Underwhelmed by Smart Speakers

I bought a “Google Home” voice-activated speaker (VAS) that uses Google Assistant, a synthetic voice that answers questions. Google Assistant is comparable to Siri, Cortana, and especially Alexa, the persona on Amazon’s “Echo” line of voice-activated speakers. For all of them, you bark out your command and get answers and actions.

I chose the Google Home over the Echo despite heavy discounting of the latter near year-end, because I do my work in a Google environment. I use Google as my search engine, Chrome as my browser, Gmail, Google calendar, maps, and so on. Echo has the advantage of making it easy to buy things on Amazon.com, but that solves a problem I don’t have. I’ve never had any trouble buying things on Amazon, except for the Google Home speaker, which Amazon refuses to sell. I bought mine at Target.

I thought I’d use the Google VAS (these talking speakers need a generic name. Voice-activated-speaker is not great. I hope somebody comes up with something clever) for two main chores: putting things on my grocery list, and retrieving shows from YouTube (which is also owned by Google).

When I’m up to my elbows in cooking and notice I need to replenish an ingredient, I am not likely to bring everything to a stop, wash my hands, find the list, and write on it. I’d like to just say as I work, “Hey Google, I need eggs.”

With Google Home, I can sort of do that. I say “Hey Google” or “Okay Google” to get its attention, which works well, even while it’s playing music, then I say, “add eggs to my shopping list.” Later, I can ask it to play back the list while I write it down.

What really want though is a generic notepad to which I could speak all kinds of random thoughts, reminders and lists while I chop then later print it all out.

To accomplish that, I had to create an Evernote account www.evernote.com  then link it to Google Home using an app called “If This Then That” (IFTTT) https://ifttt.com  and then I could make generic notes using the VAS and print them out from Evernote on my PC. It’s a very round the bush way of doing things.

For selecting videos from YouTube on my TV, I was less than satisfied. The Google Home does not interface with Roku. It seems to recognize an Amazon Firestick but recently Google has pulled YouTube from Firestick (Ah, America!).  Google Home does work with Chromecast (made by Google). Even so, you need to know what you’re looking for.

I can say, “Hey Google, play funny cat videos on Chromecast,” which defaults to YouTube. But if what I really want are clips from Stephen Colbert’s monologue that I haven’t already seen, I’m going to have to browse with the TV remote as I always have. There’s no browsing with a VAS.

The same goes for music. I can say, “Hey Google, play some Jazz,” and it selects some insipid “smooth” jazz from, where else, Google Music ($15/month). Or, I can say, “Hey Google, play guitar blues on Pandora” and it will do that, provided I have already set up my Pandora account ($5/month) and linked it to the Google Home VAS. But again the software selects featureless soporifics. If I specifically want Stevie Ray Vaughan, I’m going to have to say that. Just as with YouTube, there is no opportunity to browse with the VAS. You have to say exactly what you want.

The speaker quality on the Google Home is not bad, with decent bass, and if I don’t mind asking for exactly the same few things every day, it’s nice to have the Google Home play music next to the reading chair. And it is great to have the google search engine at my fingertips.

Yesterday I asked it how long the French revolution lasted and the VAS told me, correctly, ten years It assumed I meant the first revolution in 1789, not the second, in 1830, which features in Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education,” which I was reading, and why I asked. My mistake.

When I wanted to know if the Dow Jones average had gone up or down that day, I asked “What is the Dow Jones?” and it explained to me that it was an industrial index of 30 American Stocks. Again, my mistake.

I like being able to ask for translations and dictionary lookups as I read. I have a tablet nearby, but I confess, just speaking out my request is easier. I’m lazy. I often ask the VAS odd questions as I read, like how much today’s dollar was worth in 1870.

As for all the other wonderful things a VAS can supposedly do for me, I am less enthusiastic. I do not want to order a pizza from Domino’s (only Domino’s – that sort of thing only works for companies Google has contracts with). If I want to order an Uber ride, I’m going to need to see my calendar and a map; it’s not something I can do only by voice (and there’s no easy interface to Lyft, which I prefer anyway). I don’t need Google to tell me a riddle. I don’t need it to tell me the time, I don’t need any recipes, and I don’t care how tall Ryan Gosling is.

I have not fully explored the Google Home. I haven’t had a need yet to ask questions about my calendar and I don’t want my email read out to me. Or the news, either. I don’t mind setting my thermostat myself and I can turn my lights on and off with an ordinary switch. I wish it could tell me if the garage door is closed, but it can’t do that (at least not cheaply or easily). I’m sure there’s more to the device I will discover over time.

I’m also worried about privacy. The speaker is always on, always listening. Supposedly it listens only for its wakeup phrase, “Okay Google,” but who knows what goes on behind the curtain? To link the Google assistant to another app, you are required to give it access to your entire location history, which includes your Android smartphone. There’s no logical reason for that except surveillance. We’re moving into unknown territory on the privacy question.

Paranoia aside, I am underwhelmed by the idea of a voice-activated speaker but I suspect that as the technology improves, and as the “internet of things” takes hold, the VAS will become an important part of the technosphere. For now, I’m keeping my Google Home for the expensive luxury of having convenient access to the google search engine while I read.

Children of Dynmouth

This is a very British tale by a very British author, an acquired taste, I believe. You must appreciate understatement and dry wit to find it engaging, and you also must be able to bulldoze past a mind-numbing batch of opening pages documenting the town’s scenery. It’s a very slow starter but picks up after the first quarter.

The town is a tiny seaside community in long decline where the chief economic engine is a sandpaper factory.  The characters are small-minded, dim-witted, and set in traditions and their habits of behavior, speech, and activity. These are ripe characters for satire, though by now, some forty years later, they are well-worn stereotypes.

