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23 Nov 12:22

Mathematical alchemy and wrestling

by John

David Mumford wrote a blog post a few weeks ago in which he identified four tribes of mathematicians. Here’s a summary of his description of the four tribes.

  • Explorers are people who ask — are there objects with such and such properties and if so, how many? …
  • Alchemists … are those whose greatest excitement comes from finding connections between two areas of math that no one had previously seen as having anything to do with each other.
  • Wrestlers … thrive not on equalities between numbers but on inequalities, what quantity can be estimated or bounded by what other quantity, and on asymptotic estimates of size or rate of growth. This tribe consists chiefly of analysts …
  • Detectives … doggedly pursue the most difficult, deep questions, seeking clues here and there, sure there is a trail somewhere, often searching for years or decades. …

I’m some combination of alchemist and wrestler. I suppose most applied mathematicians are. Applications usually require taking ideas developed in one context and using them in another. They take often complex things then estimate and bound them by things easier to understand.

One of my favorite proofs is Bernstein’s proof of the Weierstrass approximation theorem. It appeals to both alchemists and wrestlers. It takes an inequality from probability and uses it in an entirely different context, one with no randomness in sight, and uses it to explicitly construct an approximation satisfying the theorem.

I thought of David Mumford’s tribes when I got an email a couple days ago from someone who wrote to tell me he found in one of my tech reports a function that he’d studied in his own research. My tech report was motivated by a problem in biostatistics, while he was looking at material structural fatigue. The connection between remote fields was a bit of alchemy, while the content of the tech report, an upper bound on an integral, was a bit of wrestling.

25 Sep 23:57

Elizabeth David's Pizza al Tegame: Excellent Home-Made Pizza In Like Forty Minutes Total

So we had some mushrooms, as one does, and I was thinking about things to do with them, and I thought pizza, but for various reasons I couldn't start cooking tonight until Ruth got home from work, and all the pizza dough recipes I have take about two hours to rise. Which would have us eating at approximately the time Ruth likes to go to bed, when you add in actual cooking time.

I looked through Elizabeth David's Italian Food, because if there was a pizza variant that would rise faster it was in there, and discovered pizza al tegame, which is an entirely unyeasted pizza, requiring no rise time because it is fried. So we went from zero to dinner in about forty minutes, and this may be the best homemade pizza I have ever had, though it also tastes very different from any other pizza I've ever had period, in a way it's very hard to put a finger on. It's definitely a thin-crust pizza, of course, but it's doughier than most thin-crust, and, I mean, if I was handed this object without having made it, I would obviously call it a pizza, but it feels as though there ought to be another word. I look forward to trying it with other topping combinations, though I'm writing down mushroom because that's what we had.

Elizabeth David's Pizza al Tegame (Fried Pizza), expanded from Italian Food, pp. 123-4

Allow one 7" pizza per person, if serving nothing else.

For 2 7" pizzas:

2 tomatoes or one can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
1 clove garlic, minced
about 15 baby bella or button mushrooms
black pepper
fresh or dried basil
1 cup flour
2 tsp. baking powder
shredded mozzarella cheese
about a cup of olive oil (don't worry, it really doesn't either stick or seep in)

a frying pan of about 9" diameter

Chop and seed the tomatoes, or drain the canned ones. Get as much liquid out as you can, because you're going to be frying this, and any tomato liquid that gets into the oil will spatter and be dangerous and frightening.

Mince the garlic, and toss it with the tomatoes in a bowl, with a good pinch of salt, and black pepper and basil to taste (bearing in mind that the tastes will become stronger the longer you leave it). Set the bowl aside.

Stem the mushrooms and wipe them off with a paper towel thoroughly. Do not allow water anywhere near them-- just keep wiping until you feel all right about it. Break them into chunks with your fingers, or slice them fairly thickly.

In the frying pan, heat less than a teaspoon of olive oil over high heat, enough to barely coat the bottom if scraped over it with a spatula. Get that near the smoke point. Put the mushrooms in, in one layer, trying not to crowd them. Leave them strictly alone for one solid minute. Cook, stirring, for another two minutes, removing them from the heat instantly if you see them giving off any liquid. Steam is great. Liquid is bad. Once they look cooked, pour them into another bowl, toss with a little black pepper (NO SALT, it will make them weep) and set aside. Turn off the heat for now, and wipe any egregious mushroom residue out of the pan.

I found it easier to make the crusts one at a time because then I didn't have to split the dough, but that's me; you can do them all at once.

Anyway, for each crust, take 1/2 cup (1/4 lb.) of flour, make a well in the center of it, add 1 tsp. baking powder and a generous pinch of salt, and stir in 2 tablespoons of water. Mix it with your hand, adding more water by drops if needed, until it makes an elastic dough. Knead it for a few minutes, although not so long as to become tough, and roll or pat out into a 7" round. You can leave the round sitting for a few minutes without it drying out, but if it's going to be more than that I would recommend covering it with plastic wrap.

Take about a cup of olive oil, or enough that it will come level with the top of your disc of dough, and heat it over high in the frying pan. While it's heating, line up next to the pan your tomato mixture, your mushrooms, your cheese, your crust rounds, a cover for your pan, and a couple of plates to transfer the pizza to.

When the oil is nearly smoking, add a pizza crust, and cook, turning down heat if it seems to be going too fast, for 3-5 minutes or until golden on the bottom. Flip it. Apply the tomatoes and then mushrooms carefully with spoons in the classical pizza fashion. Cook another two minutes, and then add a thin layer of the cheese. Cover the pan until the cheese is all melted, about another three minutes. The total cooking time of each pizza is about ten minutes.

Remove from pan-- a slotted spatula is a help here-- and onto plate. Note that leftovers will have the crust toughen, so get them eaten within a couple of hours, ideally while still hot.

Elizabeth David say "An excellent variety of pizza if carefully made," and I entirely agree.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comment count unavailable comments over there.
31 Jul 20:20

Fresh vs. bottled key lime juice in a pie. A tasty, tasty experiment.

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Why, yes. I *am* making a key lime pie from scratch.While I’ve been visiting my parents, I’ve been making the occasional pie. The first night, I made a key lime pie and my youngest niece, who had never experienced one, fell in love with it. Not surprising. So, I made one the next week. It is one of the easiest pies to make, and people rave over it.

And then I spotted key limes at the grocery store.

I’d been using Key Lime juice and wondered how much of a difference using fresh limes would make. I knew it would be different, but would it be the sort of difference that only a foodie notices, or would it be apparent to everyone. So last night my dad and I juiced a pound of key limes. By hand.

At this point, I figured, if I were going to go to all that trouble, I should really make the pie from scratch and skip the sweetened condensed milk. I hit google to find out how people made key lime pie before sweetened condensed milk and… discovered that they didn’t. To my surprise, it’s been around since the 1850s. According to David L. Sloan, leading expert on key lime pies, “This pie was invented to use condensed milk. William Curry made his fortune in hardware. He provisioned ships. He brought the first condensed milk to the Keys not long after Gail Borden invented it in 1856.”

Huh. So! Without regret, I cracked open my sweetened condensed milk and got to work.

The first thing you notice about fresh key lime juice is that it has a floral character that the bottled stuff doesn’t have. Does that show up in the pie? Yes, it does. It is has fuller, more floral taste and even my dad noticed the difference. Next up? Lemon ice box pie, and I’ll be squeezing the lemons.


