Saturday, July 30, 2016

Yo Bezos, fix your website!


Merch by Amazon still has the bugs it launched with. Are you going to commit to it, or just let it hang semi-functional? You didn't budget much for it when you set it up; it's a surprisingly bare-bones service for Amazon. Now, given your reputation as an employer, you will probably give everyone associated with Merch by Amazon a hard time for not setting it up flawlessly, but I would ask that you not do that. It's not their fault. The problem is that you are such an unpleasant employer that those who had the skills to set it up flawlessly are working for someone else now. They know they don't have to put up with that much workplace stress, so they took their talents elsewhere. Apparently you are a lousy boss. The bugs in the service aren't the fault of those working on it; they are ultimately traceable to you, your budget, and your management style. Take responsibility. It really doesn't matter much that you're the third richest person on the planet—it's a very small planet. What matters is how you treat the other members of your team. They deserve much more respect than you give them.

My most recently discovered bug is that there is no delete option for a product while it is under review and also while it's at the draft stage. I have a T-shirt that has gotten stuck in the automated review process and I can't delete it. I tried starting another product to see if that would push the under-review product out of its stuck state, but the new one is now stuck in the draft stage and also can't be deleted. This should have been anticipated when setting up the software and a delete option should have been included for both stages.

As I mentioned in a recent message to Customer Service through the Contact Us form, I think it's very strange for the designer to decide whether a T-shirt should be slim-fit or regular-fit. The graphic image should be scaled properly to either style so that the customer can make that decision. I also find it odd how few color choices there are. I understand caution when starting up the service, but it should be clear now how things will go, and the color selection should be expanded and also left up to the customer. I think it's odd to have the designer make choices limiting the number of T-shirt colors for a design.

Remember the late 90s? It seemed like a new world was taking shape with e-commerce providing new ways of doing almost everything. Amazon seemed so green and egalitarian and socially concerned then. As it turns out, you were, at heart, just another Flagler, just another Rockefeller, wanting to grab as much as absolutely possible before they started hitting you with antitrust litigation. Old-school with a coat of green paint. Why do you want to own the world? A little perspective never hurt anybody: In astronomical terms, our hearing that you're the third richest person on the planet is like hearing someone in a town in the middle of nowhere with a population of 500 say "I'm the third richest person in this town!" Those of us with a broader view just chuckle at that sort of thinking.

Your shareholders love you for the money you make for them, of course. The real test is whether your employees love you.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Probably, but who knows?

My email to an author, requesting a foreword or review of a novel examining the alien abduction phenomenon:

Would you consider writing a foreword or review for my novel? It’s entitled Probably, and its focus is the fictionalization of some of the experiences of abductees as presented in the current literature on the subject. The novel fits into the genre of New Age science fiction because of its view of the nature of reality and the effect of multiple dimensions and multiple universes on the human experience of everyday life. The novel also explores the role quantum physics may play in the way humans experience reality.

A brief summary of the story: Trevor frequently wakes up from dorky abduction dreams, but when the ufo he’s dreaming he’s in is actually shot down by the military, he learns that he’s been an abductee since childhood and that government agencies will not tolerate crash survivors or escapees from deep underground bases.

At the heart of the story is the relationship between Trevor and a beautiful young woman, about whom, naturally, he doesn’t know very much. It’s eventually revealed that his love interest is a shape-shifting grey alien who had chosen as her disguise a musical/TV celebrity lookalike drawn from among the dozens of women in Trevor’s head. The question then becomes whether their relationship can continue in spite of this knowledge, as when a Nazi learns his lover is Jewish or vice versa, or royalty learns of commoner status or straight/gay or human/vampire or any number of mismatches. The reason for the deception is an experiment the greys conduct into the viability of a human-alien relationship in a human environment, rather than aboard ship as is usually the case. A subplot explores the human main characters’ puzzlement over learning that they have been destined from long ago to perform certain tasks and finding out that the activation of transhuman abilities embedded in their DNA is linked to the approach of Earth’s Ascension to a higher vibrational frequency.

Just so you know, my narrative style employs the present tense, and some readers find this awkward. One of my favorite authors is John Updike, whose four Harry Angstrom novels were written in that style, and my writing style simply emerged from my admiration for his literary talent. Another favorite author is Umberto Eco, who took an unapologetically literary approach to exploring dubious conspiracy theories in Foucault’s Pendulum. From these references you could consider the possibility that I may not be just another Dan Brown wannabe who’s written an Angels & Aliens-type thing. My book is a bit meatier than that.

