When I was a baby writer, I think I really did believe that my editor (and my agent) were my bosses. Now, I realize this is not true. While it’s also not true that I was a writer am the boss of my agent or editor (the relationship is more like a partnership), I’ve experienced several different editorial relationships.
1. The editor who knows everything (or rather, thinks that they do).
2. The editor who is trying to keep their head above water in the company.
3. The editor who somehow reads your mind and knows your book better than you do.
4. The editor who wants to shoehorn your book into a better selling form.
5. The editor who is a committee, and therefore never accountable for any advice or decision.
6. The tentative editor who suggests very, very gently and never insists.
7. The editor who never responds until ten minutes before the deadline.
8. The big-shot editor who is bigger and more important than you are.
9. The editor who inherited your book from a predecessor and hates it (and possibly you by extension).
10. The editor who is about to leave industry for something that pays better.
I’ve made accommodations to editors just to keep them happy. I’ve done revisions that I didn’t believe in because I hoped it would sell the book (and sometimes did). I’ve been terrified of a phone call with an editor because I was worried I wasn’t good enough. I’ve sent in revisions sure that they were perfect, and sure that they were terrible (neither was true).
But I think what I’ve finally come to is something like a real understanding of the way it should work between an editor and an author. I’m in charge. Sorry if that makes me sound like a diva. But it’s not a marriage. We are not equal parties. I don’t have to make my editor happy. I don’t have to listen to my editor’s advice. My editor is not always right.
Yes, sometimes a book will be cancelled if an editor doesn’t like the revisions you’ve done or if your vision and theirs are revealed to be completely different. This has happened to me and it is painful. It can be expensive. But there is really no other way around it and trying to make small changes to avoid it just delays the inevitable.
Of course, your editor can be a huge advocate for you at your house. Of course, you may end up being friends with your editor. But this does not mean that you should ever as a writer do what your editor says if it isn’t right for your book. If you don’t have that sense of–”Oh, yeah, that’s what I meant in the first place” or “What, you mean that wasn’t already in the text?” or “Wow, that’s the truth that I wasn’t willing to dig at quite yet,” then stop making changes.
Maybe you’re thinking that I can say this because I have more clout than a beginning author or that I can say this because I’ve gone through years in the industry and I’ve developed enough of a sense of where I’m headed that I trust myself more than I trust other people. And maybe that’s partly true. But I do wish sometimes I could go back and just tweak a few things in some of my early books because I changed things an editor thought I should change without really believing in it one hundred percent. And I was right.So, your editor can be your ally, your friend, your soul mate. Your editor can be brilliant. But your editor is not always right. And your editor is most definitely not your boss.
I’ve seen conversations about how the Hugos are “just a rocketship” and that people shouldn’t be so invested in getting an award. And while that might be true on an individual basis, the Hugo awards themselves are a reflection of our society. I’m not just talking about science-fiction and fantasy fandom, but our larger society. Now, since the Hugos are dominated by English speaking North Americans, I’m mostly going to be using US-centric examples, but these general trends are true in other places as well.
One of the things about fiction in general, and even more so with SFF, is that it tends to reflect the zeitgeist of the culture. For instance, during the “golden age” of SF, the United States, and much of the world, was focused on space. When you look at fiction of that era, it tends to be dominated by space exploration. During the Cold War, we saw a lot of post-apocalyptic worlds that were nuclear wastelands. Now? When we see post-apocalyptic worlds it’s because of a climate disaster.
In addition to reflecting environmental concerns, the awards also reflect what is important to the voters. Not just in the books that they vote for, but also in the books that they choose to read. In recent years, people have become aware of the imbalance in representation in SFF and are seeking to address it. This is happening in other fields as well — science, gaming, film, politics… but we are always most aware of an issue in our own community. So when people are seeking out books by underrepresented populations they are doing so because it’s important to their close community and also in the larger society.
Historically, every time there’s an advance in the rights of a disenfranchised group, whether that’s women’s lib or desegregation, there’s a corresponding pushback by the dominant group because it feels like it is losing power.
What we’re seeing with the Hugo awards is that readers & writers who have not been represented in SFF (women, PoC, LGBT) are becoming prominent because of a larger zeitgeist that is trying to redress historic imbalances. Again, we see this in other communities as well. The pushback by the various Puppy contingents matches other historical pushbacks. On their side, they think that fiction is being dominated by “checkboxes” rather than quality, which is the same reaction people had to hiring women during women’s lib or minorities during the civil rights movement.
The reason that the Hugos are more important than just a rocket ship, is that the Puppies also reflect the larger societal pushbacks that we’re seeing against women, PoC, and LGBT. So the Hugos represent a battle in a much bigger fight.
That’s why not just a rocket ship. The Hugos are a reflection of our culture. So the battle that we’re seeing isn’t about “what fiction is best” but rather “what future do we want to live in?”
The post The Hugos, the Puppies, and why this is more important than just a rocketship appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.
I write about sales often both because it’s the lifeblood of any organization and because in my experience it is the area in which more startups are least experienced or inclined. I also write and talk about it frequently because raising capital is a part of sales and this is important for entrepreneurs to understand.
To make it simple and easy to remember – there are three basic rules of sales:
1. Why Buy Anything?
2. Why Buy Me?
3. Why Buy Now?
This post will cover the first.
If you ask any experienced sales leader they’ll tell you there are three things to know about being effective at sales: Qualify, qualify, qualify. This is simply because sales people have limited time and can’t afford to waste time with anybody who isn’t likely to buy from them in the near term.
But how do you qualify?
Do you have a problem I could solve?
The starting point is to ask yourself whether the person you’re dealing with has a problem that is solved by the solution you offer. If they don’t – you simply won’t sell anything. That’s why many great sales starts with generating inbound marketing leads. If you create content marketing programs and drive traffic to websites where you can measure how long somebody spends reading your materials or downloading your white papers you’ve at least confirmed some level of interest.
If you have a product, knowing who the “typical buyer” by department or title is helps you greatly because you can quickly get to somebody likely to be familiar with the space in which you’re selling. If you know the title you can use tools like SalesLoft to build lists of potential leads.
If you generate outbound email campaigns to groups of potential buyers you can use SalesLoft or tools like Yesware and ToutApp to track whether people opened your emails, clicked on your links, downloaded your documents, etc. This is a part of determining the interest of potential buyers and allowing you to focus your scarce time on the most important leads you have. All of these products are great and if you’re not using anything to track the interest level of your prospects you’re competing with one hand tied behind your back [note: I’m not an investor in any of the companies mentioned in this post.]
The other obvious area in determining interested parties is to find referrals from trusted sources. That’s why companies partner with vendors with complementary service offerings. At Invoca (where I am an investor) we have partnered with people like Salesforce.com and HubSpot on go-to-market campaigns because our products work really well together. Invoca helps you to manage inbound sales calls (efficacy, attribution, duration, etc) and given how many people have historically only tracked click-based campaigns the shift to mobile ads has made Invoca one of the fastest-growing SaaS companies in our portfolio.
What is the single biggest mistake I see inexperienced startup people do in sales? Wasting time with prospects who aren’t likely to buy simply because they show interest and are nice to them. And, because most startup entrepreneurs aren’t used to sales, they hate to ask the tough qualifying question for fear of being told, “no.” Yet, no can be the 2nd most gratifying quick response you can get in sales. Nothing is worse than maybe or not knowing.
Let me make it simple:
If you can’t identify a problem that a prospect has that you can quantifiably solve you won’t sell anything.
This is the definition of “Why Buy Anything?” You have a problem that I can fix. That doesn’t mean you’re going to select me – but at least I know I’m not wasting your time or mine.
2. Do you have budget?
The other big mistake people make in qualifying is not determining whether the buyer has a budget to afford their product. There are two types of people with no budget.
The first is somebody who legitimately has interest in your product and has the level of influence needed to one-day buy your solution but doesn’t have the budget authority in the near-term to pay for your product. This is somebody you drop into your “marketing funnel” so that your marketing department can keep them appraised of your company’s progress, releases and announcements, so that you can follow up with them down the road when the may have more budget. You need to focus your limited time in the near term on people who can close in the near term.
The second type of person who has no budget is a time waster who could never buy your solution but like meeting with you. It’s super easy to get time-wasters to spend time with you because they like the time and attention you’re showing them. And they are usually pretty nice people so it makes you feel good. It feels better than meeting with tough-as-nails leaders of business units who won’t give you a free pass because you’re nice even if you can get shite done.
I call these second type of non-buyers NINAs, because they have “no influence” and “no authority” to buy. Avoid NINAs.
