton and Yale, where practically every building has some story behind it, do seem like the types of places that house mysterious secrets.  And I think Notre Dame is an especially good choice for this because it does have that link, through the Church, back to the Old World.

I could see a fun occult adventure comic being set at ND, with a BPRD-like organization with a secret headquarters in the subbasement of the library.  Somebody get on that.

Foucault's Pendulum, I believe, pointed out that a lot of conspiracy fantasies revolve around the this could be true therefore this is true gambit. ("It's theoretically possible that the Egyptians sailed to Mexico and taught the proto-Mayans how to build pyramids; you can't prove they didn't to my satisfaction; therefore the Egyptians did sail to Mexico, etc.") This is another thing Dan Brown loves to do.

Thankfully, Leary engages in little of this. There was one point however, and I've lost the page number, sadly, where Victoria's mother literally says this. (She can't know that psychological damage definitively didn't cause physical wounds, therefore she concludes that these physical wounds are the result of psychological damage.) It was annoying that Leary would stoop to the can't-prove-it's-false-therefore-it's-true move, but also very amusing that he would do so so explicitly, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was doing it on purpose with a wink and a nudge.

• As I said, there is a lot going on in this book. The theme I found most interesting, however, was the link between divinity and technology. We've all heard Clark's Third Law, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Lev Grossman's The Magician King extends that with the premise that any sufficiency advanced magic is indistinguishable from divinity. I think that continuum from technology to magic to godhood is a very fertile one for authors to explore, and I'm glad to see Leary doing so.

(See also Braak's corollary: "any technology that is distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.")

This was handled a little roughly in Angel Hunter, however. There was a scene in the first act or so which portrays an argument between two archangels. It's a little unclear whether they are traditional angels, that is, divine beings in a heavenly realm, or just beings in another dimension of the physical universe, or beings with extremely high technical mastery, or what. My confusion lasted throughout the book. I wasn't sure what frame I was supposed to be coming at this from. Things clear up somewhat in the climax, during the the descriptions of Purgatory and Hell, but I'm still unclear what Leary's point of view is on this.

Hell, Satan, etc. were described with terms about different energy levels and vibrations and such, apparently wanting me to think of them as physical things, in our universe, describable with the right set of physical laws and constants, just like the world we know. If that's the situation (in the story world, of course) then that materialism demotes God a bit. He might still be the most powerful guy on the playing field, but now we're all on the same, physical, field. If divinity is a matter of mastering the appropriate wave mechanics and harmonics and so forth, the God isn't some sui generis thing, he's just a very good engineer.

But at the same time, Leary's book is quite pro-religious and pro-faith. Victoria's triumph revolves around God as a divine being whose love sustains life itself. So which is it? I think either point of view has the potential to tell a good story, but I'm not sure which one Leary was working from. Is God an ineffable, immaterial being who saves and redeems us, or is he a material thing, open to scientific understanding?

• Does being a super engineer/wizard make you Jehovah, whose loves sustains life, etc.? No, but it might make you pretty close to Mars or Hephaestus or Athena.

• Speaking of divinity and technology being two sides of the same coin, Kenneth Branagh's Thor movie from last year used this device. I thought that was a good way of fitting what are essentially gods into the same world as people like Iron Man. (This is a problem that comic books writers have struggled with, to various degrees and in various dimensions, for a long time.)

For instance, look at the way the art department depicted "The Destroyer." How Hephaestus-ian is this thing? He's straight from the bowels of Mount Etna.

Is he some kind of iron-and-fire demon? Some sort of golem created by a wizard? A nanotech artifact? Who knows?

In Thor's case it doesn't matter. Thor comes right out and says "science and magic are the same thing." That's fine, because no one still worships Thor or Odin, so no one is going to have to reconcile any dissonance if you claim their gods are really aliens with advanced engineering skills. I don't think you can be that coy when you're dealing with a judeo-christian mythology like Angel Hunter does. Especially not when that theology plays a major thematic roll in your story.

• For more on the divinity/technology confluence see Iain M Banks' "Sublimed" and Vernor Vinge's "Transcendent" civilizations in their Culture and Zones of Thought novels, respectively. Note that even the names given to these societies use words usually associated with religion or mysticism. This theme isn't that deeply explored by either writer, but it's definitely there.