The novel presents some opposing points of view on ET-related issues and makes no firm statements regarding their truth or non-truth. The story is mainly structured as if some New Age beliefs are true and then explores the implications. My own feeling, after substantial reading on the subject, leans toward the probability that the extraterrestrial hypothesis, at least in some form, may be the right one. But if it turned out that every phenomenon can be explained in scientific terms, that wouldn’t surprise me either because there are strong arguments on both sides. One thing for which we do have convincing evidence is that governments have been studying the ufo phenomenon even while claiming they have no interest in it. The novel also wades into the current scientific discussion of whether the universe is only a simulation, and it picks up on the current popularity of VR.

Thanks very much for considering writing a foreword for my novel. Please let me know if you would like to see a sample of the novel.

John Evan Garvey

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Merch by Amazon, some observations

This is an email I sent to Merch by Amazon after creating the first 20 of my T-shirt designs:

I'm really glad you've made this outlet available for designers. Thanks very much.

In the Analyze section, I would like to see how many views each product has had, not just the number of sales. That would tell me which designs potential buyers find more eye-catching. It would also indicate to me whether or not my designs are appearing in search results. If there are never any views, that would indicate that potential customers aren't seeing my designs. Partly that would be the result of my not having enough appropriate keywords in my description of a product. But it would also partly be because of Amazon's policies regarding search results. Amazon is absorbing the cost of hosting these designs on their servers; it would be in Amazon's best interests for these products to sell to compensate for the cost of their hosting. The higher they appear in search results, the more likely they are to sell.

The Promotions section of the website should include setting up promotions on Amazon, not just offering tools for creating promotions on my own website. I know that promotional space on Amazon's product pages and landing pages is prime real estate and sellers compete for impressions there, but if Amazon is interested in deriving revenue from the servers hosting Merch by Amazon, they would benefit by allocating some of that real estate to items hosted on those servers.

A while ago I looked into the cost of ads on Amazon and found that the fees were out of my price range. I don't know what the fees are now, but the problem I have with the business model of paying for clicks on ads is that once there is a click, the responsibility of the company selling the ads is completed. Customers can click on ads for any number of reasons—curiosity with no intention of buying, accidental clicking, sabotage, or any other reason besides intention to buy—and the buyer of the ad pays for the click regardless of whether there is a purchase or not. There really is no incentive for the seller of the ad to precisely target the impressions of the ad, and so the product can end up being promoted to the wrong demographics. When I tried Google Ads a while ago to promote my book, written in English, and clicked on "show only on English-language sites," I still found my book's ads appearing on websites that were in Asian languages. I anticipate the same thing happening on Amazon. I'm willing to spend money on promoting my products on Amazon, but only if Amazon waits until there is a purchase before collecting the fee for the click. Amazon would benefit from that by collecting their percentage of the item's selling price as well as the fee for the click. It's possible that the lost revenue from the no-sale clicks would be compensated for by the revenue from the purchase. Accounting would argue that offering free clicks until a purchase is made would produce too little revenue, but that argument ignores the revenue from the purchase, which could be more than that from the clicks. It would also motivate Amazon to promote an item efficiently since their revenue would only come from an actual sale.

Limiting the number of T-shirt colors available to both the designer and the customer is a little odd. I understand the conservatism of wanting there to be fewer colors for designs to look lousy on so that there are fewer returns, but it seems that more customer interest would be generated with a wider range of colors and, with the previews as clear as they are, the customer should be able to see which colors wouldn't work with a design.

The customer should be able to decide between regular-fit and slim-fit. That choice shouldn't be made by the designer. The printing areas of both types of shirts should be coordinated to allow for the design to be scaled to appear appropriately on either style.

Please consider expanding the line of products available. On Zazzle, I have had some success with clock designs. And of course mugs. Stamps and greeting cards have also been good sellers. Even ties do pretty well.

When a design is printed only on the back, the default view of the shirt should be the back. The view currently defaults to the front view, which would be blank in this case, and a customer wouldn't see any design until they clicked on the back-view thumbnail.

The designer would like to choose which color and style T-shirt is the default because s/he knows which color/style displays the design to its best advantage. Basing the default color and style on the currently most popular choice is haphazard and can result in almost all the shirts displayed in the same color. More customer interest is generated when a line of shirts is displayed in a variety of colors. Having a shirt displayed with a women's style as the default would indicate to most men that it's a feminine design, and they would overlook it, even if it's targeted for both men and women. The opposite seems not to be true. But it is the same with children's styles; if the default is a child's style, adults would assume it's a design for kids and would overlook it.