I generally like to tell people that if you have a product or service and can’t identify qualified buyers, “You either don’t have anything of value or more likely you just don’t know how to sell and you need to figure that out if you want to succeed.”
“Why Buy Anything” is single easiest part of the sales equation and if you can’t identify likely buyers you have no hope.
I wanted to take a final moment to talk about fund raising because it’s obviously vital to building a startup. Raising money is selling. Your product is you.You’re selling that you have unique skills to be successful and a product that end-customers are going to care about. You’re selling the fact that your company is going to be valuable and you’re building trust that through good times and bad you’re going to work your ass off to make money for the investor.
I find that many entrepreneurs talk randomly to VCs about fund raising. But if you’re raising a seed round and talking to a billion-dollar growth-stage fund you’re not being very focused. Equally, if you’re talking with a $100 million fund about your $20 million round your hit rate will be low. So understanding the stage of a VC matters.
Also, you need to consider the type of investments each VC does. Can you look at their portfolio and see deals that are at least similar to what you do? Finally, you even need to qualify down to the partner level. If you are talking with a partner who hasn’t funded any gaming startups and you are a gaming startup it’s worth asking them the question before meeting whether they would consider investing in your sector. Or if you notice another partner in the firm active in that area it’s worth getting to the right partner to increase your hit rate.
So make sure you qualify before even making calls or asking for intros.
Once you have the meeting and do your presentation it’s worth asking directly, but politely, “I’m not asking yet whether my startup is the right fit for you, but do your or your firm even do investments in our space?” It’s worth getting the dialog going because it will help you to handicap how much effort to put into persuading the individual going forward. This is all part of qualifying whether or not this investor will Buy Anything.
As with selling products the research you put into fund raising before you start the process will pay huge dividends in your efficiency and hit rate yet most entrepreneurs take VC meetings haphazardly based on where they can get easy introductions.
Finally, the same rules apply for VC firms raising money from LPs. I met with a person last week who wants to raise a first-time fund but this is a discussion I have with many VCs who are raising 2nd or 3rd-time funds, too. He told me that he had met a big state pension fund and that he was hoping he could get them on board because it was the state pension from where he lived and thus had a “hometown advantage.”
I told him he had nearly zero chance of closing a pension fund on a first-time $50 million VC fund. First, pension funds normally write very large checks – $50m and up often. Many have $25 minimums. Why? Because they manage many billions of dollars so they simply don’t have the resources to deal with small funds. Second, most state pensions are very conservative and wouldn’t likely invest in a VC fund that was in its first vintage. Nobody ever got fired for giving money to Sequoia, Accel, Greylock, Benchmark or now Andreessen so they’re going to start with the big names. Many state pensions can’t get into these “access funds” but there are many other late-stage VC funds that raise $1 billion plus and have been around for 30 years.
It may not make economic sense for a big pension fund to invest in certain funds but if they don’t have the in-house expertise to figure out who the next Fred Wilson, Josh Kopelman or Jon Callaghan is they certainly have no idea whether or not it could be you. So they won’t take the risk.
Understanding the “Why Buy Anything?” question from your prospects and qualifying is important for anybody who needs an economic decision made. And it’s the start of any great sales process.
In my next post I’ll cover “Why Buy Me?”
The post What Do You Need to Do to Improve Sales? Here’s a Start … appeared first on Bothsides of the Table.
A shortened, better edited and with nicer pictures version of this post first appeared on TechCrunch. But if you want it in it’s full V1 glory read on …
You’ve never been a CEO but might like to be one some day. But how? Nobody sees you as a CEO since you’ve never been one? I wrote this conundrum and the need to take charge of how the market define your skills in my much-read blog post on “personal branding.” If you don’t create the message about yourself, the market will. And if you want to be a CEO one day you need the messaging to reflect that.
The strange thing is that once you’ve been a CEO even one time the market will see always see you as a CEO but nobody really wants to give a new-comer chance.
Of course you could start your own company. For many people that’s the right answer. As I talked about in “Is it Time to Learn or Time to Earn” – overwhelmingly the best economics go to those that start successful companies. But not everybody has the right skills to build a highly successful and valuable startup from scratch. In fact, I would argue that most people don’t.
The decision tree for being a startup CEO begins with whether you can sustain 12-18 months of little or no salary while you define your market, do research, build v1 of your product, raise seed funding, attract your initial team, get your first customers and test whether you have initial product / market fit or enough momentum to be able to raise a large round of capital. Even when you do sign-up initial customers it’s still not clear that your company will be a success and you’re still likely paying yourself under market rates.
Of course I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t start a company. If you can and if you want to – you should. I’m just pointing out that it’s not for most people.
For some aspiring to be tech entrepreneurs, I often suggest a two-step process, as I argued in this post that “The First Startup Founder You Need to Invest in Is You.” The punch line from this post was “angel yourself.” It was meant both as a call to those writing angel checks into other people’s companies that they ought to think about putting that capital toward themselves either by becoming a startup founder or (and this was my real point) by taking an under-market salary in a company where they can learn the right skills to do it in the future.
Sadly most people I meet these days would rather pile $20k of savings to be seen as an angel in somebody else’s startup than they would to take a $40k pay haircut (the pre-tax equivalent to $20k) to work for the hottest startup they could and have both the stock options and the career experience and networking that comes from working with amazing peers at HotCo.
There is a second set of career discussions I have even more frequently than my “angel yourself” advice but this type is almost never discussed publicly in blogs, which tend to emphasize only billion-dollar opportunities, 20-something technical founders and Silicon Valley elitism. This career advice is for people who are slightly older, have slightly more personal responsibilities at home and who can’t just “throw caution to the wind” due to financial obligations.
The narrative of this discussion is something like this: I meet a 35-40-year-old founder with two kids and mortgage. He or she has worked at some very successful big technology or media companies and went to a great school. He worked at 2 startups but veered back into the corporate world because his savings got tied up in an expensive down-payment on a house in a tier-1 city where $1.5 million property buys you what you imagined $250,000 would have. They own a fixer-upper in an outskirt neighborhood in the wrong school district but they’ll make do.
He still has the dream. He has the hunger. He wants a chance at changing life’s circumstances with building equity value that might free him and his family from the rat-race of 529 accounts, property taxes, summer-school tuitions and even spending some cash on aging parents.
This is the narrative that isn’t talked about – but I promise you it is the more common narrative amongst even those that went to top-tier schools, got the right jobs, worked hard in their 20s but didn’t quite join Google, Facebook, Twitter at the right time. She joined Yahoo! after the glory days and earned $300,000 in stead of $3 million and after taxes that $150,000 just sustained life and some amount of future savings.
For these people I have a solution or two.
The most common one I recommend is a senior role in a company that is just past the Series A so they can earn some amount of reasonable family-necessary comp while still having the upside of startup. This is the 85% scenario for these people and my discussions with them is usually, “what is your minimum nut you could afford to take a risk at a startup vs. wanting the upside potential?” If the “nut” is too high I usually veer them towards later-stage opportunities (post B or C round) where the comp is higher, the exit is more likely / nearer, the upside is still nice but obviously not the same as if you joined early).
But I also have advice for the 15% that really do want to be a startup CEO. These people wished they had done it in their 20s but didn’t make that choice. Maybe they were in their 20s in 2002 when being a startup CEO wasn’t really available to most?
I often tell people in this scenario to focus on a VC “fixer upper.” My friend Ian Sigelow wrote about this last week and advised people not to take on this kind of job. I would urge you to read this post because for the most part he’s not wrong. For people who don’t fit my 15% narrative I would tell you that if you can avoid a fixer-upper you should. Ian’s right that it’s much harder to build that fixer upper and frankly what is also true is that working with investors who are “fatigued” on a deal is the worst.
And there’s always a but.
There is such a thing as a “diamond in the rough” and let’s face it – if the company was totally rocking would they be hiring you? You – who hasn’t been CEO before? You – who has some family obligations so can’t go super early and take almost no salary?
Here’s why I think it might be perfect for you:
1. Being the CEO of a fixer-upper gives you the skills and branding to take on a more substantial role later
If you think about your career move as a “two-step process” then nothing sets you up to be the CEO of a better tech company than having already been CEO once. You will learn about running board meetings, setting up the ultimate financial plan, leading a team from the top, dealing with the press, raising capital, etc. If you choose to be a fixer-upper CEO for 2-3 years you’ll be ready for the big leagues.
2. Being the CEO of a fixer-upper gives you board exposure and VC relationships that will benefit you later
At most startups the CEO has constant exposure to VCs and other board members through constant phone calls, updates and board meetings. The gives the CEO the chance to build these important relationships to get choice relationships in the future. Being a CEO begets the network to be a CEO.