• This is only tangentially related, but this recent piece in the International Herald Tribune touches on the overlap between religion and science outside of fictional narratives, specifically whether CERN and General Relativity "prove" the Quran is right.  It all sounds like those "proofs" that people like Athanasius Kircher cooked up during the Counter Reformation.

• I think we can evaluate Art on two different dimensions. One is more academic, and perhaps more objective. Did this film make good use of editing? Is this photograph under- or over-exposed? Is this character a fully-fleshed-out person? Are the stakes appropriate and properly motivated?

The other dimension is more personal, and consists of only one question: Do I want more of this?

(Don't take this too literally. I wish there were more Casablanca, because I believe it is a perfect movie. But I do not actually want their to be more scenes in it, or for it to have a sequel. Intellectually, I do not want there to be more of it. But some sub-rational part of me wants to continue experiencing it over and over and over again, and so the answer to "do I want more of this?" is entirely affirmative.)

Typically my answer to this question is pretty open-and-shut: I'm either interested in more, or I'm not. With Angel Hunter I'm sort of in-between. While I physically had the book in my hand, I wanted to keep reading, check out one more chapter, and stay up a little later to keep going. But when I put the book down I didn't have a ton of desire to pick it back up.

The only other thing I can think of having the same experience with is the third and fourth seasons of Sons of Anarchy. When I'm watching a particular episode, I really want to keep watching until it's over. But somehow between episodes I'm not compelled to start up the next one.

I think with both Angel Hunter and SoA the problem is too many plot threads. If Leary had half as many mysteries to unravel I probably would have been more interested in getting back to the book to find out what the deal was. If the Sons had only two or three enemies to fight or internal disputes to resolve each one would be seem more important.  As is almost every character has their own little drama, and I'm not that interested in any of them.

Part of the problem might be that the profusion of mysteries, combined with the small errors mentioned above, made it hard for me to believe that returning to the book would get me any answers.

• Another possibility is that individual scenes seem well written, even if the structure of the book as a whole doesn't hang together as well. I'll refer you to the memo David Mamet sent to his writing staff on The Unit:
But note: the audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn't, I wouldn't. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned to watch drama.

Question: what is drama? Drama, again, is the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.

We, the writers, must ask ourselves of every scene these three questions.
1) Who wants what?
2) What happens if [she doesn't] get it?
3) Why now?

[...] Every scene must be dramatic. That means: the main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene. This need is why they came. It is that the scene is about. Their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene, to failure -- this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene. All these attempts, taken together, will, over the course of the episode, constitute the plot.
Some of the more fantastic elements of Angel Hunter do get a little informational, for instance when the Mad Scientist is explaining his discoveries. But on the whole the scenes do tend to make it very clear who wants what and why, they get foiled, and then they move on to the next attempt.

• When LBD approached me about reviewing this, she said she knows I like to read fantasy. My first reaction was "no, I don't."

But then I realized, wait, yes I do. I've just never thought of myself as a fantasy reader.

I read a lot of Sci-Fi, always have. I think I never thought of myself as a fantasy reader because I never got into any of the big, "High Fantasy," Tolkienesque swords-and-wizards-and-dragons-and-dwarves epics. (Well, besides, Lord of the Rings itself, which I've read several times and will always hold a special place in my heart as the first "adult" book I remember reading back in elementary school.)

But I've realized that, besides Lord of the Rings, I loved Narnia as a kid, the Earthsea books are the stories I would most like to see turned into a good movie, The Magicians was the best novel I read this year, Discworld is great, and many of the comics I love, like Fables and Hellboy, are unquestionably fantasy. So yes, I guess I like to read fantasy. Thank you to LBD for helping me to realize that.

• Conclusion: if you're in to this genre of books, Angel Hunter will make a decent beach read sort of book.  It's something you should be able to sit down, switch off, and enjoy, with a fast pace and lots of different elements to keep you on your toes.  There are plenty of interesting ideas at play, though the execution is unpolished.  I'm interested to see if future volumes smooth out some of that rookie roughness, and if there will be the same wild profusion of ideas shown here.