Thanks again for creating Merch by Amazon.

John Garvey

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Paying It Forward

My email to an author from whom I requested a review of my latest novel:

Michael... I actually wish my first request to you for a review had resulted in a non-response. Y'know? It's what I'm used to. I sent the same request to George Takei and didn't hear back from him. Receiving a glowing review [for my novel Secreta Corporis] from you was a wonderful experience, but since then I've sprouted question marks around my head. Anyone else receiving affirmation like that from someone credible like you would be able to move forward to the next step and then the next step and so on. Me? I receive a glowing review from an established writer and— [Insert long pause and shrug.] I'm just baffled by my life experiences. Anyone getting a "rich and detailed landscape" and a "highly recommend it" could look forward to interest in a subsequent novel. Or interest from a publisher like Cleis. Couldn't they? I don't know, it just seems logical. Is it the men in black warning people not to associate with me? They can be quite intimidating...

A similar instance: Back when I was learning to build 3D models, Geoff Campbell, the head of the modeling department at Industrial Light+Magic, came up to me after he saw my reel and just started chatting with me. At one point, he said something like "They could get you started in the architecture department," because of a cathedral model he saw on my reel. Anyone else hearing something like that would end up as an employee at ILM soon thereafter, wouldn't they? If that had been you, I know you would've ended up working there. It seemed like an open door. Me? [Insert long pause and shrug.] After contacting them several times to follow up, I finally gave up. I'm just baffled by my life experiences.

I'm sure that if you respond at all to this, your email will have an edge and will be on the order of "Life is tough. Don't expect things to be handed to you." Please don't send a response like that; your "Good luck" cut deeply enough, you don't need to cut any deeper. :-} I suspect that your glowing review was intended to help market The City of Palaces because you knew someone like me would display your author information on every webpage around the world to which he has access. I'm not convinced that's true, I just suspect. But that is how the real world works. It would explain why a friendship hasn't developed between us (a long-distance, lite friendship). It would explain why there was no mention of my book in your blog, even though you told me I'd written a good book. Alternately, I suspect that my atheo-agnosticism is something you want to distance yourself from because most of your readers are devout Catholics, or at least somewhat religious. In that case, it's possible that you actually did think it was a good book. Slim, but still a possibility.

One thing I feel is important to mention is how you would have reacted to me, everything about the book being exactly the same, if I looked like the models in the photo shoot. I'm not convinced that this is relevant, but examine your feelings. If it had turned out that I looked as edible as they look, would you have expressed more interest in the book, given everything about the book being identical? I can think of four people off the top of my head who refuse to be seen with me in public. Two will talk to me in private, but being seen with me in public would lower their social standing. If someone is as mentally deficient as that, their opinion really doesn't carry a lot of weight with me. But that kind of thinking does exist. If you actually would be more interested and helpful with me if I looked like one of the models, then that's a character flaw that needs your attention. You know what it's like to be considered inferior simply because of your Mexican heritage. Exhibiting that same kind of bigotry to someone else because of his looks and age isn't forgivable, especially as you're an established spokesman in the LGBT community. Do you associate only with cute young guys, or with homely older people only when they're already established writers? It's certainly possible. Be brutally honest with yourself. If it's true, then you're still at your own Little Rock H.S. prior to 1957 and you have work to do. If it's not true, which is quite possible, then this whole paragraph should be disregarded. Never mind.

If there was ever somebody to invest good karma into... You already know from my writing that my IQ is on par with the people in your social circle, and there are other talents I could mention like songwriting, painting, and writing computer code for websites. I don't know, I really don't think I'm all that dull. But my life experiences would suggest otherwise. If you were willing to be a sort of mentor for me, or at least to answer my infrequent emails, it would take very little of your time, but it would have a tremendous impact on me. You could at least give it some thought. Sometimes ugly ducklings... take a lot longer than usual!


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Must have been a newbie

A comment I left after viewing a Disney video on YouTube promoting Disneyland Shanghai:

I'm amazed that the person in charge of this video needs help with editing. S/he got so many little things wrong, like cutting or dissolving too late, panning too quickly, changing camera-movement direction without easing, making the text banner too large, things like that. The video is from Disney Parks, but it looks like a fanvid. I wonder if the Disney Parks office that produced this video is here in Burbank. If so, I could stop by and help with polishing the editing. Let me know.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Quantum physics for the rest of us

The question I submitted to Ethan Siegel at Starts With a Bang!:

Dear Ethan,

I have more than one question, and it seems logical to package them into one note rather than to separate them into separate notes. But if that's against the law, I apologize.