3. Being the CEO vs. a senior executive gives you a lot more control over exit timing
Another important piece of career advice I give to aspiring CEOs is that this gives you the ultimate decision-making abilities about an exit. In many cases a company could or should be sold early and this can reap great rewards for the executive team and early investors. But if you’re the Director or Product or VP of Marketing – you don’t get to make that decision. So it could be that a sale would yield you seven figures and you could move on to your next role but the CEO wants to “go big or go home” and sometimes go home is the outcome.
Equally, it could be that as a mid-level employee you prefer to see the company try to get to a $1 billion exit where you could make substantial money but the CEO sells early because she is sitting on 10x the equity as you and can earn well on a $50 million exit.
I’m not saying that being CEO is the right job for everybody. I’m not saying it’s even desirable. All I’m saying is that when you consider your life’s journey – what you’re good at and what you’re bad it – if you think you have what it takes just know that one fringe benefit is deciding whether or not to exit if that choice becomes available.
4. Incoming into a VC fixer-upper you often have leverage over personal compensation
In Ian’s post he rightly points out that stepping into a role with $15 million in paid-in capital that has already been spent can be a problem. This is because this “liquidation preference” gets returned to investors before you see any money – restricting the executive outcomes in mid-sized exits. But when the VC is looking for somebody willing to take on a project with a bit of hair, you actually have more leverage than you think (precisely because many people won’t take on that assignment). So you may – for example – ask for a deal in your contract that guarantees you will get a minimum of $500,000 on any sale or you may agree that your stock is exited “pari passu” with the existing liquidation preferences or that management is guaranteed a minimum bonus of $2 million on any exit (that you share with your other execs). Or maybe you just negotiate that your ownership should be 15% of the company (vs. the standard 4-6% for a hired-gun CEO).
My main point isn’t that any of these are the right structures to negotiate for. My point is that when VCs need executive help you can often negotiate a bit on the way in for something that fixes the “fixer-upper” problems. And I’ll tell you for free – you have far more leverage to negotiate this on the way in than after you’ve joined or than at the time of exit. VCs may scoff at this advice because they don’t want a bunch of people asking for non-standard deals on the way in … but I assure you this happens more than you know.
5. There is often money to be made in being contrarian
I saved my main point for last. There are many companies with phenomenal IP that is truly differentiated but where the original executive team squandered their opportunity due to inability to sell, market or service customers. There is often money to be made in finding places with under-valued IP. “Be greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy.” (Warren Buffett).
At Upfront we invested in such a company. We did the early round of financing and the founding team walked when the market turned and when the situation got tough. We looked at the IP and realized it was highly differentiated / hard to replicate. So we swallowed hard and brought in a new team and wrote another check to give the company the runway to get through hard times. That company is now doing more than $50 million a year in sales, has negative churn, is growing at > 50% year-over-year and we believe will be worth more than $1 billion at exit. It will likely IPO in the coming years. The CEO that stepped into that “VC Fixer Upper” will earn handsomely as you can imagine.
I know it’s rare, and it’s hard, but it happens.
For many who want to start companies joining early can be intellectually stimulating, financially lucrative and career defining. If you miss that window don’t let the market tell you that you don’t have a second act. You just have to look a little bit harder – to find a diamond in the rough.
So if your life’s circumstances don’t allow you to follow the typical Silicon Valley, VC-backable, up-and-to-the-right-or-bust scenario but you still want to be CEO and run a company – don’t write off the possibility of being the CEO of a VC fixer upper. It could be a stepping stone. It could also be a golden ticket. And one that you get to write.
Manners are such an amorphous term. They are often equated with etiquette and which fork you are using at the table. But in the Regency, manners had a different and distinct concept, which I find very useful.
Manners are an outward expression of your opinion of others.
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is described as, “his manners, though well bred, were not inviting.” What this means is that though he was correct on all the points of etiquette, the way he executed those points made it clear that he disdained the people to whom he was speaking.
I’ve been thinking about this distinction a fair bit recently, in regard to a number of conversations going around on the internet. I’ve been getting emails from people, or comments on my blog, thanking me for being “reasonable” and “classy” in my responses to various upsets, most recently around the Hugo awards. What disturbs me about these is that the people writing to me don’t seem to understand that I am angry.
Because I am not raising my voice, people are mistaking my manner.
When I appear calm, and collected, it is easy to discount my reaction because my manner tells you that I am calm. It reduces the urgency of the situation. My manner seems to suggest that I am not angry, when I very much am. I may begin quietly, trusting that the other person will respect my concerns. But when I am not listened to, when my words are discounted, then my manner must change. I must express my outward opinion by yelling.
Telling someone that they need to moderate their tone to be taken seriously, ignores the fact that they have likely been expressing their opinions in a moderate tone for quite some time and haven’t been taken seriously. For instance, women and people of colour have been feeling excluded from SFF for decades, and have felt unsafe for decades. This is not a new situation. What has changed is that people are at the point where they are yelling. Their manner is expressing their feelings and those feelings are full of rage.
The thing is… the reason that I can be “polite” and “reasonable” is because other people are expressing the anger for me. I have the privilege of being quiet only because other people are bearing the burden of our shared fury. Without the people willing to shout, the concerns would be dismissed. Look at the suffragette movement. Women had been talking about equality for hundreds of years before that, and it wasn’t until the early 1900s when women began breaking windows and chaining themselves to buildings in protest that the cause was taken seriously. Then the “reasonable” women were able to negotiate, because their sisters had borne the burden of shouting to create a space in which their words could be heard.
This is, I think, something that is really important to understand: Being quiet does not mean that one is any less angry. And if you want to deal with people who are “reasonable” it is important to listen to them the first time they express their concerns.
And when you do? Listen with respect, because that is the correct manner.
The post Thoughts on manners: Being “reasonable” and being angry appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.
[WARNING: I am not a pharmacologist. I am not a researcher. I am not a statistician. This is not medical advice. This is really weird and you should not take it too seriously until it has been confirmed]
I’ve been playing around with data from Internet databases that aggregate patient reviews of medications.
Are these any good? I looked at four of the largest such databases – Drugs.com, WebMD, AskAPatient, and DrugLib – as well as psychiatry-specific site CrazyMeds – and took their data on twenty-three major antidepressants. Then I correlated them with one another to see if the five sites mostly agreed.
Correlations between Drugs.com, AskAPatient, and WebMD were generally large and positive (around 0.7). Correlations between CrazyMeds and DrugLib were generally small or negative. In retrospect this makes sense, because these two sites didn’t allow separation of ratings by condition, so for example Seroquel-for-depression was being mixed with Seroquel-for-schizophrenia.
So I threw out the two offending sites and kept Drugs.com, AskAPatient, and WebMD. I normalized all the data, then took the weighted average of all three sites. From this huge sample (the least-reviewed drug had 35 ratings, the most-reviewed drug 4,797) I obtained a unified opinion of patients’ favorite and least favorite antidepressants.
This doesn’t surprise me at all. Everyone secretly knows Nardil and Parnate (the two commonly-used drugs in the MAOI class) are excellent antidepressants1. Oh, nobody will prescribe them, because of the dynamic discussed here, but in their hearts they know it’s true.
Likewise, I feel pretty good to see that Serzone, which I recently defended, is number five. I’ve had terrible luck with Viibryd, and it just seems to make people taking it more annoying, which is not a listed side effect but which I swear has happened.
The table also matches the evidence from chemistry – drugs with similar molecular structure get similar ratings, as do drugs with similar function. This is, I think, a good list.
Which is too bad, because it makes the next part that much more terrifying.
There is a sixth major Internet database of drug ratings. It is called RateRx, and it differs from the other five in an important way: it solicits ratings from doctors, not patients. It’s a great idea – if you trust your doctor to tell you which drug is best, why not take advantage of wisdom-of-crowds and trust all the doctors?
The RateRX logo. Spoiler: this is going to seem really ironic in about thirty seconds.
RateRx has a modest but respectable sample size – the drugs on my list got between 32 and 70 doctor reviews. There’s only one problem.
You remember patient reviews on the big three sites correlated about +0.7 with each other, right? So patients pretty much agree on which drugs are good and which are bad?
Doctor reviews on RateRx correlated at -0.21 with patient reviews. The negative relationship is nonsignificant, but that just means that at best, doctor reviews are totally uncorrelated with patient consensus.
This has an obvious but very disturbing corollary. I couldn’t get good numbers on how times each of the antidepressants on my list were prescribed, because the information I’ve seen only gives prescription numbers for a few top-selling drugs, plus we’ve got the same problem of not being able to distinguish depression prescriptions from anxiety prescriptions from psychosis prescriptions. But total number of online reviews makes a pretty good proxy. After all, the more patients are using a drug, the more are likely to review it.