My biggest complaint is that there are too many elements, in fact.  Fewer subplots and devices, each given a little more attention, would make for a stronger story.  Personally, I would have liked a clearer view on the metaphysics of the world to help me get situated as well.

04 January 2012

Theatre Pricing Speculation

The Atlantic | Derek Thompson | Why Do All Movie Tickets Cost the Same? At the AMC Loews in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., every evening ticket is $12, plus taxes, whether you want to see Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, the holiday-season juggernaut starring Tom Cruise bouncing off Dubai's 2,700-foot Burj Khalifa tower, or Young Adult, a small, dark comedy starring Charlize Theron. Like tens of millions of Americans, I have paid money to see Mission: Impossible, which made $130 million in the last two weeks, and I have not paid any money to see Young Adult, which has made less than $10 million over the same span. Nobody is surprised or impressed by the discrepancy. The real question is: If demand is supposed to move prices, why isn't seeing Young Adult much cheaper than seeing Mission: Impossible?
Thompson has a good post about this, with some pretty graphs, but I think he misses something important. As does Tyler Cowen, who rarely misses things. He has this to say:
I would rephrase the question to be a little more specific. Especially in the days of robust DVD sales, why did they not offer first weekend modest coupon bonuses — as distinct from price discounts — for the most popular movies? That would drive up attendance, without damaging the gross (as a lower p would), and boost “advertising” for the DVD and the subsequent foreign openings.
Allow me to take a stab at an explanation. IIRC from my undergrad film class,* theaters get a bigger cut of ticket sales the longer a film has been out. Typically -- again, IIRC -- the theater owner gets nothing for opening week tickets. Then their cut gradually increases, so they get 10% of the second weeks, tickets, 20% of the third, and so on, with their cut plateauing before they get 100%.

(* And perhaps things have changed, and so neither Thompson nor Cowen are in fact missing anything.)

So while the studio and exhibitor could potentially work out some arrangement to cut opening week prices to boost DVD sales, the exhibitor alone can not. (And indeed, has no reason to.) Considering different prices for different films doesn't make sense unless you also consider how long the movies have been out.

The length of runs of niche, art-house movies is very different from those of blockbuster films because they rely more on word-of-mouth. It's likely that a theater owner is making more money on each $12 ticket to Young Adult than they are on the $12 ticket to MI:GP (which came out later), or they will be making next week on Underworld: Awakening.

03 January 2012


Cafe Hayek | Russ Roberts | Spaceship Earth Here is Joel Achenbach writing in today’s Washington Post:
Spaceship Earth enters 2012 belching smoke, overheating and burning through fuel at a frightening rate. It’s feeling pretty crowded, and the crew is mutinous. No one’s at the helm.
No one’s at the helm. That’s what makes Spaceship Earth such a potent metaphor for those who would like to be at the helm. [...]
Sure, it’s an antiquated metaphor. It’s also an increasingly apt way to discuss a planet with 7 billion people, a global economy, a World Wide Web, climate change, exotic organisms running amok and all sorts of resource shortages and ecological challenges. [...]
Kind of like a spaceship? We’re pretty good at managing or re-engineering actual spaceships. Human beings have a mediocre track record for aggressively managing or re-engineering a modestly complex system such as a city. An even more complex system, such as an entire economy or Yellowstone Park or the entire planet? That we have no clue about how to do well.
Are we? Compared to managing something like Yellowstone, sure. A non-complex, fully-Newtonian object like a space shuttle is easy. But are we actually very good at even that straight-forward task? Think carefully, and then present your answer to the families of Scobee, Smith, Onizuka, Resnik, McNair, McAuliffe, Jarvis, Husband, McCool, Brown, Chawla, Anderson, Clark, and Ramon.

How many people have been bureaucracied to death by the space program?  And that makes the space program a good argument for centralized management how exactly?

What a terrible metaphor.  This is like saying "Controlling the economy from the top-down will be as easy as riding a bike" to someone who was paralyzed in a biking accident.
Achenback continues:
More and more environmentalists and scientists talk about the planet as a complex system, one that human beings must aggressively monitor, manage and sometimes reengineer. Kind of like a spaceship.
What? That's the opposite of what scientists say about complex systems — by definition they defy management. The inability to predict how a system will respond when you change something is what separates complex from non-complex systems.