2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk
1 cup key lime or regular lime juice
2 whole large eggs

In a bowl, whisk the condensed milk, lime juice, and eggs. Pour into graham cracker pie shell. Bake at 325 degrees for 15 minutes. Chill for two or more hours.


The post Fresh vs. bottled key lime juice in a pie. A tasty, tasty experiment. appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.

30 Aug 00:05

The moonlight it was dancing on the waves, out on the sea


All righty, then.

This is a post about magic.

As some of you may know, I have long, on-going (unrequited) love affair with the Maine resort town Old Orchard Beach.  So great was my love that, against the advice of Practically Everybody, I wrote three books (Carousel Tides, Carousel Sun, Carousel Seas) set in a just-slightly-different Maine resort town -- Archers Beach.  The major differences between the two towns, besides some liberties taken with the coastal geography, and a very little smudging along the edges of history -- one of the differences is that, in Archers Beach, magic works.

Sort of.


For some people.

And for others, who may not be, precisely, people.

The other difference is that, in Archers Beach, things are starting to turn around for the town, as the residents find renewed hope, and the energy to take up their destiny.

In Old Orchard Beach, over the years of our relationship, hope had been lost, and the residents had stopped believing in destiny.  I say this with love, and also with the understanding that love does not blind us to the loved one's faults.

An example. . .One of the centerpieces of the Carousel books is -- surprise! -- a carousel.  An old, hand-carved wooden carousel populated, granted, by some Very Odd animals, but, yes a carousel.  A carousel, in fact, that had been modeled (in the author's head) on the P(hiladelphia) T(obaggon) C(ompany) (#19, I do believe) that had been in place the very first time Steve and I visited Old Orchard Beach, many years ago.

The machine was in need of some upkeep, but old wooden carousels are expensive to keep up, and the sea air is kind to no machinery built by man.  But, it was running, the band organ was playing, and -- oh, it was grand.

The next time Steve and I got down to Old Orchard Beach, maybe a decade after that first visit (stone broke, no gas money, you know the drill), we found a changed scene.  The PTC machine was gone, and in its place was a fiberglass carousel, not as old, obviously, and. . . not very well kept.  You could see the poles shudder when the flying animals went up and down; you could hear the cranks grate.  Worse, oh, far worse!  The band organ, which had been ragged, but working, had been left too long unprotected in the seaside environment.  It was mildewed, it was cracked, it was peeling. . .it was. . .heartbreaking.

Now, the carousel in Old Orchard Beach -- the Chance Menagerie Carousel, is its name -- is part of an amusement park.  And, well. . .let's just say that, as went the carousel, so went the amusement park.  It was a sad, sad place, the last time I had been there at length, in 2012.  It needed -- oh, paint! and maintenance, and. . .hope.

Now. . .back in 2010, right around Halloween, Jeanne Bartolomeo, who at that time owned an art gallery in Old Orchard Beach called Beggars Ride, kindly put together a launch party in the gallery, for Carousel Tides. One of the surprising number of people who attended that party came up to me, excited by the town and the book, which she had already read as an ebook, and said, "I want to see it!"

"See what?" I asked her.

"The carousel!  I've already been to Bob's and the Pier, Tony Lee's and I have to see the carousel!"

Oh.  I cleared my throat.

"I'm so very sorry," I said.  "You can't see it.  It's. . .not there."

She stared at me, and I could see the betrayal creep into her eyes.

"You made it up?" she demanded, and I could see that she was hoping that I'd deny it, but. . .

"Yes," I admitted.  "I did.  I made it up."

In the same way, I made up the. . .revival of Archers Beach.

Or. . .not.

See, this year, Steve and I are doing a weird little split vacation at the ocean.  He and I were down at Old Orchard Beach together Thursday afternoon and evening; I came home to be with the cats, and Steve is doing a bachelor weekend at the ocean.  Monday, we'll swap places; he'll come down on Thursday, and Friday we'll shift all of us back home.  The reason Thursday is important in this is that there are fireworks on the beach every Thursday night during Season, courtesy of the amusement park.

So, anyway, we went to see the fireworks Thursday night, and after that, we wandered 'round the corner to look at the carousel. . .

. . .which has been completely revamped.  The panels were new; the rounding boards were new; the mirrors shone!  The sweeps were lit, and not only that! The lifting poles no longer shuddered; the cranks moved with quiet authority, and!

The band organ.

The band organ had been. . .restored.

And it was playing music.

I burst into tears.  Honest to ghod.  It was. . .it was magic.  See for yourself.


band organ before 1


band organ after 1

Carousel Before:

Hippogriff before

Carousel After:

hippogriff after

We walked through the whole park, and we noticed new paint, and bright new lights, and a feeling of hope amid the crowd.

When we came to the arcade, I said to Steve, "I want to visit Grandma."  I always visit Grandma when I'm in Old Orchard Beach.  If I have a quarter, I'll pay her to read my fortune.

Now, since Forever, Grandma has been shoved in a dark corner next to a service door in the arcade.  I walked right to the place, only to discover that!

She was gone.

I turned around, found Steve some distance behind, shaking his head and pointing.

They'd moved Grandma out into the main corridor.  They'd cleaned off her case, and they'd fixed the light.  Someone had.  I saw this because there seems to be an. . .addition to Grandma's bracelet.  A charm with names on them.  Steve and I are in disagreement.  I say the charm is new; a marker from the people who paid for her restoration.  Steve says there was always a charm.  I don't have a picture after, but here she is, last time I saw her:

grandma before

And so that's it.

Who says there's no magic, any more?

Today's blog post title brought to you by Loreena McKennit, "Beneath A Phrygian Sky".  Here's your link.

26 Sep 04:32

Last night I dragged [personal profile] genarti, [personal profile] jinian and [personal profile] gaudior to go see Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, a musical about the inspirational romantic connection between a down-on-her-luck electric violinist and the legendary turn-of-the-century polar explorer.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me begins with Our Heroine Kat recording a video for the dating website Cupid's Leftovers, in which she explains that, although her passion is writing avant-garde modern operas, everybody thinks her opera is terrible. However, she has just finished writing a FANTASTIC score for a video game --

KAT: And if I have to write music for space, I will not write BORING music for space!

-- which contains all her FEELINGS about ADVENTURE and EXPLORATION and ELECTRIC VIOLINS! Even if it's just for sad pasty video-game-playing teenage boys (because only pasty teenage boys play video games, right? Though, to be fair, I believe that a person who has hitherto spent their career writing avant-garde modern opera would believe this.)

Alas! Kat's dating video is cut off by a call from her boss informing her that EVEN THOUGH her music is really good, she's very difficult to work with and therefore he is firing her and won't be using any of it.

Also, Kat's apartment is freezing, her baby is crying in the next room, and her deadbeat ex-boyfriend drunk-dials her from his touring Journey cover band. LIFE IS NOT GOOD.

However, just as Kat is spiraling into the depths of despair, she is interrupted by a phone call from -- ERNEST SHACKLETON!

KAT: ???
ERNEST SHACKLETON: I heard your music in your video on Cupid's Leftovers and it was so full of FEELINGS ABOUT EXPLORATION that it has INSPIRED me as I set out for my POLAR EXPEDITION! Anyway, I, ERNEST SHACKLETON, will call again soon!