Quick sanity check: the most reviewed drug on my list was Cymbalta. Cymbalta was also the best selling antidepressant of 2014. Although my list doesn’t exactly track the best-sellers, that seems to be a function of how long a drug has been out – a best-seller that came out last year might have only 1/10th the number of reviews as a best-seller that came out ten years ago. So number of reviews seems to be a decent correlate for amount a drug is used.
In that case, amount a drug is used correlates highly (+0.67, p = 0.005) with doctors’ opinion of the drug, which makes perfect sense since doctors are the ones prescribing it. But amount the drug gets used correlates negatively with patient rating of the drug (-0.34, p = ns), which of course is to be expected given the negative correlation between doctor opinion and patient opinion.
So the more patients like a drug, the less likely it is to be prescribed2.
There’s one more act in this horror show.
Anyone familiar with these medications reading the table above has probably already noticed this one, but I figured I might as well make it official.
I correlated the average rating of each drug with the year it came on the market. The correlation was -0.71 (p 3.
This pattern absolutely jumps out of the data. First- and second- place winners Nardil and Parnate came out in 1960 and 1961, respectively; I can’t find the exact year third-place winner Anafranil came out, but the first reference to its trade name I can find in the literature is from 1967, so I used that. In contrast, last-place winner Viibryd came out in 2011, second-to-last place winner Abilify got its depression indication in 2007, and third-to-last place winner Brintellix is as recent as 2013.
This result is robust to various different methods of analysis, including declaring MAOIs to be an unfair advantage for Team Old and removing all of them, changing which minor tricylics I do and don’t include in the data, and altering whether Deprenyl, a drug that technically came out in 1970 but received a gritty reboot under the name Emsam in 2006, is counted as older or newer.
So if you want to know what medication will make you happiest, at least according to this analysis your best bet isn’t to ask your doctor, check what’s most popular, or even check any individual online rating database. It’s to look at the approval date on the label and choose the one that came out first.
What the hell is going on with these data?
I would like to dismiss this as confounded, but I have to admit that any reasonable person would expect the confounders to go the opposite way.
That is: older, less popular drugs are usually brought out only when newer, more popular drugs have failed. MAOIs, the clear winner of this analysis, are very clearly reserved in the guidelines for “treatment-resistant depression”, ie depression you’ve already thrown everything you’ve got at. But these are precisely the depressions that are hardest to treat.
Imagine you are testing the fighting ability of three people via ten boxing matches. You ask Alice to fight a Chihuahua, Bob to fight a Doberman, and Carol to fight Cthulhu. You would expect this test to be biased in favor of Alice and against Carol. But MAOIs and all these other older rarer drugs are practically never brought out except against Cthulhu. Yet they still have the best win-loss record.
Here are the only things I can think of that might be confounding these results.
Perhaps because these drugs are so rare and unpopular, psychiatrists only use them when they have really really good reason. That is, the most popular drug of the year they pretty much cluster-bomb everybody with. But every so often, they see some patient who seems absolutely 100% perfect for clomipramine, a patient who practically screams “clomipramine!” at them, and then they give this patient clomipramine, and she does really well on it.
(but psychiatrists aren’t actually that good at personalizing antidepressant treatments. The only thing even sort of like that is that MAOIs are extra-good for a subtype called atypical depression. But that’s like a third of the depressed population, which doesn’t leave much room for this super-precise-targeting hypothesis.)
Or perhaps once drugs have been on the market longer, patients figure out what they like. Brintellix is so new that the Brintellix patients are the ones whose doctors said “Hey, let’s try you on Brintellix” and they said “Whatever”. MAOIs have been on the market so long that presumably MAOI patients are ones who tried a dozen antidepressants before and stayed on MAOIs because they were the only ones that worked.
(but Prozac has been on the market 25 years now. This should only apply to a couple of very new drugs, not the whole list.)
Or perhaps the older drugs have so many side effects that no one would stay on them unless they’re absolutely perfect, whereas people are happy to stay on the newer drugs even if they’re not doing much because whatever, it’s not like they’re causing any trouble.
(but Seroquel and Abilify, two very new drugs, have awful side effects, yet are down at the bottom along with all the other new drugs)
Or perhaps patients on very rare weird drugs get a special placebo effect, because they feel that their psychiatrist cares enough about them to personalize treatment. Perhaps they identify with the drug – “I am special, I’m one of the only people in the world who’s on nefazodone!” and they become attached to it and want to preach its greatness to the world.
(but drugs that are rare because they are especially new don’t get that benefit. I would expect people to also get excited about being given the latest, flashiest thing. But only drugs that are rare because they are old get the benefit, not drugs that are rare because they are new.)
Or perhaps psychiatrists tend to prescribe the drugs they “imprinted on” in medical school and residency, so older psychiatrists prescribe older drugs and the newest psychiatrists prescribe the newest drugs. But older psychiatrists are probably much more experienced and better at what they do, which could affect patients in other ways – the placebo effect of being with a doctor who radiates competence, or maybe the more experienced psychiatrists are really good at psychotherapy, and that makes the patient better, and they attribute it to the drug.
(but read on…)
Or perhaps we should take this data at face value and assume our antidepressants have been getting worse and worse over the past fifty years.
This is not entirely as outlandish as it sounds. The history of the past fifty years has been a history of moving from drugs with more side effects to drugs with fewer side effects, with what I consider somewhat less than due diligence in making sure the drugs were quite as effective in the applicable population. This is a very complicated and controversial statement which I will be happy to defend in the comments if someone asks.
The big problem is: drugs go off-patent after twenty years. Drug companies want to push new, on-patent medications, and most research is funded by drug companies. So lots and lots of research is aimed at proving that newer medications invented in the past twenty years (which make drug companies money) are better than older medications (which don’t).
I’ll give one example. There is only a single study in the entire literature directly comparing the MAOIs – the very old antidepressants that did best on the patient ratings – to SSRIs, the antidepressants of the modern day4. This study found that phenelzine, a typical MAOI, was no better than Prozac, a typical SSRI. Since Prozac had fewer side effects, that made the choice in favor of Prozac easy.
Did you know you can look up the authors of scientific studies on LinkedIn and sometimes get very relevant information? For example, the lead author of this study has a resume that clearly lists him as working for Eli Lilly at the time the study was conducted (spoiler: Eli Lilly is the company that makes Prozac). The second author’s LinkedIn profile shows he is also an operations manager for Eli Lilly. Googling the fifth author’s name links to a news article about Eli Lilly making a $750,000 donation to his clinic. Also there’s a little blurb at the bottom of the paper saying “Supported by a research grant by Eli Lilly and company”, then thanking several Eli Lilly executives by name for their assistance.
This is the sort of study which I kind of wish had gotten replicated before we decided to throw away an entire generation of antidepressants based on the result.
But who will come to phenelzine’s defense? Not Parke-Davis , the company that made it: their patent expired sometime in the seventies, and then they were bought out by Pfizer5. And not Pfizer – without a patent they can’t make any money off Nardil, and besides, Nardil is competing with their own on-patent SSRI drug Zoloft, so Pfizer has as much incentive as everyone else to push the “SSRIs are best, better than all the rest” line.
Every twenty years, pharmaceutical companies have an incentive to suddenly declare that all their old antidepressants were awful and you should never use them, but whatever new antidepressant they managed to dredge up is super awesome and you should use it all the time. This sort of does seem like the sort of situation that might lead to older medications being better than newer ones. A couple of people have been pushing this line for years – I was introduced to it by Dr. Ken Gillman from Psychotropical Research, whose recommendation of MAOIs and Anafranil as most effective match the patient data very well, and whose essay Why Most New Antidepressants Are Ineffective is worth a read.
I’m not sure I go as far as he does – even if new antidepressants aren’t worse outright, they might still trade less efficacy for better safety. Even if they handled the tradeoff well, it would look like a net loss on patient rating data. After all, assume Drug A is 10% more effective than Drug B, but also kills 1% of its users per year, while Drug B kills nobody. Here there’s a good case that Drug B is much better and a true advance. But Drug A’s ratings would look better, since dead men tell no tales and don’t get to put their objections into online drug rating sites. Even if victims’ families did give the drug the lowest possible rating, 1% of people giving a very low rating might still not counteract 99% of people giving it a higher rating.
And once again, I’m not sure the tradeoff is handled very well at all.6.
In order to distinguish between all these hypotheses, I decided to get a lot more data.