1) I'm pretty skeptical about things, but fortunately I'm more skeptical regarding, say, faith healing than I am regarding quantum physics. However, when I read about the spooky action at a distance, the single particle going through one slot and causing waves to appear in another slot as if the particle had gone through both slots regardless of the distance between them, I can't help thinking "Oh right, they know they're emitting one particle at a time." I imagine the way they verify that a single particle is emitted is with a chain of technologies, with the more sophisticated technologies built on the results of the simpler, unless physicists have really, really good eyesight. I know that the results of this type of experiment are repeatable and that there's been extensive research into this phenomenon to try to understand quantum entanglement, but still. A single particle? Also, if I remember right, the particle can go through either slot, and I don't understand how that's possible. Is the emitter aimed between the slots or at one slot? Also, if there are more than two slots, do all of the slots exhibit the same phenomenon, or just one? And finally, isn't it possible that the phenomenon is produced by the slot itself? Like soundwaves bouncing around within a niche in a wall and producing a different wave pattern than would otherwise be produced by the soundwaves reacting to a plain wall. A weak analogy, yes, but it's the best I can do.

2) From what I know about quantum physics, which isn't much, the various models of, say, string theory are represented by whiteboards filled with equations that the average person finds incomprehensible. Whenever I encounter that, I can't help thinking "Can they write that out in longhand?" I don't know, it seems that the natural-language version of a model is as important as the mathematical version. The way we understand the universe is through language; we generally name things rather than assigning them numbers. I know that translating all of the symbols in a model, all the way down to the arithmetic operators, into natural language would produce text that would probably be book-length. But still, every mark on the whiteboard has a corresponding meaning in natural language. If a physicist doesn't want to translate the mathematical model into text, that would seem to be no more than his wanting to maintain the archetypal boy's club with its secret decoder rings and "No girls allowed" sign. How much is exclusivity for the sake of exclusivity prevalent in the profession? And then there's the quote about being able to explain something so a barmaid can understand it or one doesn't understand it well enough himself. So, can they write it out in longhand; if so, do they; if not, will they? We would really appreciate it. Some of us don't have enough life left to start at physics 101 and work all the way up to quantum mechanics.

John Garvey

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Zazzle of a Headache

My email to the CTO of

Bobby Beaver,

It's time for you to hand off the management of the website to someone who will devote full time to it. The website exhibits some bugginess that has been there for years. Whenever I use the website, I roll my eyes in annoyance so often that I get a headache. Please don't be defensive about the website and your control over it. It's time for you to retire rich and proud of your accomplishments in building Zazzle into the huge company that it is. I'm sure your Dad has said that you can manage the website as long as you want, but you need to have the maturity to realize that it's time to let someone take over who has a better handle on giant websites. You're holding the company back, and it really is time for you to move on to your next phenomenal startup.

In the development cycle of every family-owned startup, there comes a point when the business becomes so successful and large that the family needs to relinquish control so that those who are better able to handle large businesses can continue running the company well. Families whose startups grow phenomenally, like Zazzle has, are good at growing startups; that's where their expertise lies. But after a startup reaches a certain level of success, those whose expertise is in running big companies should take over, and the family should allow that to happen and take pride in what they've accomplished. And do it again with another startup.

I don't know how many thousands of designers use Zazzle. But every one of those designers runs into the same bugs that I do. We would all be happy if those bugs were finally taken care of.


John Garvey

Dear Trump Supporters

One of my recent T-shirt designs.

In case the image isn't readable, the text on the shirt is: "The rest of us would like Trump supporters to go back to school, expand their vocabulary, have non-White friends, eat less fat and sodium, exercise every day, shower every day, stop spitting, not laugh so loud, read better books, go to museums, watch PBS, bike to work, question assumptions, argue less, listen more, and act like grownups."

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Proofreading is fun-damental

(Following is a comment I wanted to leave for this article by Joseph Friedlander at but wasn't permitted to because, as a new member, I didn't have enough points. That's actually a good policy.)

You're a messy genius, aren't you. Please develop the habit of proofreading. Habitually proofread. Learn to enjoy re-reading your writing; you'll find something to change every time you read through it. You actually typed its's. You know that when its is possessive, it doesn't need an apostrophe. You learned that long ago, you just forgot. When it's is a contraction, it needs an apostrophe before the s. You routinely type its' when you want to indicate the possessive form, but that doesn't exist in English. And its's just happens when you're thinking ahead of what you're typing and not paying attention. Also, you frequently begin paragraphs with a space. An indentation isn't only one space, and when paragraphs are separated by blank lines, they're never indented. Also, the lead sentence is probably the most important sentence in an article, and so it should be fussed over the most. The to do is the problem because thermonuclear power isn't something to do. It's something that is. The sentence should probably begin with "What if generating thermonuclear power..." Or it could be "What if thermonuclear power is so hard to generate in a controlled manner..." And maybe energy instead of power? But that's just quibbling. (BTW, sentence fragments can make for more interesting writing and are not typos in standard English, so don't nobody point out my "And maybe" sentence fragment.) It's good to be a messy genius because that type of thinking can be very innovative. But the messiness shouldn't extend to the writing; it diminishes the writer's credibility as an educated person. Desk yes, writing no.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Controlling Israel’s violent ‘hilltop youth’

This article is truly scary: an Israeli “ISIS” that bases its violence against non-Jews on ordinary Biblical and rabbinic writings has recently emerged. The article, “Violence in the Name of the Messiah,” is by Noah Feldman and appeared in BloombergView on 1 November 2015.
They perform what are called “price-tag” operations—violent acts meant to send the message that any attempt to remove Jewish settlers from their land will carry a “price.” They also think that they’re living in a messianic age and that the state of Israel has betrayed the true objective of exerting sovereignty over the biblical land of Israel. They aspire to create a Jewish monarchy, governed by religious law, which would relegate non-Jews to subordinate status. And they believe that a book called “The Law of the King” provides legal and religious justification for the killing of non-Jews, including children, in the pursuit of their revenge.
Because the illegal Israeli settlements in which many of the extremists live are mostly built on hilltops, the members of the small radical movement are generally referred to as “hilltop youth.” The movement is an outgrowth of a quasi-political movement called Derech Chaim, which is headed by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsberg. In the early 1980s, Ginsberg founded a school called Od Yosef Chai in which, over the years, he has developed “his distinctive combination of Chabad Hasidism and national-religious-settler theology.” Followers of Ginsberg, Shapira and Elitzur, wrote the book The Law of the King, which Od Yosef Chai published, and in it justify the killing of non-Jewish children along with adults “‘because of the future danger that will be caused if they grow up to be evil like their parents.’” The killing of non-Jews is considered a “redemptive messianic act” and “a means to making the king messiah live and hastening the coming of his kingdom.” “As far as the terrorists are concerned, their actions are not merely permitted by Jewish law, but required.”

It's difficult for non-extremist Jews/Israelis to condemn the actions of the hilltop youth because their radical tenets are deeply rooted in Torah and the traditional rabbinic writings. Even the terrorists themselves—because their motivation is not like that of Mafia hitmen and dons: fattening their wallets and achieving new levels of luxury—can only see themselves as good people doing the work of God and willing to be martyred. Attempts to control such radical movements only drive them underground and increase their members’ fervency and acceptance of eventual martyrdom. The article by Feldman does offer suggestions for what Israel can do to restrict the growth of the movement, but those suggestions involve making the difficult choices now confronting Israel.

My own view is that the real solution to the problem is the one that no one wants. But the logic of this solutions is inescapable because it involves going back to the very beginnings of the current conflict. Let's go over this again:

Biblical scholars have been theorizing for more than two centuries, from de Wette in 1805 to Finkelstein in 2001, that priests and scribes in the time of King Josiah created a new scroll, the one “found” during Temple renovations, in order to support national reforms but the scroll was presented to the people as if it were old and preserved Mosaic law written six centuries earlier. The priests themselves may have created the covenant between God and Moses regarding the land, detailed in the scroll, which assigned ownership of the land to Israel in perpetuity. If true, should that covenant be considered valid now? The land belongs to Israel in perpetuity because the priests said it did in 622 bce? The scroll “found” during Temple renovations was an early version of Deuteronomy, and textual criticism shows this book to be later “priestly” writings which were collected into a book first, which led to the other books of Torah taking shape around the time of the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century bce. A forgery initiated the collection of documents that evolved into the Torah and Bible we have today. If the foundation isn’t true, nothing built on that foundation can be entirely true. Twenty-six centuries of claiming something is true doesn't make it true, if it wasn't true to begin with.