(ERNEST SHACKLETON always says his name in allcaps. This a thing about ERNEST SHACKLETON which I find 100% plausible. The guy who plays Shackleton is basically channeling a really endearingly hammy mix of Sean Connery and Tim Curry in Muppet Treasure Island and I love every minute of it.)

This is followed up by calls from Ponce de Leon, also inspired by Kat's electric violin of exploration feelings, who sings a brief seductive tango --

PONCE DE LEON: I want to make you my QUEEN de LEON!

-- and Jacques Cousteau, who it turns out just has a wrong number. But anyway, back to ERNEST SHACKLETON! Kat eventually figures out that she can Skype him and video calls into his polar expedition, where he explains cheerily that his ship the Endurance has been trapped in the ice for several months now.

ERNEST SHACKLETON: Anyway, I, ERNEST SHACKLETON, have wonderful news!
KAT: You can break free from the ice?
ERNEST SHACKLETON: No, we're still completely trapped by polar ice, BUT! I'm learning to play the banjo! My darling, LET'S HOOTENANNY.

And hootenanny they do, in a banjo-electric violin duet, with the actor playing Shackleton green-screened in beautifully in front of archival stills of the Endurance.

ETA: I found a demo of the hootenanny! Sans electric violin, but: "I know it's unusual getting a call from a dead explorer, but please, my love, believe in me -- for I, ERNEST SHACKLETON, believe in you!" Which kind of sums up everything that is charming about the show.

(We wondered if the banjo was historically accurate; at this juncture, I am delighted to report that Shackleton DID IN FACT insist on carting his 14-pound banjo with him during the entirety of the two years that his crew were trapped in Antarctica. Bless you, Shackleton.)

Anyway then Shackleton's ship is completely crushed by the ice and sinks, which is pretty astoundingly rendered onstage through the use of archival footage. (Sidenote: the amount of archival footage that actually survived from that expedition blows my mind a little. Just the fact that they actually managed to hang onto the film all that time! Anyway.)

ERNEST SHACKLETON: NEW GOAL! We're going to march ACROSS the ice until we find open water!
KAT, INSPIRED: I'm coming with you!

At this point Shackleton decides to be no longer bound by the limitations of Skype and emerges from Kat's fridge, and the entire stage breaks out in blizzarding because Kat is on this journey for REAL.

So the next approximate hour of theater is basically the story of the Shackleton expedition + Kat, and actually turns out to be quite a really well-done and moving evocation of heroic struggle against all odds, serving double duty as a metaphor for how incredibly hard it is to a.) be a single mom b.) have a career in the arts c.) do both at the same time WAUGH.

(Sidenote 2: So for about the first half of the show I had the Shackleton expedition confused with Scott's Terra Nova expedition, which meant I was convinced everyone was going to die tragically and FEELING SORT OF CONFLICTED about the use of this as a metaphor for noble artistic struggle. Historical record spoiler: Shackleton's expedition is the one where everything went wrong but everyone performed extraordinary feats and miraculously survived anyway! JUST FYI. IN CASE YOU WERE CONCERNED. AS I WAS CONCERNED.)

Anyway: a lot of desperate struggle against near-impossible odds, some mutual inspiration via music, and a few polar makeouts later, the Shackleton expedition is rescued at last!

ERNEST SHACKLETON bids Kat a fond temporary farewell, Kat sits down to ponder the valuable lessons she's learned about life, and! then! Ponce de Leon jumps out of Kat's oven and rips his shirt open in a reprise of ATTEMPTED TANGO OF SEDUCTION!

KAT: Um, I'm sorry, but me and Ernest Shackleton are kind of a thing now ....
PONCE DE LEON: ERNEST SHACKLETON has LIED to you! He's a womanizer! And! He's MARRIED!
KAT: You're lying!
PONCE DE LEON: Check his WIKIPEDIA PAGE! -- no, scroll down.
KAT: Oh my God, he IS married!

Then ERNEST SHACKLETON shows up on Skype to defend himself, and he and Ponce de Leon get in a FIGHT over KAT'S LOVE, and they DUEL, and then Ponce de Leon shoots ERNEST SHACKLETON dead!

...and while Kat is still reeling from all this, her douchebag ex-boyfriend shows up and tries to move back into her life!

HOWEVER, Kat has achieved enough personal growth through her adventures to tell him that she is in love with ERNEST SHACKLETON, who MAY OR MAY NOT EXIST, and throw her douchebag ex out of the apartment and face the hard road that she must walk alone but will walk with pride and self-respect! But without a job, apparently, that plot thread is just totally dropped.

And then she and ERNEST SHACKLETON climb triumphantly into the fridge together, AND CURTAIN. (In an I think accidentally unfortunate piece of symbolism, they leave Kat's baby behind on the floor. Oops.)

As we sat around at a bakery at the end of the show, I asked my companions what their most important takeaways from the show were that I should make sure to note down in this write-up.

[personal profile] gaudior: I really appreciated that Kat's struggle to get through the challenges of her life was treated like as much of a heroic quest as Shackleton's polar expedition!
[personal profile] jinian: I was a little confused structurally by the fact that the plot thread about her job was completely dropped?
[personal profile] genarti: It was really good for a while but WHY PONCE DE LEON

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
22 Sep 14:14

Your Editor Is Not Your Boss

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.
09 Aug 16:34

moiraj @ 2015-08-09T12:34:00

Now Harper wants to control where Canadians travel. Basically, he plans to decide which countries are breeding terrorists and ban Canadians from going there.

Interesting campaign strategy. "Vote for me and I'll strip away even more of your rights."


ETA: Someone else pointed out exactly what Charter right he wants to violate.

Constitution Act, 1982:
6. (1) Every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada.

Also, no one is in any doubt of what shades of skin the people suffering from this violation will be.
19 Feb 02:18

SQL haiku

At work there are some whiteboard walls. One of them used to be covered with puns, but recently the puns were erased and replaced with haiku. Since our company writes so much SQL, I thought it would be fun to contribute some haiku in SQL.

create view rainbow
as select distinct color

select count(flowers)
from meadow where wind is null
group by color, shape;

insert into heart
(select feeling from moment
where timestamp is null);

We also write an awful lot of Perl.

foreach $flower (@field) {
$rainbow{$flower->{HUE}}++ };
print sort keys %rainbow;
24 Aug 18:44

The Hugos, the Puppies, and why this is more important than just a rocketship

by Mary Robinette Kowal

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.

10 Mar 14:22

What Do You Need to Do to Improve Sales? Here’s a Start …

by Mark Suster

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 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.

Fund Raising

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.

24 Feb 07:19

Some Career Advice for Aspiring Tech CEOs

by Mark Suster

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.

The post Some Career Advice for Aspiring Tech CEOs appeared first on Bothsides of the Table.

05 May 20:44

Thoughts on manners: Being “reasonable” and being angry

by Mary Robinette Kowal

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.

31 May 22:33

For the past -- two years? I think it's two years -- [personal profile] aberration and I have been VERY SLOWLY watching our way through Queen Seondeok. We finally managed to finish it. Literally the day before she left the country for two years. PRIORITIES.

Anyway, Queen Seondeok is an extremely epic show that is very, very loosely based on the life of Korea's first queen regnant, who ruled the kingdom of Silla from 632-647 AD. I say loosely because there is, for example, no evidence that the historical Queen Seondeok spent the first third of her life in exile and then cross-dressing as a boy, but, like, why not? WHY THE HECK NOT.