I grabbed all the popular antipsychotics, antihypertensives, antidiabetics, and anticonvulsants from the three databases, for a total of 55,498 ratings of 74 different drugs. I ran the same analysis on the whole set.
The three databases still correlate with each other at respectable levels of +0.46, +0.54, and +0.53. All of these correlations are highly significant, p
The negative correlation between patient rating and doctor rating remains and is now a highly significant -0.344, p
The correlation between patient rating and year of release is a no-longer-significant -0.191. This is heterogenous; antidepressants and antipsychotics show a strong bias in favor of older medications, and antidiabetics, antihypertensives, and anticonvulsants show a slight nonsignificant bias in favor of newer medications. So it would seem like the older-is-better effect is purely psychiatric.
I conclude that for some reason, there really is a highly significant effect across all classes of drugs that makes doctors love the drugs patients hate, and vice versa.
I also conclude that older psychiatric drugs seem to be liked much better by patients, and that this is not some kind of simple artifact or bias, since if such an artifact or bias existed we would expect it to repeat in other kinds of drugs, which it doesn’t.
Please feel free to check my results. Here is a spreadsheet (.xls) containing all of the data I used for this analysis. Drugs are marked by class: 1 is antidepressants, 2 is antidiabetics, 3 is antipsychotics, 4 is antihypertensives, and 5 is anticonvulsants. You should be able to navigate the rest of it pretty easily.
One analysis that needs doing is to separate out drug effectiveness versus side effects. The numbers I used were combined satisfaction ratings, but a few databases – most notably WebMD – give you both separately. Looking more closely at those numbers might help confirm or disconfirm some of the theories above.
If anyone with the necessary credentials is interested in doing the hard work to publish this as a scientific paper, drop me an email and we can talk.
1. Technically, MAOI superiority has only been proven for atypical depression, the type of depression where you can still have changing moods but you are unhappy on net. But I’d speculate that right now most patients diagnosed with depression have atypical depression, far more than the studies would indicate, simply because we’re diagnosing less and less severe cases these days, and less severe cases seem more atypical.
2. First-place winner Nardil has only 16% as many reviews as last-place winner Viibryd, even though Nardil has been on the market fifty years and Viibryd for four. Despite its observed superiority, Nardil may very possibly be prescribed less than 1% as often as Viibryd.
3. Pretty much the same thing is true if, instead of looking at the year they came out, you just rank them in order from earliest to latest.
4. On the other hand, what we do have is a lot of studies comparing MAOIs to imipramine, and a lot of other studies comparing modern antidepressants to imipramine. For atypical depression and dysthymia, MAOIs beat imipramine handily, but the modern antidepressants are about equal to imipramine. This strongly implies the MAOIs beat the modern antidepressants in these categories.
5. Interesting Parke-Davis facts: Parke-Davis got rich by being the people to market cocaine back in the old days when people treated it as a pharmaceutical, which must have been kind of like a license to print money. They also worked on hallucinogens with no less a figure than Aleister Crowley, who got a nice tour of their facilities in Detroit.
6. Consider: Seminars In General Psychiatry estimates that MAOIs kill one person per 100,000 patient years. A third of all depressions are atypical. MAOIs are 25 percentage points more likely to treat atypical depression than other antidepressants. So for every 100,000 patients you give a MAOI instead of a normal antidepressant, you kill one and cure 8,250 who wouldn’t otherwise be cured. The QALY database says that a year of moderate depression is worth about 0.6 QALYs. So for every 100,000 patients you give MAOIs, you’re losing about 30 QALYs and gaining about 3,300.
A few not entirely serious observations on my trip to Brussels this week – but I’m not entirely joking either.
1. Familiarity with the apparently M.C. Escher-inspired architecture of SFF convention hotels will make the European Parliament building much less daunting.
(Radisson, Heathrow – Sheraton, Boston – (the old) Ashling, Dublin, I’m looking at you…)
Yes, we did get spectacularly lost but only the once, so I gather that actually makes us more legitimate as campaigners, not less.
Mind you, when you are wandering round the EU Parliament and wondering how exactly to find a way out, it’s probably best not to think too much about the similarity between that institution’s logo and the one from er, The Prisoner…
2. The SFF convention rule of 6/2/1 is a good one to adopt. That’s six hours sleep, two meals and one shower in any twenty-four hours.
Those two meals may well end up being a working dinner and a working breakfast. And I do mean working – not just some excuse for a feed at the public’s expense.
Our first event on Tuesday was Clare Josa presenting our findings to the European Internet Forum, thanks to the support for our cause from Vicky Ford and Syed Kamall, both UK Conservative MEPs. Clare was one of five speakers invited to talk about barriers to European hopes for a digital single market to 90-plus people from the European Parliament, the Commission and businesses which will be directly affected. They all had interesting and relevant things to say and everyone was listening, not just eating.
There’s a whole corridor of dining rooms in the European Parliament where all sorts of these dinners were going on, getting people together. The following morning they were full of different groups of people having breakfast, swapping information and making plans about mutual concerns before heading off for a full day’s work in their respective offices.
On Wednesday we were guests at just such a breakfast, hosted by Eurochambres, where Clare presented our case again to a different group of MEPs and Commission officials. Talk across the croissant and coffee cups immediately turned to the nuts and bolts practicalities of getting this issue onto the official agenda, who to enlist in which Commission offices and across the different political groupings. Catherine Bearder, Lib Dem MEP had already done a lot of work on making sure this was being raised as a cross-party and international issue, to counter any idea that this is a purely Tory concern being raised for domestic political consumption. Nothing could be further from the truth.
3. Think Vulcan not Klingon.
European politics isn’t two-party-confrontational. Think infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Table thumping and shouting, or expecting any kind of ego-stroking, will get you nowhere, not least because it just wastes time and no one has that to spare. The MEPs and their staff who’ve been helping us will be tackling upwards of twenty issues simultaneously at any one time.
One reason we’ve got so far and so fast with this is we have all our facts and figures prepared to show the damage being caused by this unworkable system and we let that information speak for itself. We weren’t there to play the blame game but were focused on working towards solutions. So were all the people we met.
And Clare’s presentation wasn’t far short of a mind-meld. There wasn’t a digital projector available so none of the speakers at our various meetings could be tempted to try Death by PowerPoint but the way Clare made our case was as far from that as it’s possible to get. She invited our audiences to imagine themselves as digital entrepreneurs setting up a successful business in 2014 and then took them step by step through the shock of discovering the successive costs, complexities and outright impossibilities now demanded by these new regulations. The sound of metaphorical pennies dropping around the rooms was deafening!
4. It can help to be a hobbit who just wants to get back to The Shire.
As well as being asked about the EU VAT issues, we were both asked at various times about ourselves, our wider involvement in politics, our plans…
Well, we just want to get this sorted out so we can go back to running our own businesses. It’s as simple as that.
Which isn’t to say it would have been a particular problem if we had said we had plans to set up some digital microbusiness organisation or had political party ambitions ourselves – but it does make life much more straightforward when the people you’re dealing with realise you don’t have any other agenda they should (perfectly reasonably and legitimately) be taking into consideration.
5. Just go with the plot-convenient co-incidences.
Another reason we’ve got so far so fast is I happen to live in the UK Prime Minister’s parliamentary constituency. So I was able to make a constituency surgery appointment to brief my MP, David Cameron, personally about the problems this new regulation has created. He got it. We’ve found this time and again over the past few months – whenever we’ve been able to make the case in person, that penny drops within minutes.
Establishing this connection has opened doors for the campaign and got us invaluable practical support, not least for this trip to Brussels. No, I can claim no credit for this. There is no time travel involved which might explain why I moved to Witney in 1985 just to set this up!
And no, this absolutely isn’t a party-political issue. We’re dealing with the Conservative party at the moment because they lead the current ruling coalition in the UK. We’ve also had great support from the Greens and from the Lib Dems in Europe, notably Catherine Bearder who just happens to be based in Oxford, so I met her as well and once again, that penny-drop moment as we talked has made all the difference.
Another useful coincidence is the presence of Nicholas Whyte in Brussels. Those who know him in SFF circles are probably vaguely aware that he’s worked in and around (though not actually for) the European Parliament and Commission in various roles for a good few years. This means he’s been an invaluable source of practical information and support as we’ve begun to engage with European legislation policies and procedures.
Personally, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to head off to Brussels without his encouragement. When he first said, ‘you’ll need to come over to the Parliament—’, the squeak in my voice as I said, ‘really?’ probably startled passing dogs…
6. Settle in and prepare for further developments and surprises in the next film/series/book in the franchise.
We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress. This problem is being discussed at the highest levels now. There’s still a great deal of work to be done. Space stations and battlestars aren’t quickly or easily manoeuvred.