Among the few children in the town is Timothy, an under-socialized and delusional sociopath who spies on the townsfolk, learning their secrets, such as infidelities, then insinuates himself into their lives with the promise that “their secret is safe with him.” People treat him with annoyed and chilly politeness at first, then later, with alarm. He is portrayed merely as a troublemaker at first but near the climax, more delusionally  psychotic.

I didn’t find the characters’ psychological moves realistic or convincing, but I admit the culture portrayed is not my own, so that could be my deficiency. The descriptions of the town and its characters are vivid.  In the end, we are told by the preacher that the “case” of Timothy is a study in the banality of evil. He is neither possessed by devils nor intentionally evil; just a mixed-up kid.

The writing is mild, the theme is mild, and the overall tone is mild. It is a mild book, a study of manners in a certain time in a certain place, interesting now because that time and place have virtually vanished from the modern world. Winner of the Whitbread Award and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the novel will appeal to those who enjoy British dramas on PBS and appreciate a quiet, British sensibility.

Trevor, William (1976). The Children of Dynmouth. New York: Penguin, 195 pp.

And Now Here’s the Pitch

Morro Bay, CA

I recently attended a “pitch” conference for a week at a charming seaside town on the coast of California. Morro Bay is a fishing village and a tourist trap, stereotypically picturesque and aggressively insular, but like all such small towns, tawdry. You don’t have to look very deeply into the eyes of hotel and coffee shop clerks to see the hopeless boredom of a prisoner. Even the “fancy” restaurants on the boardwalk betray desperation with their superlative descriptions of the Pacific Ocean view to be had from their dilapidated deck. The tablecloths are white, the wineglasses spotless, the lighting soft, and the greasy menu offers “Chile Relleno Burrito” for $19.95.  Can’t beat that for elegance.

But I wasn’t there for the scenery or the culture.  I was there to pitch my latest novel to agents and editors.  The conference had two parts.  For the first three days, each person among the dozen writers pitched their novel to the group and got feedback, mainly from the expert workshop leader.  The “pitch,” also known as the “elevator pitch” is about 150 words that accomplishes these goals:

  1. Describes your whole novel, including title, genre, word count and comparables.
  2. Presents the main character, setting, story conflict, and antagonist
  3. Suggests the story arc and ends on a cliffhanger
  4. Engages the attention and interest of an agent or editor in about one minute.

Writing a good pitch is an art form similar to writing good haiku.  In this workshop, the emphasis was on how to make the pitch commercially marketable.  Every attendee struggled mightily with revision after revision after revision.

At the end of three days, we’d all heard iterations of the pitches so many times, any one of us could have described any other person’s novel in concise detail, even though no manuscripts or writing samples were exchanged. All the novels were in the sci-fi-fantasy genre, and actually all but two were fantasy. Only mine and one other lacked dragons, witches, and mythological beasts. It’s what’s happening.

As a group we also heard “war stories” from two recently published authors about how they got the job done.  Those tended to be not helpful, as every case is unique and there’s not much to generalize to your own situation.

During the final three days of the conference, each person pitched invited agents and editors, sometimes serially in the group setting, sometimes one-on-one in private.  There were five agents and editors present, not all at once.

By the time I was “up” for pitching, I had rewritten my pitch so many times I was dizzy. I had traveled down a long path from a conceptual exploration of an idea to almost an action-adventure format. I had my doubts about whether the final version was even interesting. But I pitched it.

The result was pretty good. I got three requests for “pages” from the five listeners.  One agent asked explicitly for three chapters, a two-page synopsis and a bio, “right away.” You bet I will!  Another just said, “That’s very interesting. Send me some pages.” By asking around I learned that meant send a query letter and about 25 pages. The third person gave me helpful notes on my pitch, said she liked it, and moved on to the next person in the circle, but at the end, just as we were breaking up, she handed me her card and said to send her “something.”

Three out of five ain’t bad, especially compared to three out of fifty on my last outing with a different project using the method of cold email query.  No fish have bitten that hook so far.

My problem now is that the pitch that “worked” at the conference has only a very loose connection to the actual manuscript.  I’ve got the main ideas, the characters and locations, but the story line is not the one I started with. Now I’m furiously rewriting my query letter, synopsis and first three to bring them into alignment with the pitch.  Then I face the daunting task of rewriting the whole manuscript to match.

So it goes.  Hope springs eternal.

More Things That Don’t Work *

* as well as they should.

Some time ago I posted a rant about things that don’t work, at least not as they should (http://billadamsphd.net/2017/04/24/ten-things-that-dont-work/). Those things included cell phones, ice-dispensers, gift cards, and others.

Here’s a list of a few more things that don’t work but somehow, inexplicably, flourish in the market as viable products and services.

  1. Streaming Movies

People don’t go to the movies anymore, not in the numbers they used to. They’re ‘staying away in droves.’  Part of that is price, but also the advent of large television screens and home theaters.

I hardly ever go to movies anymore, mainly because most movies seem targeted to children and are not for me. But also the journey across town to a theater is an obstacle, and parking, and then the admission price is too high. They can pump up the volume on the sound until the contents of my stomach curdle and it’s still not worth $12.

On the other hand, everyone and their dog now “streams” video online, from Netflix, Amazon, the cable provider, or whoever else is peddling movies. I’ve done it. It’s easy, fast, and cheap.

The problem is the catalog. Having all those movies digitized for on-demand access was supposed to be a boon for people like me, the outlier who doesn’t care about the next superhero and who has had it up to here with explosion movies.  It was supposed to be economically feasible to serve ‘long-tail’ customers like me who enjoy thoughtful and artistically done films which are not profitable to the mass market. Hasn’t worked out that way.

I have to spend an inordinate amount of time scrolling through providers’ film lists looking for movies that interest me. It’s all the more difficult because if I click on something I might be interested in, the entire list of movies presented is suddenly changed to emphasize those similar to what I just clicked on, even if (as usual) I reject it. I am therefore not free to pursue my own interests without interference by oxymoronic ‘artificial intelligence’.