This is Deokman, our plucky temporarily cross-dressing heroine! She kind of joins the army but she's not really .. very good at it ... though she's good at other things! One of the things I really like about Deokman, actually, as well as the series as a whole, is that she was raised in a trading camp in the middle of the desert, and that a lot of her tactical advantage in the early parts of the series comes from, like, knowing lots of languages and having a broad cultural perspective and soaking up information from all around the world! There's a huge plot point that hinges on the fact that she's the only person in Silla who knows how to make curry! I have a whole post in me about how I would like to see more historical fiction and epic fantasy that focuses on the importance of trade, please and thank you.

(Also, while we're talking cross-cultural perspectives, let's all take a moment to appreciate Queen Seondeok's views on the customs of the great Roman empire:

"What on earth are you doing?" "GRABBING YOUR BUTT, AS WE ROMANS DO." Rome: just a giant butt fixation, basically.)

This is Tiny Deokman with her twin sister, Princess Cheonmyung. Cheonmyung is raised in the palace while Deokman is raised in exile while everyone pretends she never existed, because of prophecy and reasons.

This leads to one of my favorite plots in the series, which, like -- ok, you know that Han/Leia plotline, when the scruffy rogue meets the plucky rebel princess, and they have to go on a road trip together, and they spend the entire time squabbling and learning to love each other? Except in this case they're SECRET TWIN SISTERS, and also the only way Deokman gets them out of trouble is literally by throwing tantrums until everybody's too annoyed to kill her. Tiny Deokman is amazing. I love her so much.

This is Lady Mishil, the main antagonist, murder concubine/political mastermind/power behind the throne/would-be-queen.

How do I even begin to describe Lady Mishil? Lady Mishil is flawless. She has a husband, a boyfriend, and a couple of useless sons who all sit around in family meetings vying to impress her. Her eyebrows are probably insured for $10,000. One time she took over the entire palace in a military coup, and it was awesome? It was pretty much awesome.

Even Deokman is like, 'I mean, like, she's flat-out murdered many people I care about, but...damn.'

At one point Mishil looks like she might be getting the worst of a political scheme for the first time in her life, and Deokman turns up in a huff to give her a pep talk, like, "MISHIL I AM DISAPPOINT, WHY AREN'T YOU CRUSHING HIM RUTHLESSLY, YOU'RE BETTER THAN THIS."

(I stole this screencap from [personal profile] shati, btw, who has a whole post about the beauty of Mishil vs. Deokman here.)

This is Kim Yushin. I'm so happy I was able to find a screencap of him with this rock because this rock is his FAVORITE THING. He likes to hit it with a stick. Yushin is one of those boring characters who after a while becomes endearing precisely because he is so boring. Like, he's not very good at everything that's important in this show, like scheming and politics and propaganda and mind games, but he's very good at being honorable and single-mindedly hitting things with sticks! And judgy faces. He's also quite good at judgy faces.

In theory, he's Deokman's first love interest/the eventual focus of a love triangle between her and her sister Cheonmyung. In practice, they're both like "no, seriously, you can have him" "no you" "NO YOU" while Yushin sadly goes to hit his favorite rock with a stick one thousand times.

This is Bidam, Deokman's love interest #2. He loves murder! Like, not kidding, he's a literal sociopath. His favorite thing is murdering people; his dream is to become Deokman's murder concubine. His backstory angst is about how his father figure stopped loving him because tiny Bidam just murdered too many people. I LAUGHED OUT LOUD.

I don't actually mind the murder; if he had kept being a cheerful sociopath, we would have no problems. The problem is the last 10-15 episodes when he becomes a constantly sobbing sociopath. "Is he gonna murder that person -- no, no, he's just going to cry again. STOP WHINING, BIDAM."

But the last ten episodes are frustrating for a number of reasons -- for a start, everyone grows a really terrible pasted-on beard and it's HUGELY DISTRACTING. Also, a solid 60% of the best characters are dead.

The first fifty are great, though! Sisters, mothers (and adopted mothers), dramatic female nemeses, cross-dressing, politically important curry, and Mishil's eyebrows: content I am always here for.

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
30 Apr 04:52

Prescriptions, Paradoxes, and Perversities

by Scott Alexander

[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 –, 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, 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, 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.

27 Mar 11:35

How to tackle the European Union if you’re used to living in the SFF universe…

by Juliet

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.)

24 Dec 01:01

KFC Colonel Sanders Santa

by Muza-chan

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…

Click on photo for higher resolution:
If you want to license this photo for commercial use, please contact me

EXIF Info:

Nikon Df
Lens: 24-70mm F/2.8G
Focal Length: 24mm
Aperture: F/5
Shutter Speed: 1/60s
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 4000
Japanese Christmas cake and a bit of history
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:

Japanese Christmas cake and a bit of history

11 Feb 01:01

Old Nihonbashi Bridge

by Muza-chan

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.

Click on photo for higher resolution:
If you want to license this photo for commercial use, please contact me

EXIF Info:

Nikon Df
Lens: 24-70mm F/2.8G
Focal Length: 24mm
Aperture: F/5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/640s
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 500
Jidaigeki period drama movie set
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:

Jidaigeki period drama movie set

03 Feb 20:07

Video of me recording part of the audiobook for Of Noble Family

by Mary Robinette Kowal

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.

06 Dec 06:00

OK, so the basic premise of Eric Flint's 1632 is as follows: an entire Appalachian town, including the heroic local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America, gets accidentally transported through the space-time continuum and dropped in the middle of Germany's Thirty Years War. HIJINKS ENSUE.

BECCA: But Eric Flint, why did this town spontaneously travel 350 years back in time?
ERIC FLINT: Oh, whatever, I don't even care. Ummmmm … aliens did it for an art project!
ERIC FLINT: It was a very irresponsible art project and sometime in the future they will get their comeuppance.
BECCA: Will … the aliens ever appear again …?
ERIC FLINT: Nope! Anyway the point is the whole town time traveled, OK? THE WHOLE TOWN.

The experience of reading this book is kind of like having a background chorus of cheerleaders shouting “AMERICA, FUCK YEAH!” in the background at all times. Sometimes the cheerleaders are diegetic.

The good: OK actually it's a whole lengthy sff novel where the protagonists are almost all blue-collar or lower-class and from a rural area, which is extremely rare for the genre and cool to see! It is also actually less misogynistic than it could be – like, while there are a lot of rape threats as part of The Horrors of War and Evil German Mercenaries, all of the female characters from cheerleaders to hippie high school teachers to camp followers get agency, happy endings, and equal opportunity to murder the heck out of the bad guys of their choice with lots of lovingly described weaponry

The bad: First of all, Eric Flint does not believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. But second, and more importantly, all that aside it is VERY OBVIOUS that a middle-aged white dude wrote this book.

ERIC FLINT: You know why America is great? Because Americans BELIEVE in the value of human life! Everyone in America knows their life is valuable and worth something!
BECCA: This is a really painful sentence to read right now.

The ridiculous: ...OK I'm just going to have to summarize the whole thing. I can't stop myself!

Our story begins with Our All-American Hero, Mike the Union Leader, hanging out at his sister's wedding.

HEROIC MIKE: Ugh, I hate my new brother-in-law's stuck-up Yankee parents. Total jerks.
DR. JAMES: Hey, Mike, nice to meet you, my daughter's the maid of honor!
HEROIC MIKE: Hey! You're the one black guy in this novel, and you speak with an inner-city accent, so I deduce before you were a doctor you were probably in the army, and before then maybe a juvenile delinquent who committed crimes!
DR. JAMES: Ha ha, yeah, you got me, bro!
HEROIC MIKE: I too was once a juvenile delinquent who committed crimes! Bro!

However this touching moment of male bonding is broken up by, as aforementioned, a FREAK ALIEN TIME TRAVEL ART PROJECT.

HEROIC MIKE: Union buddies, let's go investigate! Everyone who has an illegal firearm, now's a good time to bring it out!
UMWA WORKERS: Ha ha Mike, OK, you got us. Time to get the automatic rifles from the car!
HEROIC MIKE: Dr. James, bro, you can come too!
DR. JAMES: I am just plain delighted to be surrounded by burly white dudes toting massive amounts of illegal firepower. Let's go!

The first thing they discover is a bunch of HORRIBLE RAPIST THIEVING MERCENARIES.

HEROIC MIKE: Well, we're confused by the armor and the thatched-roof villages, but these are clearly BAD GUYS and we have all these massively illegal firearms, so: heck with reading them their rights, let's shoot 'em all!
UMWA WORKERS: Heck yeah!

The second thing they discover is Rebecca, a BEAUTIFUL JEWISH DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, and her ELDERLY FATHER.

REBECCA: I have never seen anything as beautiful as Heroic Mike.
HEROIC MIKE: The feeling is mutual, Hot Rebecca. The feeling is mutual.

Fortunately, Rebecca speaks English, and is able to provide Heroic Mike and the rest of the townsfolk with their date and location.

HEROIC MIKE: I still find it hard to believe that an entire town had a freak time travel accident though...
REBECCA: Ah, that is because you don't have my training in logic and philosophy. If you did, you would see that it is the only solution that makes sense.
HEROIC MIKE: …you're absolutely right. OK, friends, logic and philosophy tell us that we have time traveled! There is probably no way to get home so we'll all just have to get used to it!
THE ENTIRE TOWN: OK, I guess, sure.
HEROIC MIKE: It's cool. We'll just … BUILD AMERICA FROM SCRATCH. Let's start the American revolution 150 years ahead of schedule!
THE ENTIRE TOWN: America, fuck yeah!

HEROIC MIKE: OK, so on the town council I want … a whole bunch of my UMWA buddies, the high school principle, Melissa the token feminist radical high school teacher –
DR. JAMEES: Is this because I'm the token black guy?
MELISSA THE FEMINIST RADICAL: Heck yeah it is! We would like to avoid America's history of being hella racist if at all possible!
DR. JAMES: Given that this is like the one time America's history of racist and otherwise morally dubious acts will be mentioned in the novel … yeah, OK, I'll take it.
HEROIC MIKE: Also I would like Hot Rebecca on my town council also?
MELISSA THE TOKEN FEMINIST RADICAL: I mean, I'm A-OK with there being AT LEAST one other woman, but why?
HEROIC MIKE: Well, all these German refugees we keep finding will need someone to speak for them, so we need a native!
BECCA: But … Rebecca is not a native to the area … and doesn't have at all the same experience as these German refugees …
HEROIC MIKE: Yes but she has training in logic and philosophy and also she is so hot.

HEROIC MIKE: So how are we going to keep this town going?
THE NEW TOWN COUNCIL: It's cool, coincidentally half of us build archaic steam engines for a hobby! We'll just develop, like, a compromise nineteenth-century infrastructure. Lots of factories! Lots of diesel fuel! LOTS OF DEMOCRACY. IT'LL BE AWESOME.
MELISSA THE TOKEN FEMINIST RADICAL: Hell yeah, let's tear down all the palaces in Europe! Vive la resistance!
HEROIC MIKE: Sounds rockin', let's do it.

(SOMEWHERE: A whole bunch of Connie Willis characters are standing in a frozen circle shrieking about the space-time continuum.
NO ONE: hears them.)

HOT REBECCA: So about Heroic Mike...he's super not Jewish, right?
THE ONE JEWISH GUY IN TOWN: True! However! Funny thing about Heroic Mike, his granddad saved MY dad from Auschwitz! Heroic Mike's whole heroic family loves Jews!
HOT REBECCA: a.) iiinteresting, b.) Auschwitz?
THAT ONE JEWISH GUY IN TOWN: …I am afraid I am going to have to explain you some things.

HEROIC MIKE: So about Hot Rebecca … she seems kind of cagey, wonder why that is!
THAT ONE JEWISH GUY IN TOWN: Well, you know, the Inquisition?
HEROIC MIKE: Wait, what? I thought the Inquisition was aimed at heretics? But Rebecca's not a heretic, she's Jewish! Totally different thing! Not even Christian to begin with!
THAT ONE JEWISH GUY IN TOWN: …I am afraid I am going to have to explain you some things.


SOME SCOTS MERCENARIES: Hey, a bunch of dead bodies and a sign! What's it say?
THE ACTUAL SIGN: WE DON'T KNOW WHO THESE MURDERING RAPING BASTARDS ARE THAT WE PUT HERE. DON'T MUCH CARE EITHER. IF THERE ARE ANY MORE OUT THERE, BE WARNED. THIS AREA IS NOW UNDER THE PROTECTION OF THE UMWA. GO AHEAD. TRY US. [Note: This is the actual sign. I cut out a middle paragraph for the sake of length, but none of this is paraphrased. I just feel that's worth mentioning.]
ALEX THE HEAD MERCENARY: …..I don't know why, because the word 'AMERICA' is nowhere on this sign, but I feel like I can hear someone shouting 'America, fuck yeah!' somewhere behind me …

At this point they are discovered by a bunch of UMWA workers, who are about to shoot the heck out of them...until they find out that these mercenaries are Scottish!

HEROIC MIKE: Wait, we've been fighting mercenaries for this whole book, so friends, why did you just lead a bunch of mercenaries into the middle of town?
SOME UMWA WORKERS: Oh, no, Mike, you got it all wrong! They're cool, bro! They're Scottish!
A UMWA WORKER: My granddad was Scottish!
SOME ACTUAL DIEGETIC CHEERLEADERS: Who do we love? Scots! When do we love 'em? All the time!
HEROIC MIKE: *facepalm *
ALEX THE HEAD MERCENARY: omg this is the best bizarrely appearing magical mystery town ever
SOME OTHER MERCENARIES: Think there's something demonic going on here, Alex?
ALEX THE HEAD MERCENARY: Nah. I mean. Cheerleaders! Clearly great. Gotta be an act of God, dude. Act of God.

ERIC FLINT: So now we're getting to the part that you all care about: the first big battle! Let me tell you all about the difference between modern and seventeenth-century weaponry –
BECCA: Don't care, moving on!

NERDY 18-YEAR-OLD JEFF: So um in the course of the battle I seem to have rescued Gretchen the camp follower and her family? Did not really have a plan here...
GRETCHEN: I have a plan! Step one: murder the heck out of biggest asshole in the mercenary troupe I was attached to. It's OK, non-assholes are safe from my murderous wrath. Step 2: seduce this nerdy American kid to ensure the safety of my family and position with the conquering army. Step 3: Profit?
MELISSA THE TOKEN RADICAL FEMINIST: On the one hand I CANNOT HELP but disapprove of my students hooking up with German refugee girls who are just doing it because they don't feel like they have any other options! This seems like taking advantage! Also, nerdy 18-year-old Jeff is a baby! On the other hand forbidding these kids to hook up with German refugee girls may just enforce the idea that these girls are second-class citizens, which is not any better! SHIT WHAT DO.