The hilltop youth and Derech Chaim and other radical groups could be shown that the Biblical writings on which they base their actions originated with a forgery—a book of law intended to give the priests of that time so much power that even the king had to seek their approval, written by the priests themselves—and that no subsequent writings can be credible if the writers assumed that previous writings were genuine. If they were shown that the basis for their violent “redemptive messianic acts” was unfounded, they would see that there was no reason to commit those acts, no messiah to draw out, no monarchy to establish. But that would require that all Israelis come to realize that Torah isn’t credible, which would, of course, remove the foundation for the modern state of Israel itself and Israel’s historic claim to the land. And that would domino outward and remove the basis for the faith of Jews and Christians around the world. And we can’t have that. That’s a solution no one wants to pursue. There are things worse than children being killed so that they don’t grow up to be evil like their parents.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Yet another popular writer

whose writing style baffles me. (I discussed Dan Brown's Inferno in May 2013.) I started reading Cosega Search by Brandt Legg, and within the first few pages I was amazed that this book has received a 4.7-star rating from 142 people. One reviewer even calls it "Masterfully written." Second sentence: "Larsen Fretwell's voice boomed through the satphone." Boomed? I understand the need for action verbs at the beginning of a book and that the character Larsen is 6'7" and an all-around big, loud guy, but "boomed" is not the right word here. How big is the speaker on a satphone? Booming comes from a car with a monster sound system that rattles the windows of houses as it passes. That's booming. The author could have said that the voice was so loud it was distorted by the phone's speaker and/or that the main character, Rip, had to hold the phone away from his ear because the voice was so loud. It's true that additional words would be required and that "boomed" accomplishes what it does in only one word, but in this case word economy produces the wrong effect. A satphone doesn't come with a subwoofer.

The third paragraph has a couple of rogue semi-colons. (Yeah, it's nitpicky, but still it's something a writer should know.) I think Brandt meant to use colons (:) to point to the text that followed; he also could've used em-dashes (—) or maybe even commas. Here's a good rule of thumb: never use semi-colons. Forget they exist. It's somehow gotten into people's heads that semi-colons are light colons. They're not, despite their name. They're heavy commas. However, the fourth paragraph has "felt welcoming; yet mysterious at the same time." A heavy comma here is too heavy. Shoulda been a regular comma. Typos like this simply make the writing seem amateurish because they're so basic and so easy to avoid. In case you're interested, a semi-colon is used only (1) to connect independent clauses without a conjunction and (2) to separate items in a complex series, a series of items that have their own commas. No other uses. (Except in computer code, but that's another whole rant.)

Sigh. I wish writers wouldn't write descriptions of central characters like "Rip ran a hand through his dusty brown hair." That's like the Shade, in Brown's Inferno, saying "my clear green eyes." It's an abrupt change in viewpoint. When the reader has access to the protagonist's thoughts, whether first-person or third-person, it's jarring to be presented suddenly with a specific external detail of the character's appearance. I understand the need for word economy in page-turners, but details of the protagonist's appearance seem more appropriate when the narration has moved out of the protagonist's head to a more objective viewpoint.

Why are readers so accepting of amateurish writing? I haven't even gone near the Shades of Gray trilogy. I've heard that the writing is so bad that I know I wouldn't get past the first few paragraphs, and then would vent my irritation in a very nasty blog post.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Yo, gamers!! A little originality won't kill you!

I've just watched the video Top 25 Upcoming Games of 2015 and I can say with conviction that you all are stuck in a rut. What is the appeal of post-apocalyptic dystopia? It's the new big beautiful tomorrow? The new black? It looks to me, from a distance, that game culture is as restrictive and conformist as Lutheran culture in the 1950s, only the conformity paradigm is grunge and anarchy rather than clean shirts and neat haircuts. But stray from conformity at your own risk, nonetheless. The main question to answer now when designing a game seems to be the point at which apocalypse occurs in the timeline. It reminds me of discussions long ago in my religious days of whether pre-trib, mid-trib, post-trib, pre-mil or mid-mil was the right scenario for when the Rapture will occur relative to the Great Tribulation that leads up to Armageddon and the Millenium which follows Armageddon. In the game world now the choices seem to be primarily pre-apocalypse, mid-apocalypse or post-apocalypse. Doesn't a list of the most popular games lean in that direction? If a studio wants a game to be taken seriously, the floors had better be strewn with rubble and body parts at some point during the game.

The reason I care at all about how games are designed and what the market buys and doesn't buy is because games now offer such gorgeous realism. I'm still amazed by what I see rendered in realtime in the videos of actual gameplay. It's startling. Think how the games now would've looked to us in 2005, in 1995, with actual gameplay now almost indistinguishable from video. At the same time, I'm amazed that all this gorgeous supertechnology is used to animate blood spurting and vehicles exploding. What a waste. All of these ghz and gb used to animate zombies fer cryin out loud. It would be nice if the game studios would acknowledge the existence of the small demographic I belong to, made up of people who would buy these super-realistic games if they didn't exclusively feature the gore and mayhem associated with shooters. If the game studios provided a simple option to experience the game in something similar to god-mode or developer-mode, and marketed this option to us, they would realize a modest increase in sales. I can spend hours just exploring an interesting open world and would spend the money on a game if I didn't have to search the web for an .ini file that may or may not work. I bought BioShock with the intention to god-mode through it but was disappointed that nothing I tried worked. I ended up killing my way through a lot of the game because I really did want to explore the Rapture environment. But my frequent death was a nuisance. Some game apps offer a zen mode, without scoring or a time clock, and it would be nice if open-world action games offered something similar, right in the game's options panel.

But regarding the dystopian blood-and-slime-filled rut the game world is currently stuck in, alternatives that come to mind are 1) making money and 2) sex. Both are as primal as killing. Theoretically, action games based on either could be created that would engage the player as viscerally as shooters do. I'm sure game-design wizards could come up with compelling scenarios that feature racking up actual dollars instead of digital kills, if they just gave it some thought—investing in the stock market designed to play like hazardous parkour across the tops of skyscrapers, something like that. Applying the sophistication of game technology to interactive porn, on the other hand, seems as dystopian as applying it to killing sprees. But I remember Carl Sagan, in his book Cosmos, suggesting that societies that weren't restrictive regarding sex were less warlike. He suggested that, in societies where sex is tightly controlled, that energy has nowhere else to go except into war and violent crime. I know it's counter-intuitive to suggest that making love not war in the game world would be beneficial to society as a whole. But one can't get an STD from an avatar. One can accidentally get an avatar pregnant only virtually. If someone becomes a sex addict from the gameplay, it's very likely that the same person would've become a sex addict from the forms of porn available now. One could argue that a husband could come to prefer virtual sex to conjugal sex and that virtual sex could always devolve into an affair and result in the break up of a marriage because of virtual infidelity. Alternate opinions could be expressed at length about the current state of marriage among heterosexual couples, but that debate wouldn't be very interesting. Talk amongst yourselves. Ultimately it comes down to the question of how making the killing of a human/zombie/mutant/predator/alien amazingly realistic is more noble than making a sexual avatar amazingly realistic. Aren't they at least equally tawdry? In any case, these are some ideas the game world could consider.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Yo, Bezos! You're losing money!


When a book shopper on Amazon sees a book with a rating of one or two stars, they move on. Isn't this statistically true? The rating system was developed to help shoppers sort through millions of books. As a result, shoppers ignore books with low ratings. It saves them time. Consider the case where a noteworthy reviewer, Booklist for example, gives a book a favorable review and a customer gives a rating of one star to the same book. Does the shopper see the number of stars Booklist gave the book? Of course not; that review is just a block of text under Literary Reviews. The shopper sees the one-star rating in the search results and never clicks on the book and never sees the favorable review. How can you account for the weight given a customer review over a literary review? The result of the shopper not seeing the favorable review is a lost sale. As the number of indie authors grows, this situation would be expected to multiply, with the paradigm shift in the publishing industry leading more strong authors to bypass agents and publishers. The number of lost sales will increase.

The five-star rating system is a one-size-fits-all solution to sifting through millions of items on Amazon. When an established company markets, say, a kitchen appliance that they cut corners on in development and manufacture, it's good that the rating system exists so that customers can let others know of their experience with the shoddy appliance. In cases involving big, rich manufacturers, the rating system works pretty well. The same rating system should be applied to self-published authors? Literature should be judged with the same scale as appliances? In the arts, an artist doesn't create a product with a specified function. The range of opinions on any created item—a book, a print, a piece of original music—can be incredibly wide. The opinion of a person who hates, say, Pollack and Warhol prints should be given extra weight because he's a customer? We've all decided that both artists are fairly important figures in the history of art. We've agreed that the opinion of a person who hates their work, although individually valid, is not characteristic of the consensus. In Amazon's rating system, there's no accommodation for the wide range of opinions regarding created items. Some people hate what other people love. With the weight given the number of stars in Amazon's search engine for self-published books and appliances alike, the haters will always trump the lovers because low ratings will push items far down enough in search results that the lovers won't even see the items they would otherwise purchase.