For example, I recently got onto a ‘film noir’ kick for a while and watched, and enjoyed, “Night and the City” and “Elevator to the Gallows.” But after that, whenever I want to browse for another movie, I’m flooded with old black-and-whites from the ‘50’s and ’60’s and enough Alain Delon films for a lifetime.

If I want to see (again!) Goodfellas and Silence of the Lambs, no problem.  But if I’m interested in “The Conformist,” “Dogville,” or an old Jean Reno movie like “Crimson Rivers,” I have a much more difficult search ahead of me. Those are not movies easily browsed because they do not appear in the endless lists of ‘Most Popular!’ ‘Recent Hits!’ ‘Family Drama!’, and so on.  You have to already know about those films by other means to find them online.

So the reason streaming video doesn’t work is because of the catalogs. They are not well-indexed and tagged and therefore almost impossible to search if you want anything other than the latest cartoon or monster movie.

My solution is the video store. I’m lucky to have an excellent one near me, clogged floor to ceiling with DVD’s in a broad set of categories.  DVD’s are eminently browsable. You can see what’s there with a quick visual scan and read the boxes for details. The cost is the same as online rental. I always come away with a stack of good ones. Alas, I know that distribution model does not have long to live. I don’t know what I’ll do after the place folds.


  1. Electric Cars

I recently purchased a smallish second car when my old Scion xB was eaten by rats. They didn’t do serious damage, just nibbled the insulation off some wires, but they got inside the cabin and stunk it up like an abandoned carcass. No amount of carpet shampoo or detailing could make that right. So it was new car time.

I looked seriously at an electric car and I considered the top hybrid models as well. Many of them are attractive.  However, in the end, I bought a small, internal-combustion-engine hatchback (Chevy Sonic).

Electrics have not yet arrived, in my opinion, despite the hype.  For one thing, they are quite expensive and even with the government subsidies, which are fast declining, you pay a hefty several-thousand-dollar premium for the privilege of going electric (or hybrid). But I looked past that.

Another problem is the batteries themselves. What am I buying there?  It is extremely difficult to get information about the batteries, what they are, how they work, whether they are safe, how long they are expected to last, and so on. I supposed those are all “proprietary” secrets but call me old-fashioned, I want at least some concept of what I’m buying.

I learned, for example, from a garage mechanic, not from any online research, that the battery packs in a Toyota Prius cost about $5,000 to replace, and there are two of them.  They last about five years, putting out less and less power with each charge until finally you have to replace them. Maybe the car is only designed to last 5 years, but in my mind, that’s a $10K hidden cost of ownership that does not appear with the sticker price. I don’t know what the comparable numbers would be for a Bolt or a Volt or a Leaf, or any of the others, and nobody will say.

Also, you cannot just park an electric vehicle in your garage and expect it to perform when you need it. The electrics are designed to be driven, the batteries discharged and charged continuously.  I only use my second car a few times a week for errands around town. Most of the time it stays parked.  But that’s no good. If you don’t drive an electric every day, the battery can go flat, and once it does, it cannot be revived. The electrics are designed for commuters, or at least for some kind of a hectic lifestyle I don’t engage in anymore.

The “range anxiety” problem is gradually reducing, and is not even a serious problem with the new hybrids.  Charging stations are popping up all around down, though I still would never try to drive an electric from Tucson to Los Angeles.

Finally, nearly all electricity in my part of the country comes from burning coal, so there is no environmental benefit from going electric, so that’s not even a consideration.

I think electrics are the future, more so than hydrogen power, but that future is still quite a ways off.  Electric cars are a product that’s not quite there yet.

  1. E-Books

I have several Kindles and I also sometimes read e-books on a tablet, but every time, it’s an unpleasant experience.

The main problem with e-books is navigation. You can’t easily see where you are in the book, can’t easily glance ahead or behind. It’s not easy to flip to the footnotes or the index or the table of contents, and if you do, you most likely will lose your place.  Reading an e-book is like reading through a soda straw.

I use e-books when there are few, or no alternatives.  One common case is for a book that costs too much in paper, which I consider to be over $30 or so.  If I can get an e-book for $10 that costs $50 otherwise, I do it.  That doesn’t come up as often as it used to, since E-books are now priced almost the same as paper, just a few dollars less usually, so I buy the paper.

A second good use of e-books is for textbooks. When I was teaching, I was loathe to lug around a six-pound, thousand-page book of statistics, but I had to do it.  When textbooks finally became available online I switched to that medium and I could carry three or ten reference volumes around with me. A lifesaver.

However, for most reading, novels, popular nonfiction, and so on, there is no advantage to an e-book and plenty of disadvantages. The main downside, as noted is the tunnel vision. A book is a Gestalt, a whole experience, from thumbing through the pages to writing in the margins.  An e-book is only good for processing sentences, one at a time, a charred ember of the full reading experience.

Yes, you can, in principle, enter highlights and underlines into an e-book, but try to access those later. It is possible, but certainly it is not easy to quickly survey the parts of the book you noted for later reference.  You essentially have to re-read the book page by page to find your highlights. A list of highlights in themselves are without context. There is a reference number with each highlight so you could find the textual context if needed, but good luck with that.

Likewise, marginal notations are useless in an e-book. It used to be possible to export all your notations into a file that could be word-processed into contextual relevance, but I don’t think that’s possible anymore. At least I haven’t been able to figure it out. And as with highlights, your notes are out of context, just a list of nonsequiturs.  Their accompanying “reference numbers” are not actual page numbers, so you don’t even really know what part of the book the note is from.

Finally, a paper book will sit on my shelf and stare at me. If I haven’t read it, it will nag me. If I have read it, it will call me back into memory, either good or bad. The spine, the cover, the title, the cover art, the size and shape – all of it triggers associations, thoughts, memories.  Old books are like old friends. New books are exciting promises.  E-books are like mummies – out of sight and out of mind.

