May 8, 2016

How Not to find Good Books

They say not to judge a book by its cover. But if we’re literally talking about books, what are the better options? This is a question that has tortured me forever, and for which I have no good answer. I’ve tried many options, yet somehow I still end up spending my very limited reading time on far too many books I regret reading. I recognize that many of these books do appeal to many people. But shouldn’t there be some signal I can use to work out if a book’s liable to appeal to me specifically?

Maybe so, but I haven’t found it yet. Here are a few straw men that are easy to knock down.

Read the first few pages, or skim a bit. I do like this option, because it’s easy. But some of the best books I’ve ever read start very, very slow. Many books have good hooks but go nowhere. Skimming has never told me anything much more helpful than whether or not the book is more exposition or dialogue.

Professional reviewers? I’ve made this mistake far too many times. Well known book reviewers in widely read publications tend to overflow with praise for terrible books. I’ve come to the conclusion that it can’t possibly have anything to do with what’s between the covers.

Online reviews? Online reviews are notoriously unreliable, although if a book has enough reviews, you can sometimes read between the lines a bit to work out which kinds of people felt which way about it. Still, it’s led me astray too many times.

Friends? I have few if any friends who admit to reading books, only one I occasionally discuss books with, and none who can produce well-informed advice about what I might like. I enjoy reading as a solitary activity, not a social one, so this isn’t likely to change, although it’s always remotely possible some new friend I haven’t met yet will turn out to have similar reading preferences.

Recommendation systems (e.g., what Amazon thinks you’ll like, based on your previous ratings)? Notwithstanding all the hand-waving I see about this, recommendation systems for books (and movies) are still terrible. When they recommend books (or movies) that they don’t know I’ve read or not, they’re mostly things I didn’t like.

Actually, yes, go by the cover. Blurbs are mostly useless, but the synopsis tells you something, and the cover itself probably has some clues about who the publisher thought the book would appeal to. Not a great option, but is it really any worse than the rest?

Books by authors you’ve enjoyed in the past. Sure, this can work out well. But you wouldn’t be in this predicament if you hadn’t already more or less exhausted that supply, or if you weren’t looking for find something new.

Am I missing something? I don’t have a good solution, other than doing the best I can with these noisy bits of information, and being prepared to drop them frequently.

The situation is possibly a little better for movies. I feel like with movies, there are far more cues about what kind of movie you’re getting yourself into. Maybe because movies are more stereotyped somehow? Because it’s much easier to get a sense of a movie from a few clips? Or possibly just because the relative popularity of movies means there are many more options for getting opinions of all kinds.

My Dream Gadget

I read an article about dream gadgets a while ago, and was struck by how little I wanted anything it described.

So I thought a bit about what I’d have to say about my dream gadget. And I realized that what I dream about mostly is a gadget works pretty much exactly like my smartphone today. But it gets enough battery life that I only have to plug it in every few weeks or so, if ever. And the screen is transflective with a beautiful flat matte finish, equally usable in complete darkness and bright sunlight. And it connects to this network or that network without telling me, but somehow always stays connected. And I never ever ever have to type a password on it, yet somehow still don’t have to worry about the security risk of losing it. And all the digital movies, tv shows, books, and music I’ve ever bought or have access to are accessible on this device, and I don’t have to remember which ones are in which app. And all of the notifications are relevant and interesting, sensitive to context in the same way I am. And it always knows exactly how loud an interruption I want for whatever it is.

The list goes on, but you get the idea. What’s so innovative about this device? Nothing. Maybe it’s just my lack of imagination, but I’m not dreaming about fabulous new things. I’m dreaming about the things I already have working well.

I Love Noisy Spaceships

People often complain about the noises spaceships make in movies like Star Wars – there’s no sound in space! But I have to go contrarian on this one. I love noisy spaceships.

Mainly, I’m just not committed to the view that the sounds you hear in the movie theater need to be the ones you’d hear if you were actually suspended out in space, watching the action (wearing a light jacket of course). I’m also okay with voice-overs, if done well. I don’t have a problem with music playing, as though from nowhere, during critical scenes in movies. I’m usually cool with that editing gimmick you sometimes see in movies, where the transition between two shots takes place first in the audio, and a moment or two later in the images (or vice versa). Or when you hear a loud, pounding heartbeat for a nervous character. Or when you hear voices from characters who are obviously only thinking, not talking. These are all filmic conventions that work well for me.

Not that I’m really committed to the idea that movies taking place in space have much grounding in reality in the first place. If you want to pick on Star Wars, a franchise I love, there are probably better targets than the sound. But even if I were, I’d be fine knowing there’s some connection between those sounds and the engine sounds of the Tie Fighters.

I realize we don’t necessarily pick our pet peeves, sometimes they pick us. This one has never bothered me. I actually like it.

April 3, 2016

HIgh-Swimming Fish

I'm getting a bit tired of the phrase "low-hanging fruit." I love the concept, and refer to it in my work constantly. But the phrase is getting a bit worn.

So I'm advocating this replacement: "high-swimming fish." I'm going to start using it here and there, and I encourage you to do so as well. Enjoy!

February 27, 2016

A Completely Fair NFL Overtime Rule

Every year there's a bit of controversy over overtime rule unfairness in the NFL, controversy that intensifies if there are any overtime games in the playoffs. The rules keep changing, but it’s not clear they meet the basic standards of fairness. If teams really care about who wins the coin flip, it’s probably not perfectly fair.

But there is a perfectly fair solution, one that’s been around for as long as I’ve been alive, and that is intuitively fair to any 8 year old. It’s called: "I cut and you choose."