But even the smallest person can change the course of the future. And the more people who join in, the more change we’ll see.
(Some background for anyone coming late to this story – I am part of a grassroots campaign group EU VAT Action which is pressing for review and revision of the new EU VAT regulations on cross border digital sales which threaten tens of thousands of small businesses and are already doing untold damage to any hope of a digital single market to benefit customers and sellers alike.)
I was writing yesterday about how the confectionery company Fujiya, with a bold advertising campaign, managed to establish the Christmas cake tradition. About a decade later, the Japanese Christmas menu was enriched by… another advertising campaign. It all started in 1974, when KFC run the campaign “Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!). It is said that the idea came from a foreigner who, unable to find turkeys in Japan, declared that it will replace them with fried chicken from KFC…
And since the KFC chicken is now a modern tradition, it is only natural to have the KFC Colonel Sanders statues dressed up as Santa…
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:
Originally known as Edobashi ("Edo bridge"), the Nihonbashi bridge of the old Edo was, during its heyday, the most famous landmark of the city. It was the point zero from where all road distances were measured, and it was the eastern endpoint of the two most important roads in the old Japan, Nakasendō and Tōkaidō, both connecting Edo to Kyoto.
During the Meiji period, the original wooden bridge was replaced by the today’s stone construction, but a replica is exhibited in the Edo-Tokyo Museum and another replica can be “experienced” in Kyoto, inside the Toei Kyoto Studio Park.
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:
I’m in the studio this week to record Of Noble Family. I’ve been wanting to show you what the recording process is like, but that requires getting permission from the author. Since I wrote this book…
So, Dustin Anderson, my engineer/director, and I set up a Google On Air and recorded us doing the first chapter of the book, starting from getting the mic set with some commentary about what we’re doing and why. This recording is a little odd because it’s a multiple narrator book.
Usually my books are a single narrator, just me. Because a lot of this one is set in an Antigua, there’s a high number of African-Carribean characters. No matter how hard I worked on the dialect, it would sound like a caricature. Also, frankly, if I hadn’t written the books I would be entirely the wrong narrator.
The post Video of me recording part of the audiobook for Of Noble Family appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.
I’ve seen exhortations to think like Leonardo da Vinci or Albert Einstein, but these leave me cold. I can’t imagine thinking like either of these men. But here are a few famous people I could imagine emulating when trying to solve a problem
What would Donald Knuth do? Do a depth-first search on all technologies that might be relevant, and write a series of large, beautiful, well-written books about it all.
What would Alexander Grothendieck do? Develop a new field of mathematics that solves the problem as a trivial special case.
What would Richard Stallman do? Create a text editor so powerful that, although it doesn’t solve your problem, it does allow you to solve your problem by writing a macro and a few lines of Lisp.
What would Larry Wall do? Bang randomly on the keyboard and save the results to a file. Then write a language in which the file is a program that solves your problem.
What would you add to the list?
How would you create a table of trig functions without calculators or calculus?
It’s not too hard to create a table of sines at multiples of 3°. You can use the sum-angle formula for sines
sin(α+β) = sin α cos β + sin β cos α.
to bootstrap your way from known values to other values. Elementary geometry gives you the sines of 45° and 30°, and the sum-angle formula will then give you the sine of 75°. From Euclid’s construction of a 5-pointed star you can find the sine of 72°. Then you can use the sum-angle formula to find the sine of 3° from the sines of 75° and 72°. Ptolemy figured this out in the 2nd century AD.
But if you want a table of trig values at every degree, you need to find the sine of 1°. If you had that, you could bootstrap your way to every other integer number of degrees. Ptolemy had an approximate solution to this problem, but it wasn’t very accurate or elegant.
The Persian astronomer Jamshīd al-Kāshī had a remarkably clever solution to the problem of finding the sine of 1°. Using the sum-angle formula you can find that
sin 3θ = 3 sin θ – 4 sin3 θ.
Setting θ = 1° gives you a cubic equation for the unknown value of sin 1° involving the known value of sin 3°. However, the cubic formula wasn’t discovered until over a century after al-Kāshī. Instead, he used a numerical algorithm more widely useful than the cubic formula: finding a fixed point of an iteration!
Define f(x) = (sin 3° + 4x3)/3. Then sin 1° is a fixed point of f. Start with an approximate value for sin 1° — a natural choice would be (sin 3°)/3 — and iterate. Al-Kāshī used this procedure to compute sin 1° to 16 decimal places.
Here’s a little Python code to play with this algorithm.
from numpy import sin, deg2rad sin3deg = sin(deg2rad(3)) def f(x): return (sin3deg + 4*x**3)/3 x = sin3deg/3 for i in range(4): x = f(x) print(x)
This shows that after only three iterations the method has converged to floating point precision, which coincidentally is about 16 decimal places, the same as al-Kāshī’s calculation.
Back in 2005, the Directorate of Land Strategic Concepts of National Defense Canada (that is to say, the army) hired me to write a short novel, which they named Crisis in Zefra, about future peacekeeping and the evolution of the military in the 21st century. Zefra did very well; you can learn more about it elsewhere on my site. In 2010, they commissioned a second project.
Crisis in Urlia is now published. You can read it online for free or download the PDF. Where Zefra concentrated on military evolution on the squad level, Urlia is about command-and-control, and includes a vision of a crowdsourced military that some might find downright shocking, as well as side forays into online nations and religions, post-agricultural food supplies, and 3d printed buildings.
These works view the future through a particular lens (that of the military) but include as broad (practically epic, in fact) synopsis as I could craft of all the changes facing humanity and our environment over the next thirty years or so. In terms of the rigour that went into them, they're probably my best science fiction.
|A-DU • *307+*307 (women?) •
VIR (people) • DA-RI-DA
|KI (=KI-RO?) • KI-RA-JA •
NASA is looking for creative yet practical ideas to find a dual purpose for Balance mass (“dead weight”) that is jettisoned from Mars landers like the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to balance the spacecraft during entry and landing. Payloads replacing Balance mass should perform some type of scientific or technological function adding to our knowledge base while closely matching the volume and weight characteristics of the original Balance mass. Ideas are welcomed from all disciplines.
This Challenge requires only a written proposal.
Challenge Reward: $20,000 USD Deadline: Nov 21, 2014
The ballast on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory entry-descent-landing (MEDLI) system is very important for science in that, without it, the spacecraft wouldn’t be able to put robots and other heavy objects safely on the surface of another planet. However, it’s not actually very useful to science in that it’s a bunch of extra weight on a spacecraft that could be better used for scientific equipment. That’s where you and your brilliant idea come in.
The MEDLI ejects about 330 pounds of mass before entering Mars’ atmosphere and another 330 pounds during its in-atmosphere descent to shift the craft’s center of balance and make a safe landing as it did with the Curiosity rover. In the future, NASA wants to make sure that mass is pulling its own weight in the science department, so they’re offering $20,000 to the person who comes up with the best idea for science experiments that could be carried out with the ejected mass.
The best part is you don’t even have to be able to carry out your plan. All they’re asking for is a written proposal of your idea with diagrams where applicable, and tons of people have already answered the call. Here’s what they’re looking for as written on the contest page on InnoCentive:
NASA is looking for creative yet practical ideas to find a dual purpose for Balance mass (“dead weight”) that is jettisoned from Mars landers like the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to balance the spacecraft during entry and landing. Payloads replacing Balance mass should perform some type of scientific or technological function adding to our knowledge base while closely matching the volume and weight characteristics of the original Balance mass. Ideas are welcomed from all disciplines.
You’ve got until November 21 to submit your plan, so go ahead and check out the details on NASA’s new “Solve” website for crowdsourcing solutions to problems in space travel, and then get cracking.
Previously in life on Mars
A while back, I was talking to an Earnest Young Writer, who informed me with great intensity that the story she was writing had a Theme, and that she couldn’t do anything about certain objections she was getting from her beta readers because that would destroy what she was trying to say. More specifically, she had several plot twists planned out that didn’t take things in the direction her beta readers thought the story was going…and when she told the beta readers this, they universally informed her that what she had planned would not work and that she had to send things in the direction they were expecting. One went so far as to tell her to “toss out your theme and let the characters do what they want,” which was, of course, what the beta-reader was sure they wanted. The writer was quite rightly indignant at being told she had to write her story their way, and wanted my opinion.
What I really wanted to do was tell her that both sides were right. Or wrong, depending on which angle you were looking from.