So I admit there is a place for e-books and it is a technology that serves a purpose. Yes, you can quickly look up words in the dictionary in an e-book (if the dictionary has your word in it), and yes, you can enlarge the font size. These are positives.

Alternatively, you can load a dictionary app, or several of them plus an encyclopedia, and really find out what your mystery word means, and you can buy a pair of drugstore readers to enlarge the font of any book.

Reading a book, for me is a whole-body immersive experience that an e-book just cannot deliver. E-books are enormously popular because the producers of books love them. The incremental cost of production is very close to zero. How wonderful for them. For me, the benefits are just not there.

Talking Back About Talking Black

Is Ebonics a language?  It was popularized as a distinct language spoken by some American African-Americans in the 1980’s and 90’s, yet another note in the culture war symphony.

It’s interesting, and ironically humorous that linguist John McWhorter refers to a ‘Lingua Franca’ in the title of his book, not a ‘language.’ ‘Lingua Franca’ means literally, ‘French Language’ and connotes any universally understood tongue – as French virtually was in Europe in the years around World War I. That irony captures the light and sometimes humorous tone McWhorter takes toward the subject of African-American, or black speech in America.

He studies “black speech” in this book, he says, because that carries a specific ethnographic meaning.  White, Afrikaans-speaking citizens, for example, who immigrated from South Africa, are also “African-Americans,” but we don’t call them that. He’s interested in what’s called “African-American Vernacular,” Sometimes he calls it black dialect. He avoids the term, ‘language’.

“Ain’t nobodycan diss my ride, you fill me?”  I can understand that sentence but intelligibility is not the only criterion for defining a distinct language according to ISO Standard 639-3. Just as important is for communicators to have a “common literature or a common ethnolinguistic identity,” which nearly all Americans do, in whole or part. But conversely, having “distinct ethnolinguistic identities can be a strong indicator that [the groups’ speech] should nevertheless be considered to be different languages.” On that criterion, one could argue that there is indeed a distinct black language. It’s a difficult definition.

McWhorter’s main point is that whether characteristically black American speech is considered a language, dialect, or vernacular, it is a distinct and legitimate form of speech and above all NOT a devolution of “standard” American English, which hardly anybody speaks anyway. He labors to make this point: Black speech is in no way inferior to Standard English. He brings forth plentiful historical and linguistic evidence for this point and even points out how black speech is in some ways more rich in expression than Standard English.

That’s exactly the thesis that makes this book and McWhorter’s point of view controversial. Even educated black people, he says, even his close friends, do not admit that there is a distinctly black way of speaking, even though it is patently obvious that there is. Why? Because black speech patterns are considered, by educated, “proper” society to be vulgar, inferior, low-class, uneducated and degenerate.  And why that judgment?  Racism, pure and simple.

Most educated black people don’t even like to admit there is a black accent, or “blaccent,” as McWhorter names it, though a simple test is to listen to a television program with your eyes closed and pick out the black voices then look to confirm. Anyone can do this.  But again, to admit that black people have a blaccent is to implicitly make a judgment that black speech, and therefore black people, are inferior to the (white) standard.

McWhorter’s mission is to overcome these racial biases with reason and evidence. Black accent, vocabulary, and grammar, are not a matter of slang, not merely a Southern dialect, and not a product of ignorance. Black speech has legitimate historical roots and is organic to an ethnicity, and should be taken as a legitimate vernacular of its own.

Besides all that, code-switching is common. Most black people can speak Standard English perfectly well if circumstances call for it (very funny examples are often found in the work of Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and many others). Just as interesting, many black speakers, like McWhorter (I’ve heard many recorded lectures by him) have no discernible blaccent yet can speak black vernacular at will. Barack Obama was once criticized for doing exactly that.

I was fascinated by the historical and linguistic evidence, for example, from early 19th century recordings of black speech that McWhorter describes as sounding like Irish or Scottish, nothing like today’s vernacular. Language, any language, is alive, always changing, never static.

I’m a huge McWhorter fan. It was only from him that I came to understand proto-Indo-European, and much else.  Since I was already on board with him concerning the uniqueness and legitimacy of black speech, it’s hard for me to evaluate how convincing his arguments are. I was convinced, but racism is not an evidence-based attitude so I don’t think he’ll change any minds on that front. But he might give pause for thought among those willing to listen, because the topic of black vernacular is widely misunderstood. I admire him for the effort.

McWhorter, John (2017).Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 191 pp.

The Vegetarian

I usually have good luck with Man-Booker Prize-winners, but not this time. The Vegetarian is a story of a woman who goes insane.  At the current time, medical science does not, for the most part, understand insanity, its causes or cures. So to have a character “go” insane is simply to abrogate one’s responsibility as a writer to provide proper motivation. Hey, she went insane – no explanation needed for her behavior, no matter how weird or erratic.  To  me, that’s a wobbly crutch for any writer, almost as bad as “…it was all just a dream after all.”

Another point of irritation for me is the mischaracterization of vegetarianism, if it can be called an “-ism”.  As a lifelong practitioner, I do have some insight into that diet and first of all, it is not any kind of self-deprivation, asceticism, or self-denial. Plant food is rich and abundant and healthier to eat than any meat, fish or poultry. Secondly, the moral implications of eating meat can be serious concerns, depending on what you think of your fellow animals and how they should be treated. Finally, the idea that a vegetarian diet will make you weak, in body or mind, is simply absurd, as is the idea that it is in any way related to anorexia nervosa.  All these myths are proffered in this book and I was put off  by the perpetuation of such superstitious folklore.

The woman who “goes” vegetarian does so suddenly, and for no reason except perhaps the stimulus of a dream, which, as much of it as is tediously presented, seems to have nothing to do with diet.  So this is the same thing as saying the triggering act that drives the whole novel, her becoming vegetarian, is without motivation. That cannot lead to a strong story.

A more subtle reader might discern that her dreams might be about childhood sexual abuse, so “eating meat” might have symbolic meaning to her as she attempts to somatize her unacknowledged inner distress.  That is a generous reading, hinted at but not obvious in the text.