BECCA: ...this is a lot more interesting and nuanced than I was expecting this plotline to get. Am I awarding Eric Flint actual points? I think I'm awarding Eric Flint actual points!

NERDY 18-YEAR-OLD JEFF: Well, I know what to do. Can I borrow a German dictionary? OK. Got it. Gretchen, will you marry me?
EVERY OTHER ADULT: ….nerdy 18-year-old Jeff please don't tell us you think this is true love...
NERDY 18-YEAR-OLD JEFF: Nah, Gretchen needs social status to keep her family safe, and this is a solid way for her get it! Totally get that. And Gretchen seems pretty awesome, and it sets a good precedent for dudes not taking advantage of German refugee girls, and anyway my parents got left behind in the year 2000 so I'm kind of jonesing for an insta-family? Seems like a good reason for a marriage of convenience to me!
GRETCHEN: Yeah, works for me!
MELISSA THE TOKEN RADICAL FEMINIST: I mean ... it's not the worst solution I've ever heard, I guess... so, I mean, I can't believe I'm saying this, but three cheers for weddings! Diegetic cheerleaders?
MELISSA THE TOKEN RADICAL FEMINIST: Anyway, Gretchen seems very competent, let's put her in charge of everything refugee-related. She can decide who we keep and who we exile to almost-certain death!
GRETCHEN: Cool! On it! Also, jeans and sneakers? Amazing. Love it.
DIEGETIC CHEERLEADERS: Weddings and America, fuck yeah!

HEROIC MIKE: So speaking of relationships...Melissa, you should totally hook up with my bro Dr. James.
MELISSA: You know what, I should totally hook up with Dr. James.
DR. JAMES: Down for that.

HOT REBECCA: So speaking of relationships...
HEROIC MIKE: Yeah, I guess we'll be having one of those weddings eventually too! But let's wait until we have actual elections so you can run for office under your own name, because somehow you've become the most popular person in town.

And then there's a FOURTH OF JULY PARTY and a PARADE and all the Americans and the German refugees BRO OUT and CHEER IN THE STREETS and everything is great!

ERIC FLINT: OK we're going to take a forty-page break here to talk about King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, why he's amazing, and this fascinating historical battle in excruciating detail!
BECCA: ….Eric Flint, I don't know how to tell you this, but just because Victor Hugo did a thing, that does not mean … you can also do the thing …
ERIC FLINT: Swedish military tactics, fuck yeah!

ERIC FLINT: ...but also, America, fuck yeah! Back to cheerleaders?

JULIE THE HEAD CHEERLEADER: ACTUALLY, by the way, did I mention that in addition to being the head cheerleader, I'm also the best sharpshooter in town and was in consideration for an Olympic biathlon? So I have decided that I'm tired of being a cheerleader and I'm going to join the army!
HEROIC MIKE: Julie kiddo, you know killing people may be emotionally difficult for you and –
JULIE THE ALSO SHARPSHOOTING HEAD CHEERLEADER: Eh, I mean, I've been talking to Gretchen, I feel pretty comfortable with the fact that these guys are assholes. Hey, look, I just shot six of them in the head!
ALEX THE HEAD SCOTS MERCENARY: ...I think I'm in love.
HEROIC MIKE: She's got a boyfriend, you know!
JULIE'S UMWA UNCLE: On the other hand, he's a dick, so Godspeed, head mercenary Alex.
HEROIC MIKE: Indeed. Court her with the blessing of UMWA. However, before you do so, you might want to get those seventeenth-century teeth checked out.
JULIE'S UMWA UNCLE: Julie's dad is a dentist. He also hates her boyfriend. We're just saying.
ALEX THE HEAD SCOTS MERCENARY: I will have dental work done without anesthesia … for Julie!
JULIE THE ALSO SHARPSHOOTING HEAD CHEERLEADER: Hmm, sorry, did you say something? Too busy shooting evil German mercenaries in the face.


SENATOR REBECCA: Now that we have television up and running again –
SENATOR REBECCA: NOW that we have television up and running again, and I have learned how to use it, etc., I am going to become the town's first talk show host! As well as its most popular politician, second only of course to my extremely heroic fiance. And in addition –
BECCA: I mean, kudos to you, Hot Rebecca, but –
SENATOR REBECCA: IN ADDITION I have brought all of my immensely wealthy Jewish banking cousins to come invest in our town by promising them religious freedom and political influence. So basically I am the town's most important person in the realms of economics, politics AND entertainment. Pretty good for a distressed Jewish damsel I must say!
BECCA: Yes yes yes great but seriously you got the television up and running again???

Eric Flint: OK but remember how we spent forty pages on Gustav Adolphus fighting a random battle, there was a point to that --
BECCA: No there wasn't!
ERIC FLINT: There was a point and now let's get back to WARFARE and POLITICS with AWESOME KING GUSTAV ADOLPHUS!

GUSTAV ADOLPHUS: So … time-traveling town in the middle of Germany, you say.
GUSTAV ADOLPHUS: Totally not witchcraft, you say.
ALEX THE HEAD SCOTS MERCENARY: Definitely not. Absolutely act of God. For sure.
GUSTAV ADOLPHUS: Weeeeeell, I mean, if you say so...
ALEX THE HEAD SCOTS MERCENARY: And to prove it I brought Senator Rebecca and also my new girlfriend, Julie the also sharpshooting head cheerleader!


HEROIC MIKE: We'll send my girlfriend Senator Rebecca and Julie the also sharpshooting head cheerleader as part of our delegation! They're both really pretty and no one could POSSIBLY think two pretty girls, one of whom can shoot with impossible-for-the-seventeenth-century distance and accuracy and the other of whom is Jewish, could be witches!)

GUSTAV ADOLPHUS: Wow, look at these super pretty dames! You are absolutely right, definitely not witches. Besides, who needs witchcraft when you can shoot like that?
BECCA: I don't – Eric Flint I – I really don't think you understand how seventeenth-century logic worked –
ERIC FLINT: Shh. Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

And then there's some more battles, and everyone gets some crowning moments of heroism, and Richelieu at one point gets involved to send in the most evil mercenaries of all for the CLIMACTIC battle, but our plucky Americans triumph! With the help of surround-sound Reba McIntyre and Senator Rebecca's favorite ANGRY CLASSICAL MUSIC playlist (YES) and of course heroic Gustav Adolphus! And then they form an alliance and technically become part of Sweden's Protestant German empire!

GUSTAV ADOLPHUS' ADVISORS: Yes but I mean Your Majesty are you sure it's a great idea to have an actual democracy literally in the middle of your empire?
GUSTAV ADOLPHUS: Yes, but you don't understand, from these time-traveling history books I have learned that if we don't change the course of Germany's history someday we will have … THE HOLOCAUST.
GUSTAV ADOLPHUS: Also as a sidenote I'll die in three months which is a fate I would rather avert if necessary.

HEROIC MIKE: But now instead of all those horrible historical things, we will have...America!

So there you go.

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
13 Aug 01:17

What would Donald Knuth do?

by John

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?


23 Nov 18:10

How medieval astronomers made trig tables

by John

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)

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.