I don't think you've understood yet how wanting to "let truth loose" by giving customers a neg/pos rating system in actuality throttles the truth in some categories on Amazon. Generally, when a person trashes an indie book with a one-star review, that person is trying to steer potential customers away from that book. The person may resent the author for writing a book he disliked and doesn't want to see the author succeed with book sales. That legitimately could be called censorship. That person is trying to ban that book from the libraries of potential readers. He's attempting to toss that book onto a fire so others won't be able to read it. This lets truth loose? With mainstream novels, the individual negative review doesn't have much effect when the total number of reviews is in the thousands. With a self-published book from a new author, a negative review buries that book in the search results.

As an example, my own book, Secreta Corporis, received a very favorable, almost glowing, review from author Michael Nava, whom the New York Times called a "brilliant storyteller" and "one of our best." In his review of my book, he called it "marvelously erudite" and "a rich and detailed landscape" and wrote "I highly recommend it." The full review is on the book's product page. Contrast that review with the customer reviews, and one wonders if four of the five customers were reviewing the same book as Nava. Search results make no mention of Nava's review, but the average of two and a half stars from five customers is quite prominent. Would you be led to check out that book if you didn't know anything about Nava's review?

I've noticed that some websites don't display customer reviews until the item has received a certain number of them. There are other solutions, and I hope you will consider them. How many books has Nava sold? I think it's safe to say that a good number of his readers would also be readers of my book because of his recommendation and because the books share character situations and tone. But those purchases have never been made. And this is just one example. How many other books/CDs/apps are there in a similar situation? That's more than a few lost sales.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Better teeth for better living with EMD/TZP

Just a cursory search of what new options are available for dental implants has produced numerous online references to both EMD (enamel matrix derivative) and TZP (tetragonal zirconia polycrystal). Wikipedia defines EMD as “an extract of porcine fetal tooth material used to biomimetically stimulate the soft and hard tissues surrounding teeth to regrow (in a process known as regeneration) following tissue destruction.” TMZ is described in an article available on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website of the National Library of Medicine as “tetragonal zirconia polycrystal (TZP) displays high biocompatibility with reduced bacterial adhesion and high flexural strength which renders it as an excellent material for implant supported prosthesis.” The referenced article describes the use of dental implants that had been milled from “presintered homogeneous blocks of TZP” using CAD/CAM technology in the case of a particular patient. Another article on the same website explains that EMD “has been successfully employed to restore functional periodontal ligament, cementum and alveolar bone in patients with severe attachment loss.”

My online search resulted from my learning that dental implants use fixtures that resemble wood screws to anchor the prosthetic teeth to the jaw and also learning that the cost for replacing a single tooth can approach $1000 and is not covered by insurance. The price point for the dental implant, an out-of-pocket expense, should be lower; the result would be more procedures being performed and both the doctors and the suppliers realizing an increase in revenue. I also wondered about the use of threaded screw-like anchors to hold the prosthetics in place when natural teeth are held in place just by the roots. Roots don’t have threads, and I wondered how natural teeth could be so firmly anchored to the jaw that dental tools and some effort are needed to extract them. I encountered the term “cementum,” which Wikipedia explains: “Cementum is a specialized calcified substance covering the root of a tooth. The cementum is the part of the periodontium that attaches the teeth to the alveolar bone by anchoring the periodontal ligament.” While wondering if exotic new polymers could mimic the adhesion of cementum and the periodontal ligament, which would of course be removed from the socket along with the tooth, I encountered EMD which apparently facilitates the regrowth of cementum and the periodontal ligament. So, I wondered, are threaded anchors necessary?

Provided that regrown tissue can attach to TZP in the same way it attaches to the roots of a tooth, why not make a prosthetic tooth with roots instead of driving a screw into the jaw? This procedure could be employed only in cosmetic dentistry, since a healthy tooth and root canals/sockets would be required. The roots of a diseased tooth and the eroded sockets in the bone may be too compromised for this procedure to work. But for those patients who, for example, would like to replace badly stained but otherwise healthy teeth, this procedure would seem viable. It would be simpler, resulting in lower cost for the patient, and less invasive, resulting in its being more easily tolerated by the patient.

In a nutshell, a healthy tooth would be extracted, a copy of it, with roots, would be milled or molded out of TZP, and the replacement tooth would be inserted with EMD to stimulate the attachment of the tooth to the surrounding periodontium.

In my online search, I haven’t found this solution discussed as a future possibility. So my proposal could provide someone with an opportunity for a new patent and the resultant substantial income stream. Just remember that you heard it here first.