I am interested in Korean society and tracked how the people around her reacted to her non-decision to forego eating meat. Essentially, they react violently against her, and it is a reaction against her nonconformity as much as anything else. That is the author’s representation of the way women are regarded in that society, by both men and women, and that part of the story was interesting.

The story has three parts, each told from a different point of view. The first is told by the woman’s husband and he relates his confusion and dissatisfaction and finally anger at his wife’s behavior. The second part is told by her brother-in-law, who inexplicably and suddenly desires her sexually after being told she has a birthmark on her butt. The reaction and consequent behavior is again utterly unmotivated. Nevertheless, he pursues her, and her passive reaction is as horrifying as his unthinking predation.

The final section is told by the woman’s sister as she attempts to care for her in the hospital, but ultimately succumbs to some sort of unspecified depression, as if mental illness were contagious.

It all adds up to nothing because none of the characters is motivated, nearly all their actions arbitrary. That is a recipe for a failed story, which this is. The writing is lovely in places, and there are many haunting images, such as the two painted bodies having sex. Nevertheless without story or character development, even a collection of striking images is pointless.  Apparently however, that is enough to constitute a novel these days, at least for the Man-Booker judges, but not for me.

Kang, Han (2007/2016). The Vegetarian. New York: Hogarth/Crown/Penguin/Random, 188 pp.

Scientific Revolution

This monster book is actually an easy read because the concepts are not difficult. It is a history of the scientific revolution, which took place in Europe in the decades around 1600. The so-called revolution was a change in world-view among the intelligentsia that developed incrementally, not analogously to a sudden political revolution. The scientific revolution was stealthy and few people recognized it was even happening.

Wootton identifies several events that led to the enormous change in thinking from the middle ages to the modern age. It started in 1572, he says, when astronomer Tycho Brahe observed a supernova. A new star had appeared in the sky, but that was simply not possible. According to Aristotle and everyone since him, the heavens were fixed and eternal. If heaven changed, then religion was called into question, and if you do that, where does it leave us mortal sinners?  So a new star in the sky was not conceivable, yet there it was.

Other events that shook up the status quo were the invention of the printing press with movable type, which created communities of like-minded intellectuals faster, and more broadly, than had ever before been possible. Ideas moved quickly and built upon each other rapidly. Today we would call it the network effect. After book printing,  individuals who would be the future scientists were known to each other. Before books there were only a few scattered philosophers and crackpots.

The invention of the telescope was huge, of course. Galileo didn’t invent the telescope but he perfected the lenses well enough to be useful for astronomy, and we know how that worked out when he discovered the moons of Jupiter in 1610.

Wootton points out that the microscope was invented at the same time, since if you look into a telescope the wrong way it is essentially a microscope. But the microscope had virtually no influence on the development of scientific thinking at the time because there was no theoretical framework to enclose what was seen. You found incredible, squirming animals in pond water? How charming. It didn’t make any sense because it didn’t fit into any philosophy or theory of the world, so the microscope was ignored as a mere toy until much later. Science is not, and never was, only about observing the world. It has always been about trying to make sense of the world, and if something doesn’t make sense, it just doesn’t count.

Also on the topic of Galileo’s discovery, Wootton makes the interesting point that the churchmen who refused to ‘look for themselves’ through Galileo’s telescope were not being self-defensively stubborn. They did not have our modern conception of what ‘observation’ means. For them, observation meant something like ‘evidence’ and that comes from testimony, as it does in a courtroom. Therefore Aristotle’s and Ptolemy’s evidence that all heavenly bodies revolve around Earth overwhelmed any nonsense a pipsqueak like Galileo might have to say, telescope or not.

Wootton provides many unexpected insights into the history of science, such as revolutionary thinking provoked by the discovery of the perspective effect in painting, the invention of gunpowder, the practice of rubbing garlic on magnets.  The pages turn themselves.

One criticism of the book is that it seems to be structured around the discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that you can’t think about something you have no words for. Wootton goes to great etymological lengths to show that common modern terms, like ‘observation’ and ‘experiment’ had to be invented and defined, true enough, but he attaches a lot more significance to linguistic development than I think is warranted and may even get cause and effect reversed at times.

Along those lines, Wootton does not himself distinguish between observed phenomena and propositions about those phenomena. He seems to think they are the same thing, and he calls phenomena in the natural world “facts,” which is wrong and confusing. A proposition can be true or false, but a rock is just a rock.

Wootton also makes much of the ‘progress’ of science but never defines what that is, a remarkable oversight given his other linguistic obsessions. I infer he means that scientific measurement has become more precise over time and consequently prediction has become more accurate. That is a convincing definition of progress offered near the very end, but throughout the book he writes as though there were more at stake. He repeatedly refers to something called ‘irreversible knowledge’ without defining it, suggesting science progresses in knowledge or truth, which is disputable.

The book is totally Euro-centric. There is little mention of the development of scientific thinking in China, the Arab world, among the Incas, and so on.  Maybe there wasn’t any. I doubt that.

The last few chapters concern historiography rather than history and seem tacked on. They are much less satisfying for being cursory, and should have been developed into a separate book.

In the hardback volume there is an entire signature of beautiful color plates, and monochrome figures are presented throughout the book, some of them helpful. The bibliography is extensive (up to about 2004) and the book is well-indexed. Recommended.

Wootton, David (2015). The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution. New York: Harper Collins, 769 pp.

The Perfect Bookstore

Recently I was looking for some books and as usual, I first tried to shop at bookstores in my community.  Did it work out? No. I scored only one for seven and bought the rest online.

I admit I am a “long tail” customer. I don’t buy the latest New York Times bestsellers. I buy the books I select, not what the NYTimes selects.

So what was I looking to buy?

  • Theodore Sturgeon: More than Human, A classic sci-fi title, still in print.
  • Philip K. Dick: Ubik. Classic Sci-fi, still in print.
  • Alain Badiou: Deleuze: The Clamor of Being. Philosophy.
  • Trevor Noah: Born a Crime. Biography.
  • David Wootton: The Invention of Science. History.
  • Donald Johanson & Blake Edgar: From Lucy to Language. Science.
  • Tim O’Brien: Going After Cacciato. Literary.

At considerable cost of time, I called and visited bookstores in my city with this list, to little avail. I did score the Trevor Noah biography at Barnes & Noble (hardly a mom & pop), and even though it was available only in hardback for the full $30 list price, I bought it because I had a $25 gift card that somebody gave me and which I’d been holding for over a year, unable to find anything to spend it on.

The other books were not easy to find even online.  The Badiou volume especially, was listed at over $70 most places. Amazon had it for $25. I found a “like new” copy at Half-Price books for $10.

Going to a bookstore is generally a bad experience for me. As soon as I open the door, the books prominently featured-in-my-face are an assault on my sensibilities and interests, and the books I want are not there in the store at all. It didn’t used to be that way.

Only a few bookstores I know of still capture that “good ol’ bookstore experience” of yesteryear: Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, and the Strand in Manhattan are two.  Elliott Bay Books in Seattle used to be on the list but recently their inventory has narrowed significantly. Even Powell’s, on my last visit, seemed much thinner than I remember. Inventory is expensive, I know.

I fear that physical bookstores are already anachronistic. But they don’t have to be.  What would be the perfect bookstore?

  1. It has the books I want at prices I am willing to pay.
  2. It has so much inventory that new titles suggest themselves to me.

Impractical? No.  Such stores used to exist.  I think a perfect bookstore could still be built and operated and make money. Here’s how.

What the Perfect Bookstore Has:

  1. It uses the customer-facing floor space for people, not to run a warehouse. What an incredible waste of floor space and everybody’s effort, from the shelf-stockers to the customers, to have acres of inert books lined up row after row in alphabetical order by author. I am not going to browse books alphabetically by author. The probability of finding anything interesting that way is very close to zero.
  2. It has the store’s complete inventory online (as do Powell’s and Amazon) along with large, full-color computer kiosks every ten feet so I can search each category as I approach each small section of books on display.
  3. It includes with each book listed, bibliographic information, formats, prices, and reviews from the publisher, from critics, and from the public. Includes also intelligent links to related books. By intelligent, I mean to associated topics and authors, not merely a list of every other book by that author (though that is helpful). What I need is what the publishing industry calls “comparables,” books similar in theme, tone, genre and diction. Those links could be put in by reviewers or intelligent staff members.
  4. It has a staff of well-read clerks to find and recommend. Clerks are expensive, of course, so as an alternative, have good signage and very intelligent info-kiosks.
  5. It has attractive collections of well-reviewed current releases and classics displayed for browsing and purchase. It does not have publisher-purchased placements which have nothing to do with quality. It does not have piles of used books, which are unbrowsable. It does not have racks and racks of backlist and classics that are also unbrowsable. The Strand usually has some interesting sales tables with labels like “Books You Say You’ve Read But Haven’t.”
  6. Optional: Current magazines. There is a magazine for every conceivable human interest, no matter how obscure. Browsing those can be fun but not necessary. I’d like to see only the two or three-dozen magazines that airports usually have, on current events, literary, and science/technical topics, and the like. Discounts off cover would be necessary, as most magazines are overpriced.
  7. Book reviews, like the New York Times book review, Paris Review, LARB, New York Review of Books, etc.
  8. Optional: Audio books and even DVD videos (although the latter are quickly going the way of the dinosaur).
  9. Optional: Textbooks. I love textbooks. Not the 1000-page statistics or accounting book, but the many fascinating paperbacks usually sold as “supplementary reading” especially for introductory courses. I try to visit my local university bookstore just before classes begin to browse these and I usually come away with something, but it’s difficult to time it right. The students scour those shelves like locusts, and anyway, I don’t want to deprive some student of his or her required book. Wouldn’t it be nice if such books were available elsewhere and all year? The same goes for books used in adult education courses that run all year ‘round.
  10. Optional: Buybacks. Many stores, like Powell’s sell a mix of new and used books. The local Bookman’s in my town offers you about five cents on the dollar cash for your books or about fifty cents per dollar of cover price in store trade. Keeps you coming back. They recycle a lot of books that way. However, since they sell 95% used books, not new, their inventory ends up being mostly discards: the worst of the best and the best of the worst. So I hardly go there anymore. But a mix of new and used is a good idea.
  11. Meeting Space. Get rid of all that book warehouse space and turn it into community meeting space, which is sorely lacking in most towns and cities. The space can be used for traditional book release events and signings but also for readings by local and other authors, kids’ book events, and so on. This should be a large community space, not a cramped aisle between shelves with a few chairs crammed in. Big and open (though surrounded by books) with comfortable (padded) folding chairs. The space should be configured so it can be redeployed, perhaps with sales tables on wheels when not in use. Prairie Lights in Iowa City does a good job of this.
  12. Even More Meeting Space. Have meeting rooms that can be used by community groups such as book clubs and writers groups. Simple, airy with chairs and a few tables.  If the inevitable coffee shop is nearby, require a minimum purchase to pay the rent. This makes the bookstore a genuine community center that people feel is an important part of their lives, not merely a warehouse of overpriced books.
  13. Programs for readers. Book reviewers and staff give presentations of the latest “beach read” or thriller, for example. Book clubs are organized around a selected volume announced in advance and discussed in open forum. Local authors tout their works. There should be at least two such events every day of the week for all levels and categories of readers, including a few in alternate languages such as Spanish, or whatever is appropriate for the surrounding community.
  14. Programs for writers. Experts (who usually have a book to sell) talk about the craft of writing and provide instruction and maybe even writing time, maybe even critique, focusing on all levels of craft for all levels of writers. Writing contests are announced and judged and winners are honored and interviewed. At least two writing  events every day of the week for all ages, all genres.
  15. Programs for literacy. Experts and local activists promote literacy outreach in the community by staging organizing events and instruction for volunteers to bring books, readings and storytelling to schools, prisons, nursing homes, hospitals, neighborhoods. At least one event like this every week.
  16. Movie tie-in programs. Movies can be a gateway to books. A screening, or at least a review with clips, can be a draw that sells books on correlated topics. Works the same for theater. Especially good with documentaries.

The goal of the “Programs” above is to integrate the bookstore into the lives of its community members. (People have actually gotten married in the Strand Bookstore). The main goal is NOT to sell books at those events because that will result in “events” featuring mainly kittens, sunsets, trains and planes, self-help and sentimental fiction. It might be easier to sell books on those topics but that does not accomplish the goal of integrating the bookstore into the community, where long-term loyalty lies. Okay maybe that’s elitist. One “kitten” topic a quarter could be allowed.

What The Perfect Bookstore Does NOT Have:

  1. Sofas and upholstered chairs to read in. I don’t go to a bookstore to read. I go to acquire books and get out as quickly as I can. Those sofas and upholstered chairs usually look like health hazards anyway.
  2. Games, puzzles, CD’s, candy, luggage, t-shirts, bobble-head dolls and musical instruments. If I wanted to go to a gift shop, I would (actually I wouldn’t). However, genuinely germane non-book merchandise can be interesting and useful: booklights, book covers, tablets and their covers, book bags, lapboards, pens, notebooks, and so on.
  3. A coffee shop. That takes up a lot of space and is not necessary, and the quality of the coffee is usually quite bad, the prices high, the waits long, the tables filthy, the area crowded. However, it’s generally true that after having coffee I will buy more books, too many books. So maybe it’s okay to have a coffee shop if it’s well-staffed and can serve quickly. Why not try the Trader Joe’s model: Free 2 ounce coffee in a paper cup, for the crass purpose of making you buy more books?
  4. Rare books locked in glass cases. That’s a different business.
  5. Performing arts. Some performances might be related to a particular book, that’s okay but don’t drift into a concert venue. It’s a bookstore.
  6. Cats. It’s a bookstore.

The Delivery Problem

Supposedly, buyers at a physical store want the immediate satisfaction of taking the book home now.  Maybe that’s true for some or most buyers, but it’s not feasible to satisfy that urge completely. By trying to do so, traditional bookstores have fallen into the self- defeating traps of

  1. Making the store into a vast warehouse to satisfy anyone. In fact that does not work. There are too many books, no matter how large the warehouse.
  2. Coercing customers into believing that what they want is what is for sale. But that’s the specialty of publisher’s marketing. The bookstore should try to serve, not exploit its customers.

What are some alternatives to the delivery problem?

  1. Have an enormous warehouse in the basement or upstairs, or next door, run by robots. Once I select my book from one of the big-screen kiosks, it is dispatched to the sales desk where my “shopping cart” will be rung up, bundled and bagged for me when I get there.
  2. Have several massive Print-on-demand machines in the back room where my selection is printed and bound in 15 minutes and ready for me to take home.
  3. Have a massive regional warehouse (as Amazon) and my selections will be available in the store for pickup (free delivery!) the next day. Even two-day delivery is okay. I don’t need it sent to my doorstep. Notify me by text or phone (as Walgreens does for prescriptions) and I’ll come back for it, especially if you offer me a free cup of coffee when I get there, which will probably make me buy more books.
  4. Optional: Have my choices available for immediate gratification as ebooks. I don’t like ebooks, but they are logically an option. Give the customer what they want. Why not ebooks? Because they’re too hard to make notes in, and they’re not stackable so I can’t see them waiting for me, calling out to me, nagging me. They’re too hard to skim, too hard track where I am in the reading process. Reading an ebook is like reading through a soda straw. It’s a last choice when price offers little alternative.

Can the Perfect Bookstore Make Money?

Physical bookstores are getting whipped on price, mainly by Amazon. They have taxes and building maintenance and retail staffing to pay. How can they compete?  One simple answer: By becoming integral to the community they live in so that people see the bookstore not merely as “a place to buy a book,” but as a gathering place and a cultural institution. Selling books is almost a sideline, an incidental. Oh, by the way, we have a wonderful book on today’s topic.

Still: Can it make money?  Truth is, I don’t know. If I was sure, I would do it. But I do know that:

  1. I would visit my local bookstores much more often if I had at least a 75% chance of being satisfied.
  2. I would pay a “subscription fee” to (e.g.) a lecture series if I felt I had at least a 75% chance of being satisfied.
  3. I would sign up for a well-crafted “monthly minimum advance purchase” scheme, such as “Five books for $100,” if it were tailored to me and I had a good chance of getting what I wanted.
  4. I would happily pay a reasonable rental fee to use the store’s meeting space for my book club, my writing club, and other literacy-related needs, if I had a good chance of being satisfied. I would happily pay a low fee for admission to movie reviews and serious book lectures (like on CSPAN’s “Book TV”).
  5. I would donate books, time, and money to literacy projects, if I believed in them.
  6. I would donate online reviews of books if I felt connected.
  7. And of course I would pay for the hundreds of books I would buy. I confess I balk at a $30 hardcover. That seems like gouging. It’s only words on paper, for heaven’s sake. Gutenberg got it done for a lot less than $30. Some people prefer the hardcover but I don’t collect books, I read them. I’ll pay a slight premium for a nice “trade” paperback, otherwise a mass market paperback, new or like-new.

Conclusion: I don’t spend much of my book-buying budget at physical bookstores because generally they’re a bad experience. It doesn’t have to be that way. I think there could be a future for bookstores if they get their heads out of the past.

Questions the Internet Can’t Answer #1


Questions the Internet Can’t Answer: Binary Code

People, especially students, seem to think that any question has an answer on the internet.  This is not so.

Quite often I’ve had what seems like a simple question that had no suitable answer on the internet. I don’t mean I disagreed with answers I found. Rather, the question itself could not be understood and therefore the answers given were all entirely beside the point. Bad question statement?  Maybe so. I didn’t think so.

I’ll document, from time to time, these questions when they come up. This is one of them.

Recently I wanted to know how programming code becomes computer  instructions. What, exactly, is the interface where binary digits touch hardware?

Binary code is meaningful. It’s a type of arithmetic that encodes everything in a computer, even the text of this post.  But machines do not trade in meaning.  You wind them up and they perform. They don’t mean anything by it. For example, your TV does not know what show is on, and your email program does not care what you have to say. So how does a computer “capture” the meaning of binary code?

I asked, “What is the ultimate interface between the text on my screen and the computer hardware?”

I was not surprised to find that the question had been asked before. What was surprising was that there was no good answer, because the question itself could not, apparently, be understood by the people attempting an answer.

There were pages of verbose explanation about how software  converts text into ascii code using lookup tables, and how compilers convert programming language into the 1’s and 0’s of binary, which then tell the computer what to do.

But I wanted to know what “tell” means. How exactly, could any sequence of 1’s and 0’s “tell” any computer anything, as a computer is an insentient collection of hardware components? It can’t understand anything. “Language” was a common though inadequate metaphor.

Pressed on that point, several computer experts described how the computer interprets 1’s and 0’s as differential voltages, or the optical pits and valleys of a CD, or the high and low flux of a magnetic tape, or the piezoelectric vibrations of a recording needle, or the differential reflectance of a barcode. On and on they went about how “switches” can be “on” or “off” and that represents the ones and zeroes of binary code.

But the question had only been begged. Hardware can be made to act on many kinds of energies and forces, whether electronic, optical, or mechanical. Hardware can  transform, transduce, record, playback, add, subtract. Hardware can do many things, even transform the energy of a flowing stream into the grinding of a miller’s wheel.

But how can hardware deal with binary digits, which are not a kind of energy, but rather, a meaningful human code? Again, the question is: I have a string of binary digits compiled from high-level, English-like text, and I want to know how that string of binary digits becomes implemented in the computer’s hardware.

Back in the old days, we punched holes in cards, changing the binary string into a pattern of holes, and those holes passed over sensors, either mechanical sensing fingers, or light beams.  A hole in the card would cause a computer switch to be set on, and the absence of a hole would leave the switch off.  Thus the computer got “set” to do whatever the programming code on the punch card indicated.

But we don’t use punched cards today, or punched tape, or toggle switches. We use a keyboard, which is a set of micro-switches, to create the high-level programming code, but even if we used a keyboard to create the final string of binary digits, the question would remain: What is the causal connection between that string of binary digits on my screen and the correlated set of switch settings within the computer hardware? Where do they touch?

There is no answer on the internet. People who tried to answer elided the central issue: the interface between mind and machine.

After twenty-four hours of thinking about this problem I arrived at the startling and simple solution. I have not posted it online. Why spoil a good mystery?

The Horror is Not Where You Think it is

I don’t normally do movie reviews on this site, but this film was related to a question I had about a particular genre of writing, the horror genre.

I rented Get Out, (2017), nominally a horror film. Normally I wouldn’t, as I do not enjoy the genre, but this one had good ratings and it had Catherine Keener, who I love, and lately I’ve been thinking about what constitutes  horror. The result was surprising.

The writing in this movie is so appalling, it’s risible, but hey, that’s Hollywood.  The acting is quite good in places, interspersed with cringeworthy mugging. Photography is overall strong, music above average. Directing is clunky but perhaps it was supposed to be parody of directing in the horror genre. (Don’t go into those woods!). Sets are LOL ridiculous, especially the enormous Connecticut mansion deep in a secluded wood.  Non-sequiturs and red herrings abound. It’s not a great movie, craft-wise.

But my main interest was in identifying the “horror” elements, to answer the question, what makes horror horrifying?  In this case the horror arises when bad guys threaten to take possession of your mind (via hypnosis – of the Hollywood kind) and then occupy your body (by some kind of hand-waving psychosurgery).  So the horror is fear of being possessed, not by evil aliens as the pod people were in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but by ordinary folks who simply want your body because it’s better than what they have. The pleasant old rich people around you could be alien “others” whose bodies are failing so they want yours. Watch out for them!

I like that premise, but truth be told, it wasn’t horrifying because it wasn’t believable. It’s just not a fear that any normal person has, I think.  So as a horror movie, this one didn’t work for me.

There’s mandatory squirting blood at the end and a satisfying conflagration (though not a satisfying intellectual conclusion), but most of the movie is slow and mysterious, actually more of a mystery or thriller than a horror.

But there’s another layer to the movie, one which makes me think that it is not actually supposed to be a horror movie at all. Rather, it is an allegory, an indirect invocation of slavery, without explicitly naming it. Slavery was the real horror. But who would watch that movie? Get Out is successful as a superficial horror ($5m to make, $17m gross so far). So let it be that.

How subtle is the secondary slavery theme? Not very. The idea is clear from the start that black and white people are inexorably alien to each other. That theme seems oversimplified for today’s world though it justifies some pretty good ethnic humor. And plenty of people are afraid of other colors so maybe I’m naïve about that.

Once you get plugged into the secondary theme the movie becomes much more interesting. A silent slave auction is shown but not explained. The side-kick’s humorous conspiracy theory has hidden meaning.  I think the movie tries to invoke the mental state of slaves the way Colson Whitehead did (Underground Railroad), but it fails in that, because the modern day context and characters fight against it. But as a symbolic allegory, I think the movie works and it gets extra points for trying to be educational.

My favorite bit was how the white girlfriend goes from loving partner to evil other by putting her hair into a pony-tail.  Watch out for that!