Source: Heavenly Mathematics: The Forgotten Art of Spherical Trigonometry

09 May 16:53

Crisis in Urlia published

by Karl Schroeder

Crisis in UrliaBack 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.

13 Nov 00:00

Riddles in Linear A - Part I

by (Andras Zeke)
I am pleased to announce that I managed to make a further post on this little blog. In the recent months, I browsed through quite a few original Linear A tablets (I mean, the "original" photographs), in an attempt to make the classification of certain signs more systhematic. Given the paucity of my free time, that project is still ongoing. But in the meanwhile, I also came upon many documents, whose reading and interpretation is quite tricky: Sometimes even well-established scholars were fooled by these muddled tablets. So I decided to share some of these minute discoveries with you, while I keep on analysing the other tablets to get (hopefully) some major results.

Basically, there can be several problems with the reading of a Linear A document (I assumed that you are familiar enough with the Aegean syllabaries in order to be able to read it): First, the tablet can be physically damaged, or be rendered illegible by improper scribal work (erasures, corrections). But even if it is otherwise well readable, the compressed context (and hard-to-interpret words) can make reading a real nightmare. I decided to break this lengthy topic into two parts: so I shall leave the "logical games" for the next time.

To begin, let us take a look at the tablet HT6. This is a tablet with quite a mixed context: Side A lists a variety of commodities (probably foodstuffs: figs and other edible materials) linked to a few names, while the tablet clearly switches to a simple list (of one commodity) on side B. To be more precise, this change in context already starts on the first side, following the entry referring to goods associated to the name DA-QE-RA. All the further entries on side B thus must refer to either PI-TA (bread?) or NI (figs), due to the "continuity principle" (as established by J. Younger). Though we cannot determine the exact goods, it is certain that all the names mentioned are somehow connected to food supplies. A few entries are definitely references to towns. Unfortunately, it cannot be decided whether some of the names are personal ones or all refer to places; though they could also plausibly be a mixture of these two. Nevertheless, tablet HT6 shall be a good example to illustrate how damage (wear, abrasion, breaks and missing pieces) cause problems in reading.

On side B, the first two names are easy to make out, but problems start to mount from the third one onwards. This term (name) spells at first sight as MA-RI-?-I (reading suggested by Olivier, Godart & Younger). It is pretty hard to identify the third sign of this sequence. It looks faintly like a malformed 'I', although the Lin A *28 signs never have a downward-directed right stroke like this. Olivier and Godart tried to suggest 'RE' (this is also how they presented it on the GORILA's official facsimile), but the sad truth is, it is nowhere near *27 (RE) in shape. Because of these difficulties, John Younger did not even try to read this sign. I also suggest the dear reader to ponder a bit on the problem before looking at the solution.

The answer to this question is provided by a simple observation. The table is badly abraded at both of its right and left side on many spots. That's why the baseline of the 'RI' sign is missing. But the same abrasion also covers the lower left end of our mysterious sign. Only a very faint crack is left. Once we draw that small trace with full width, we get the answer. The "mystery sign" is nothing but an ordinary 'KE', a bit damaged, but still legible. One should also note that the 'I' sign is in fact not a plain Lin A *28, but - observing the strokes above its right extension - it is the sign what Godart and Olivier labelled as *28b. Based on its distinct usage pattern, and its undeniable similarity to Linear B *43 (I3 or AI), I would propose to read it as 'JI'. The difference between this and the ordinary 'I' might be negligible, but 'JI' would fit the junctional rules (E-I → E-J) a slightly bit better. These observations yield the reading MA-RI-KE-JI for this name: simply and clearly. Logically, it should be a name, possibly a personal name, being a hapax (though I am not immediately swayed by random parallels like Semitic *mlk = 'king').

But the true riddles just start here! Immedietaly after MA-RI-KE-JI, the text seem to end abruptly. However, the traces of a '1/2' numerical sign following the three clearly visible strokes warns us that the text is probably abraded, but the row is not empty. The faint traces on this part probably belong to two additional syllabary characters, that start the word readable in the next line. The abraded pieces of lines are themselves perfectly compatible with the reading KU-DO-NI. The rest of the phrase reads DA-MA. This is not a compound word: the word-separator dot is small, but clearly visible after KU-DO-NI (placed to the base of the sign, as on side A). While KU-DO-NI is clearly a place-name (= Lin B KU-DO-NI-JA, modern Khania), the meaning of DA-MA is less clear: nevertheless, it does resemble the stem of Linear A words DA-ME [HT86, HT95, HT120] and DA-MA-TE [libation vessel KY Za2]. The following word is equally tricky to read: it consists of merely two signs (the traces before it belong to an 'L2' fraction sign (number), possibly 2/15), but the first one is damaged. Following the traces on the abraded surface, a 'TE' sign would be the most reasonable reconstruction. This yields a name TE-KI, which is - again - a toponym (perhaps denoting the ancient Greek town of Tegea on western Crete, near Khania). The text continues with further putative tomponyms, such as SA-MA [HT10, HT52] and PA3-NI-NA (as on HT93, an adjectival form of PA3-NI [HT85, HT102]). The last two lines also show traces of erasures: the 'MA' sign of SA-MA was erased, and then re-written, similarly, before the PA3 of PA3-NI-NA, there are traces of an erased sign, probably KU, but it was later completely overwritten with numbers belonging to SA-MA.

Tablet HT85
  Statement     Quantity  
A-DU • *307+*307 (women?) •
VIR (people) • DA-RI-DA
PA3-NI 12
KU-RO 66

KI (=KI-RO?) • KI-RA-JA •
PA (=PA-I-TO?) 1
KA (=KA-NU-TI?) 1
DI (=DI-NA-U?) 1
QA-*310-I 1

To verify our corrected list, we should turn to other - much better preserved - toponym lists. The best counterpart could be HT85 (see the table above). Not only many of the terms seen on the second part of HT6 recur here, but their relative order and grouping is also similar. Here, KU-DO-NI is directly followed by TE-KE (=TE-KI), just like on HT6. These two terms also directly stand next to each other on HT13 - the tight association of the two places could be very elegantly explained by the geographic proximity of Khania (Kydonia) and Kissamos (Tegea). But this is not the only pair repeated here. Though a much more obscure term, WA-DU-NI-MI is also paired with RE-DI-SE (=RA-TI-SE?). While I have no idea of the identity of the former, the latter name could easily be a declined form of RA-DU [HT58, probably also on the toponym list HT122], the name for ancient Lato (Lin. B RA-TO), near modern Aghios Nikolaos. RA-TI-SE and RE-DI-SE could both be slightly erroneously written versions of *RA-DI-SE then (c.f. QA-RA2-WA [HT86] which is undoubtedly equal to QE-RA2-U [HT95] as the rest of the two lists are the same). Note that HT 85 also contains plenty of abbreviations. While the sole KI sign on the header of side B is probably an abbrevation for KI-RO (=missing), other single syllables likely stand for well-known places: PA = PA-I-TO (Phaistos), KA = KA-NU-TI (?) and DI = DI-NA-U (?). All these three re-occur on HT97, where two of the three are written out in full (save DI, which is probably DI-NA-U [as on the toponym list HT9]). This slacky habit of Minoan scribes to abbreviate commonly used names is unique to Linear A; Mycenaean Greek scribes using Linear B had more strict rules and names were never abbreviated to a single syllable.

Lists counting persons are just as common in Linear A as in B, but they attempt to be as compact as possible. The scribes were often so absorbed in this goal, that they also sacrificed clarity for shortness, leaving behind considerable ambiguity. In some cases, the context can still help to solve these issues: for example, what could a sign 'NI'(*30) mean? First, and foremost, it can designate a type of goods, namely 'figs'; but it can also abbreviate transaction terms and even names. Because of the context, we can almost be certain that it meant the fruits on tablets like HT6, but it is an abbreviated transaction term on HT88 and HT99 (in contrary to the opinion of J. Younger, these tablets almost certainly count people as shown by the consistently integer values and have nothing to do with figs).

But it is not just the wear of centuries that can cause troubles at reading. The slack of certain scribes is definitely a contributory factor. The tablet HT29 shall be a good example of this. This small clay piece if full of erasures, hastily-written, malformed signs in irregular lines. As the scribe tried to salvage a tablet by erasing its previous contents, he sometimes unconsciously re-used earlier, half-visible strokes. The result is a complex maze of lines, parts of half-erased and rewritten signs. There is no surprise why all scholars had problems when attempting to read this document. But we shall see soon, that some names written on this tablet are fortunately not unique and thereby reconstructible by comparing the sign-groups with those on other, better-looking documents.

When attempting a reading, we already run into difficulties right at the first line. Although the term RU-MA-TA can be read with some effort (this name is also seen on HT99), the upper right corner of the tablet is broken off, preventing us to identify any logogram describing the goods assessed. But the strictly integer numbers themselves already suggest that it may count people; the suspect is just reinforced when finding traces of an earlier, erased VIR sign just at the initial position. So we may relatively safely assume that the numbers refer to people (just as Schoep has suggested) - and as we shall see soon - many of the names (entries) are probably places.

While the fourth term on this list can be easily identified as PA-JA-RE (also found on HT8 and HT88) despite its last sign being missing, the second and third names are a real headache. As they are apparently hapaxes and both miss some signs (on the broken-off segment), they cannot be restored with any level of certainty. And we are also plagued by the fact that some of the visible signs are in fact re-used fragments of erased ones, frequently making them nearly unidentifiable. One of the possible readings of the second line is ?-DA?-QI?, with the 'DA' sign seemingly being a salvaged upper part of an erased *310 one. The last sign here is so malfomed we cannot be certain of its reading, either. I only put 'A' as the hypothetic missing initial syllable, because a word exists on the Khania tablets (KH92: A-DA-QI-RI) that faintly resembles this garbled one.

The third name is much better legible, but it still has at least one initial syllable missing (as judged from the size of the broken fragment). Fortunately, the erasures that make our life hard, now also offer some help. In most cases of tablets with visible erasures (as on HT86), the erased text contains the same or almost the same entries as the latter one. HT29 is no different in this regard. Actually, behind the syllabograms 'DI', 'JA' and 'I', we can regognize earlier traces of the same, hinting that this name was erased, but then the scribe re-wrote it to almost exactly the same spot. Careful examination also reveals that an additional sign was originally also written in this line, right before the other three: judged by its shape, it was possibly JE, so we may use this information to reconstruct this term as JE?-DI-JA-I (still a hapax, and hard to interpret).

From the fouth line, we have an easier job. Not that the signs were written with more clarity: The fourth word reads as either SA-?-RE or SA-?-SI at the first sight. The middle sign was interpreted as a somewhat misshapen *323 logogram by Godart and Olivier. But at a closer look, it rather resembles a hastily-written 'MA' sign (the 'cat head'), to which the sloppy scribe simply forgot to add the ears and eyes. This means that the word recorded here was probably SA-MA-RE, a declined version of the putative place-name SA-MA [HT10, HT52, also SA-MA-TI on HT39]. Again, the erasures reinforce our reading: traces of earlier, erased 'MA' and 'RE' signs are discernible somewhat right from the actual term (this also helps to make clear that the last sign was indeed 'RE', and not 'SI'.)

Immediately thereafter we can see another suspicious term. This was read as ?-KI-TA by J. Younger. Godart and Olivier even labelled the misshapen initial syllabogram with a novel identifier as *340. But this one really looks like the upper half of a well-known *306 sign - of which the lower half was accidentally erased by the scribe, when plowing over the next line to be obliterated. If so, the reading was originally intended to be *306-KI-TA or WO-KI-TA - perhaps unsurprisingly - another place-name. This time again, the traces of all 'WO', 'KI' and 'TA' are also visble under the erasure, shifted rightwards with two positions (partly under the next word).

The last two words appear to be hapaxes, and - as a consequence - difficult to ascertain. The logic of erasures - both A-RE-DA?-I and QA?-DU-MA-NE were re-written while shifting leftwards - still helps a bit. Since there is a nicely visible erased 'RE', and there was clearly an 'I' sign behind the 'DU', it is probable that the sign at the beginning of line 5 is a superimposed image of an earlier 'DA' (that the scribe failed to erase) and another one with a rounded top, possibly 'QA'. Note that originally there was another term after WO-KI-TA (the 'SI' is still visble under the 'RE' of A-RE-DA?-I), but it was later completely removed from the list after a revision. This way, most of the erased remnants of QA?-DU-MA-NE were not overwritten (the earlier 'MA' and the 'NE' can still be found with some effort).

Thus we have seen, that it is possible to read at least some of the names on this garbled tablet. But to decipher the true meaning behind these names, it is obligatory to look at the Zakros tablets. Interestingly, both SA-MA and PA-JA-RE recur on the the same list (ZA10), that lists donors of cheap wine (VINb). RU-MA-TA is also seen in the form RU-MA-TA-SE (declined variant, genitive?) on ZA20. The wide variety of goods per name, their consistent grouping and the considerable geographic distances between archives taken into account, these names are less likely to be persons (unless they are extremely common personal names, unlike even Linear B Greek ones), and much-much more likely to be places. This appears to be a striking difference between Linear A and B: Mycenaeans were more "individualistic", in the sense that their accounting also recorded the names of persons, while it mostly sufficed for Minoans to only state the place of origin or destination when speaking about groups of persons, taxes, gifts, supplies, or other types of deliveries.
20 Sep 17:21

NASA’s Balance Mass Challenge: Using “Dead Weight” on Mars Spacecraft to Advance Science and Technology

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

23 Sep 23:00

NASA Offers Up $20,000 If You Can Think of a Use for 660 Pounds of Dead Weight on Mars Lander - It's a major award!

by Dan Van Winkle

Mars Balance Challenge_Full

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.

(via, image via NASA)

Previously in life on Mars

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06 Jul 11:43

Surprises and Themes

by pcwrede

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.

26 Apr 17:30

A New Plant Has Been Discovered And It’s Basically Mystique

by Sam Maggs


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.

(via ScienceMag, image via Don J Schulte)

Meanwhile in related links

22 Mar 21:54

Samus Aran and sexism

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

26 Feb 01:11

Fix Science In Half An Hour

by Scott Alexander

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!”

21 Feb 01:01

Another very Japanese phone booth

by Muza-chan

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:

EXIF Info:

Nikon Df
Lens: 24-70mm F/2.8G
Focal Length: 27mm
Aperture: F/5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/1000s
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 250
Kyoto style litter protection, miniature torii
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:

Kyoto style litter protection, miniature torii