That phrase is probably enough for most people to see how this works. But in case you didn’t grow up with it, as I did, or can’t see how it would be adapted to football, here’s a primer. It’s based on a fair system for two children dividing a treat, say a piece of cake. If one child cuts the cake in two and the other gets to choose their piece, then neither child can complain about the outcome. The cutter is extremely motivated to cut as evenly as possible, because the chooser will always choose the larger piece, if there is one.

It could be equally simple for football. The home team picks a yard marker on the field, where the football will be placed. The away team decides who gets possession of the ball. And then they just play football until someone scores.

There are lots of ways to tweak it. Maybe flip a coin, with the winner deciding who’s the cutter and who’s the chooser. Or if you still feel the need for special rules about what happens after the first snap (e.g., that both teams must get a possession), you can have those. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the unfairness of the coin flip is cancelled out by the fact that the teams arrived at the starting point for the overtime collectively.

There are some weaknesses to this system, but I think they’re negligible. If both teams are so proficient on offense that even placing the ball on the 1-yard line, facing against the wind, both teams would still prefer the ball, then the system’s failed. But I doubt that will ever be the case. If the probability of scoring as a function of the yard marker is different between the two teams, then it becomes tricky. But in a tie game, the teams are often playing approximately as well as each other on that day. And when they’re not, I think it’s okay to be “unfair” in favor of the better team.

Would it work? Losers will complain no matter what, and no system will fix that. But they’ll have to complain about something else, or they’ll look ridiculous. True fans (and any 8-year-old) will appreciate the basic fairness of this system.

And even better, it would be interesting. Coaches would make up charts, because that’s what coaches do. But it would still require a lot of touch, depending on weather conditions, how your quarterback’s arm is feeling, which units have been on the field too much, whose kicker has the stronger leg, the relative strengths of offenses and defenses, etc. It wouldn’t be as simple as a rote decision. And it would be much more fun, on a Monday morning, to argue about two two critical coaching decisions than to argue about whether or not someone made the right decision on a coin flip.

February 7, 2016

Why does Kylo Ren wear that mask?

Everyone who’s seen “The Force Awakens” must surely recognize the patent silliness of Kylo Ren’s mask. It serves no obvious intrinsic purpose. It serves marketing and filmic purposes, sure. It's a reference to Darth Vader, and maybe that's all we need to know. But if we watch the movie on its own terms, what’s that mask about?

The important thing to remember here is that despite his position of power, Kylo Ren is not a world class anything. He was born into privilege, and through genetics has inherited some facility with the force. He rebelled against his elders, as many teens do, although he was more violent about it than most, due to his emotional immaturity. He was an immature teen, and he's an immature adult.

As the movie opens, two things are happening. First, the First Order is trying to squeeze him into their leadership picture, in much the same way a company might try to find an executive position for a major shareholder’s kid. You know, that kid who suddenly at the age of 28 decides they might like to take up executiving, and starts attending board meetings and giving out orders, etc.

Second, he’s in the process of discovering that he’s bad at everything, at least by the standards of his position and training. He can make it pretty far on the strength of his legacy and extensive training, and by using his natural facility with the force, which is by most standards considerable. But The Force Awakens gives us a fair taste of the futility of being Kylo Ren. He was able to defeat a sanitation worker in a light saber duel, but just barely. He got his butt kicked in both light-sabering and using the force by Rey, who had probably never seen a light saber before, and who had only started using the force that same day. His injury is no excuse. Asked to run an important operation, he got it 99% done, but somehow skipped the final and most important step, because he was lazy.

You can tell he’s on this painful road to self discovery because of the tantrums. Darth Vader never threw temper tantrums.

So what about that mask? In all likelihood he built it during a teenage phase of obsession with Darth Vader. He thought Vader’s mask looked cool, as we all did at that age. It was a conscious act of emulation, though he may not have thought all that much about what Darth Vader stood for, beyond the fact that his parents weren't fans. He loved his mask. He wore it whenever he could. And then it became his thing.

It was never meant to be useful. He put in some cheap electronics for the voice, maybe because he liked the effect, or maybe for budget reasons. He put more effort into the closure mechanism. Maybe it has some kind of useful heads-up display inside, or gives him a nice stimulating flow of O2. Maybe it has a built-in Pez dispenser. Who knows. But he seems happy enough to take it off whenever anyone asks, or whenever the action gets intense, so at best it’s not critical hardware.

His parents only rolled their eyes and hoped the phase would pass. And perhaps it would have, with better upbringing. But they were busy, complicated people, and he got sent off to a boarding school run by his uncle, and… well, we all know how that story usually goes. So now he’s the 28-year-old with a Metallica poster tacked to his wall, except that because he has a bit of money, instead of a poster it’s an altar with Darth Vader’s original mask.

He tells himself that the mask is an homage, and it is. Though a lapel pin would have done nicely. He tells himself that it gives him a more imposing presence than his bare face, which has somehow failed to transition from awkward teen to anything remotely resembling confident adulthood. And he’s mostly right. But mostly it’s an emblem of his insecurity. He needs it because he thinks he needs it. Not so far below the surface, he knows that the raw, unmasked Kylo Ren can never by the Kylo Ren that he thinks he needs to be, and he doesn’t have the emotional maturity to really deal with that reality.

Don’t get me wrong – he’s clearly very, very good with the force. And he could probably kick the butt of any sanitation worker that didn’t also go through stormtrooper basic training. Through extensive training, he’s become the absolute best bad guy he can be. But he doesn’t have anywhere near the skills to hold the position he’s in, and the best he can hope for is to get better and better at faking it.

He can wear the mask, but he’ll never earn it.