The writer was, as I said, perfectly right in her basic objection to being told what to write (the plot twists the beta readers expected) and how to write it (“set your characters free!”). She wasn’t starting with characters or an action plot and letting the theme develop out of whatever actions they took, which is how a lot of writers do it. That’s not how she works (at least, it’s not how she worked on this particular story). She started with a specific goal for the story – a theme, something she wanted the story to say. She was also correct to say that the plot twist the beta readers expected/wanted would have ruined the story she wanted to tell
Where she was wrong was in her assertion that she could not do anything about the objections of her beta readers, and should therefore ignore those objections completely.
The beta readers were wrong to say that the writer’s proposed plot twists could not work and would have to be changed. They were monumentally wrong in trying to force the writer to write the story they were expecting, instead of the one that she wanted to write.
But the beta readers were absolutely correct to say that there was a problem, and that as things stood, the writer’s proposed plot twists would not work. They were probably even right about the characters as presented not wanting to do the things the writer insisted they were going to do.
The real problem was that the writer was so focused on her Theme that she wasn’t paying enough attention to the believability of the story she was telling. It was as if she had decided to tell a story about the terrible effects bullying has on its victims, and cast The Terminator as the hapless victim. Of course her beta-readers were expecting a story about the bullies choosing the wrong guy (so very wrong) to pick on! And of course they were disappointed and disbelieving when she said that no, she was telling a story about how bullying can destroy even the strongest personality! She’d set her victim up as so strong that none of them believed she could pull off the changes in his personality that her theme demanded.
This doesn’t mean she couldn’t pull it off, though; it merely means that her readers didn’t believe it based on what they’d seen so far, which meant she needed to put a lot of work into making the story convincing – work she was determined not to even think about, partly because her betas had been so adamant in telling her she couldn’t do what she intended.
But starting with a theme, a specific agenda, or a moral point to make, means that the writer has to spend more time, energy, and attention on the characters and plot, because in order for the theme to work, the characters and plot have to be believable and convincing. Everything has to work together at least as smoothly as it does in stories where the theme grows naturally out of the actions and reactions of the characters and plot. If the writer does it effectively, there is no way the readers will be able to tell that the theme didn’t grow organically.
The other thing this particular write forgot to pay attention to is the power of tropes. There are a whole lot of story conventions and tropes that we are used to seeing over and over in stories. They work a bit like a subliminal sound track – when the music gets ominous, we know someone is sneaking up on the hero; when the bullies decide to pick on The Terminator, we anticipate their complete humiliation. A story-teller who wants to subvert these reader expectations has to work harder than a writer who is playing along with them, because the subversive writer needs to do more than convince the readers that these characters would do X. They have to convince readers that the characters really would do X instead of the Y that everyone is expecting them to do.
If the characters are selected and developed carefully, the readers’ expectations can work in the writer’s favor. If the reader is expecting the characters to do Y because Y is a familiar trope under these circumstances, but the characters just don’t seem like the sort of folks who would do Y, it sets up a certain tension, and then when they actually get to the point and do X instead, the reader gets a double tension release. There will always be a few who don’t like anything that doesn’t fit their preconceived notions of what must happen, and all one can do about them is ignore them. When all one’s beta-readers are complaining about the same thing, however, it behooves the writer to pay attention – not necessarily to their specific suggestions (“Do Y! We expect you to do Y!”), but to setting up the plot and characters so that when X happens, those same readers will believe and accept it even though they were expecting Y.
Jennifer Lawrence isn’t the only game in town when it comes to genetic mutants who can change their shape to copy whomever they want (I mean X-Men JLaw, not IRL JLaw, probably). A new South American plant has been discovered with all of Mystique’s shape-changey powers, and it’s pretty rad.
A woody vine called Boquila trifoliolata, native to Chile and Argentina, has demonstrated a skill called “mimetic polymorphism,” which definitely makes it sound like an X-Man. An ability previously only observed in butterflies, it essentially means that B. trifoliolata can imitate several different host plants after getting all vine-y up in their business.
B. trifoliolata actually transforms its leaves to match those of its host plant – their leaves change shape, color, size, orientation, and vein patters to match the foliage around it. As soon as the vine hits another plant, boom, those leaves get different – up to ten times the size as other leaves on the vine. Like if Mystique were to suddenly become the Hulk.
The polymorphism is meant to serve as a defence against bugs that think plants are delicious, like weevils and leaf beetles – with anywhere from a 33% to 100% success rate. Researchers have pretty much no idea how the plant does what it does, but I hope they harness it soon. I personally would like to look just a little bit more like JLaw.
Meanwhile in related links
The portrayal of female characters in video games has a checkered past—and present. Too often women are depicted as sex objects, without depth or agency. Even characters supposedly designed to avoid this problem tend to fall victim to it. For these and other reasons, the industry’s reputation for misogyny is well deserved. The spacefaring bounty hunter Samus Aran, from Nintendo’s Metroid series, is a unique case. Aside from her controversial appearance in 2010’s Metroid: Other M, she regularly is cited as a strong, engaging character who subverts the sexist norm. But is this true?
To determine whether Samus is a feminist landmark, it is necessary to examine her history, the culture that birthed her and the storylines in which she has appeared. In the mid-1980s, an idea came to the developers of the original Metroid, an action platformer for the NES. The game’s protagonist was a sexless space marine, totally obscured beneath a powered exoskeleton. “Hey, wouldn’t that be kind of cool,” one team member said, “if it turned out that this person inside the suit was a woman?” Particularly in the ’80s, video games rarely featured female characters in leading roles. The Metroid team played on the assumption that the protagonist would be male; and the result was Samus.
What began as an interesting subversion quickly developed into something more. Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991) and Super Metroid (1994) turned Samus into a real character. In Metroid II, she sets out to destroy the remnants of the lethal Metroid species—only to save the final hatchling, in a touchingly warped maternal moment. Her relationship with this hatchling grew, in tragic ways, with Super Metroid. Samus went through these events mostly in silence; but, when her speaking role was expanded in Metroid Fusion (2002), she was revealed to be an introspective and intelligent character. Yet, in each of these games, the player may unlock a win screen on which Samus appears without her armor, in skimpy clothing. An awkward disparity opens up in Samus’s portrayal.
Inexplicably, this hardened killer has a bikini body: scarless, thin, toned but not intimidatingly muscular. And the player views this body, sans the armor that makes it deadly, as a “reward”. Thus the player switches from sharing agency with Samus to viewing her as a passive object—from being her to watching her, as with Lara Croft in 2013’s Tomb Raider. Samus’s value as a person fades: instead there arises an adolescent male fixation on her sexual difference. Some might claim that Samus’s “reward” outfits are themselves expressions of confident agency. But these screens contradict her reserved personality; and their status as rewards gives them a gratuitous, voyeuristic hue.
Twelve years have passed since Fusion, and the first-person Metroid Prime trilogy (2002-2007) changed Samus in dramatic ways. In Prime, Samus largely became a Gordon Freeman character, a silent cipher for the player. The character-driven storytelling that Metroid had been building toward was replaced by environmental storytelling. Even the voyeuristic win screens were toned down. Other M's version of Samus, though, was talkative and emotional. To those unfamiliar with the trajectory of Metroid before Prime, this seemed like a betrayal of Samus’s character; but really it was a return to tradition.
This misunderstanding helped to create the popular belief that Other M was sexist. The stoic hero of Prime was transformed into a thoughtful character with a strong attachment to her superior officer, Adam. When Japanese games are localized in English, their male characters—like Squall from Final Fantasy VIII or Emil from Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World—are sometimes characterized as “weak”, “sissy” or “emo” by American critics. These characters, like Samus, have vulnerabilities and emotional lives: commonly gender-neutral traits for Japanese characters, which are stigmatized as “effeminate” in America.
To Americans, Samus in Other M appeared to be a cringing sycophant, who could not act without Adam’s—a man’s—approval. She kept her suit’s powers locked until Adam permissed otherwise, no matter how dire the circumstances. But the intricacies of Japanese class culture are often missed by Americans. Superiors, particularly in military scenarios, can receive an almost romantic devotion from their underlings—even and especially when both are men. In Japanese video games, one may find this relationship between characters like Brenner and Will from Advance Wars: Days of Ruin or Snake and The Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. The interactions between Samus and Adam originate not in misogyny but in a custom of respect.
Well-made characters are specific; not general. They have particular stories and particular personalities. Even when they fill archetypical roles, they are never interchangeable. One is forced to encounter them as people, rather than as stereotypes or as ideological tools. In the fourth episode of Bravest Warriors, the protagonists are listed jokingly (and only somewhat accurately) by type: “the cool one”, “the funny one” and “the girl”. A definitive archetype like “the funny one” can be the foundation for an interesting character, but a role as amorphous as “the girl”—or “the guy”, “the Asian” or similar—is problematic at best.
Creating a general character who “represents” a particular demographic, even with the intention of empowering that demographic, is a dangerous business. It hinges on the colonialist idea that one person can stand in for an entire group. Preferable are specific characters who, in their own particular way, happen to embody traits or to have experiences that are relatable to real individuals. Samus certainly is not the ideal “strong female character” that many feminists demand. But, better than that, she is a great character—one with her own complex, fascinating and particular story.
Indeed, Samus has never been a good poster child for feminist empowerment. For most of her history, she has had problems with objectification. And her story—with the Metroid hatchling, Adam and the rest—has long been too specific to give her ideological clout. However, to a feminism truly concerned with the representation of women, one interesting and particular character is more valuable than a million general (“the girl”) characters. Aside from her voyeuristic hiccups, Samus is revolutionary because she is a good character who happens to be a woman. If more video game writers had the nerve to follow this example, the industry’s misogyny would be a thing of the past.
Still Eating Oranges
You’ve probably heard about the crisis of replication in psychology. The problem is that replication is an unglamorous business; researchers would much rather do the sexier work of pushing forward knowledge with new results.
So we need to make replications more glamorous.
I propose a reality TV show, Replication Lab!, where every week they try to replicate one of the most famous experiments from the past few years.
It starts with the host explaining the experiment, maybe an interview with a very distinguished elderly professor who talks about how confident he is that his results will hold up. The techs chat with each other as they construct the experimental setup about how they’re doing and how their date last night went and how they’re going to avoid the problems that confounded the original study.
Suspense builds as we see the participants come in. Some human interest stories. He agreed to participate because they offered $30, which he’s going to use to buy a present that will win back his estranged daughter’s love. She joined because she’s right on the border of failing her psych class and needs the extra credit to save her dream of becoming the first person in her family to graduate college.
The experiment itself. The suspense is unbearable. We get a running commentary as everything proceeds. Oh man, look how harsh that guy is being on his Milgram Obedience Experiment, can you believe he would do that? That girl in the control condition seems to be running through her Stroop task at lightning speed – how do you think that’s going to affect our results, kindly-looking bearded scientist attached to the show?
After a tension-building commercial break, we get the results. Everyone is huddled around a computer as the statistician makes the final mouse click, and…oh no, p = .30! Total failure to replicate!
The scene cuts to the distinguished elderly professor’s face as he sees his great discovery going down the toilet. “How do you feel right now?” asks the host, and the professor sputters “I…I’m sure time will vindicate me! I know it!” and then he runs off the set, crying. Our host turns to the kindly-looking bearded scientist attached to the show. “Tell me the truth,” she says “Do you think Dr. Zuckerman’s career is ruined?” “I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be,” says the bearded scientist, shaking his head sadly.
I feel like Mythbusters has probably pretty much exhausted our cultural stock of urban legends by now and could be profitably recruited for this project. I would also accept “Welcome to Replication Lab! With your host, John Ioannidis!”
"And sitting on a bed that had no blankets, because they’re taken away during the day, in this cold cell sat a very young boy, and that boy was chained to the floor and handcuffed. And in all the many years that I’ve gone to Guantanamo Bay, as I’ve sat facing that young boy and watched him grow up into manhood, I never, ever saw him walk, other than going into the so-called trial. He was always, always shackled to the floor."
Omar Khadr's lawyer Dennis Edney spoke at a Lawyers Rights Watch event in Vancouver in December (The Omar Khadr Case: A Reality Check), and excerpts were recently aired on Canadian Redeye Coop radio. Podcast here, and transcript below the fold.
(P.S. Happy Presidents Day - aka "the asshole in charge of shredding our Constitution," h/t Marcy Wheeler.)
Something interesting happens when you run more than 1,000 servers, as we do at WP Engine.
Suppose I told you that on average our servers experience one fatal failure every three years. The kernel panics (the Linux equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death), or both the main and redundant power supply fails, or some other rare event that causes outage. Does that sound like a bad batting average?
Think about the laptops and desktops you’ve owned. Some last longer than others, but it’s probably something like 2-4 years before the OS locks up or a battery can’t hold a charge anymore. Now consider your laptop is idle the vast majority of the time, whereas our servers are getting pounded multiple times per second, 24/7. Even in the wee hours of American timezones when our pan-company traffic dips to its nadir, we’re running malware scanners, off-site backups, and other maintenance.
So, even if our servers are more hardy than your MacBook Pro, they’re taking 100x the beating, so one failure every three years seems pretty reasonable.
Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.
–Haiku from FSF
But remember, we have 1,000 servers. Three years is about 1,000 days. So that means, on average, every single day we have a fatal server error.
Not to mention 10 minor incidents with degraded performance, or a DDoS attack somewhere in the data center affecting our network traffic, or some other thing that sets pagers a-buzzing in our Tech Ops team and mobilizes our Customer Support team to notify and help customers.
“Well sure,” you say, “that’s normal as you grow. If you had just 10 servers and 100 customers, you’d have much fewer problems and many fewer employees. Today you have more customers, more servers, and more employees. What’s so hard about that?”
The insight is that that scale causes rare events to become common. Things happen with 2000 servers that you literally never once saw with 50 servers, and things which used to happen once in a blue moon, where a shrug and a manual reboot every six months was in fact an appropriate “process,” now happen every week, or even every day.
Things as rare as, well, you know…
Also, it’s not just problems that morph with scale, but your ability to handle problems morphs too.
For example, a dozen minor and major events every day means 20-50 customers affected every day. Now consider what happens as we try to inform 50 customers. For some we won’t have current email addresses, so they don’t get notified. Some of those will notice the problem and create extra customer support load at minimum, but at worst they’ll post on Twitter about how their website was slow today and WP Engine didn’t even know it. Then our social media team has to piece all this together, attempt to respond, maybe put together a special phone call with that customer, etc..
Or, consider the scale-ramifications of on-boarding 1,000 new customers a month. In that case, it’s likely that any given server issue can affect a customer who has only been with us for 30-60 days. Thus the issue causes a “bad first impression,” which is harder to address than a customer who has been with us for three years and therefore has built up a “bank account of patience.”
All of these aspects of the “solution” side of the process is affected by the same rule of rare events happening regularly, and causing much more work to solve than when the company was small.
The usual response to this is “automate everything.”
As with most knee-jerk responses, there’s truth in it, but it’s not the whole story.
Sure, without automated monitoring we’d be blind, and without automated problem-solving we’d be overwhelmed. So yes, “automate everything.”
But some things you can’t automate. You can’t “automate” a knowledgable, friendly customer support team. You can’t “automate” responding to a complaint on social media, which as our Twitter meister Austin Gunter says is usually a customer’s last resort and thus should always be treated as the very legitimate issue that it is. You can’t “automate” the recruiting, training, rapport, culture, and downright caring of teams of human beings who are awake 24/7/365, with skills ranging from multi-tasking on support chat to communicating clearly and professionally over the phone to logging into servers and identifying and fixing issues as fast as (humanly?) possible.
And you can’t “automate” away the rare things, even the technical ones. By their nature they’re difficult to define, hence difficult to monitor, and difficult to repair without the forensic skills of a human engineer.
Does this mean all our customers have a worse experience? No, just the opposite. Any one customer of ours has fewer problems per month today than a year ago, because we’re constantly improving our processes, automation, hardware, human service, etc.. It’s when you look across the entire company, and the non-linear additional effort it takes to not just improve the average experience, but to manage the worst-case experience, that you appreciate the difficulties.
Does that give high-scale companies like WP Engine an excuse to have problems? No way! In fact, if we’re not constantly improving on all fronts, the scale itself will catch up and overtake us, so we have to adhere to the laws of automation and diligence even more than smaller, slow-growing ones.
But for those of you in the earlier stages of your companies, when you project 5x growth coupled to just 5x the costs (or only 3x the costs because you’ll get cost-savings at scale), you’re guessing low. When you show 5x growth in projections but don’t budget for new hires in areas like security, technical automation, specialized customer service areas, and managers and executives who have trod this path before and come battle-hardened with play-books on how to tackle all this, you’re heading for an ugly surprise.
And with high growth, the surprise appears quickly, and recovery means acting twice as fast again to claw back ahead of the effect.
I was writing some time ago about a Japanese phone booth located inside the Sumiyoshi Taisha from Osaka, with a roof design perfectly harmonized with the shrine’s architecture.
Recently, I discovered another such phone booth, which reproduces the design of the nearby Marugame Castle, one of the 12 still original Japanese castles…
Click on photo for higher resolution:
Yesterday’s Japan Photo: