Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Amazon: devil or angel

Amazon, with Jeff Bezos at the helm, seems nowadays to be seen contradictorily as either the devil incarnate or the Archangel Gabriel announcing the birth of a new wonder.  In this post I will tell you a true story that will illuminate this issue.  It begins on an airplane flying from Buenos Aires to La Paz in Baja Sud, Mexico where Willi and his wife will be staying for a while.  For the long flight she has thoughtfully provided him with a Tom Clancy book, its name now lost somewhere in his memory.  Ten minutes after beginning the book he is hooked, can’t put it down, reads right through dinner.

It is a huge airplane, hundreds of people, and after dinner, one by one, they begin to fall asleep.  The attendants turn off the cabin lights.  A half hour later Willi looks around and his is the only overhead light still turned on in this huge, darkened amphitheater that is moving—without anyone especially noticing—northeast at 500+ miles an hour.  He is somewhat embarrassed; is he keeping someone awake?  He doesn’t care; he’s not putting this book down, nor did he for several days after arrival.  When he finally did finish it, dangerous thoughts began percolating just under his skull…

Willi began to think that he knew how Tom Clancy worked: get into the action right away; shift around from scene to scene, place to place, each with different characters; one never knew what might happen next.  Then he thought, I could do this!  Next thing you know he is pounding away at his keyboard.  Some weeks later he has 200 pages or so, but as time passes he gradually loses interest and just leaves it in the silicon bowels of his computer, unfinished.  For twelve years.

The story continues with an illness:  Willi can’t get out of the house and he’s scratching around for something to do.  Since he reads a lot he gets an email from Jeff everyday—well, Jeff didn’t write it himself, he gets someone at Amazon to do it for him.  Usually these messages are just adverts for books and Willi plunks them into the garbage.  But one day he notices something new: “Self-publish your book.” Now, bored, sparks begin to sparkle in Willi’s cerebrum; he remembers that he has a book.  Shortening a long tale: he resurrects it from his old computer; polishes it up; tacks on an ending; downloads Amazon’s publishing instructions; follows them to the letter; uploads everything that needs to go up; and all of a sudden he becomes a published author.  Well.  At this point you’re probably thinking just what Willi thought: end of story.  You would be wrong.

Willi had set the price at $6.99; he didn’t want it to seem too cheap (some economic theory or other).  Of this he was to receive 70%; that’s the deal; it seemed fair, and was certainly a helluva lot more than Willi would get from a bigtime publisher which probably wouldn’t talk to him in the first place.  His expectations were small but each week thereafter, on Sundays, when Amazon data is updated, he checked into Amazon to see if any had sold.  He doesn’t need money; he’s old; it was just an ego thing, and something to do.  But then the book started selling!  Four one week, then six, then 10, and on it went for quite a while.

The first reviewer gave Willi bad marks.  He said he thought the book was good but that it had ended too abruptly.  He wondered if there would be a sequel.  Perceptive little shit, but the cheapskate gave Willi only one star, the lowest you can get.  What was he thinking?  After all that work Willi had come to like the book himself.  The next reviewer didn’t like it no way, no how; one star.  The third reviewer seemed to like it; four stars.  Yet this spelled the end of Willi’s brief career as an author of fiction; sales slowed quickly.  But as it turned out Willi made about 600 bucks, enough to pay his bar tab for a number of weeks.  And he still gets a little hit from Amazon in his bank account every now and then.

So there you have it.  That’s probably the foretaste of the future: publishers provide a service: editing.  But they’re really too hard to break into.  Willi’s book, Ground Wars, is full of little typos and perhaps worse structural faults; he was too cheap to have it professionally edited, and if truth is known, one cannot edit one’s own book.  Certainly somewhere on the Internet will be found an intermediate, someone who will edit for a reasonable fee; and on top of that readers themselves will have to be more selective.  Prices will go down.  Publishers, as we know them today, will largely go the way of the buggy whip.  As to Amazon itself, they far exceeded Willi’s expectations.  If they are indeed the devil, they are a Satan people will have to get used to.  But it seems clear to Willi that Steve Jobs was right when he remarked that the whole book business, monetarily, doesn’t add up to much.

Thursday, March 28, 2013


Willi supposes that nearly everyone by now understands that the acronym LGBT is meant as a shorthand for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual, nearly all the states of sexuality common in this world today. Some more common than others. Of course they left out the Straights since they're a dime a dozen anyway. And that's OK.

Once, in his peculiar fashion, no doubt infused with drink, he wondered to himself: why do the Lesbians get to go first in the list? So he went to the other end of the bar and asked a gay guy that he knew—he once knew a few lesbians, probably a better source, but they seem to have drifted away—about this matter that seemed urgent to him at the time. The reply was that "women come first," it's only polite. And that seemed to settle the matter satisfactorily. It's nice to know that even in this modern era, class will tell. It is the small things that count.

The point of this post however is a different one. One that Willi knows well and does not regret. And that is that there is another classification, another category that has been overlooked. Willi didn't voluntarily join this class; it just seemed to happen. He slid into it gradually, unknowingly, and quietly.

Perhaps you noticed the P at the end of the title of the post, probably you thought it was a typo. It wasn't. It stands for a class that seems to Willi more and more overlooked and that class own is Postsexual. It is a comfortable state, calm and tranquil. It reminds one distinctly of the feelings one had before all that testosterone settled in some time just before the teens. Of course that condition might easily be called Presexual, thus getting two for the price of one so to speak.

So let's hear it for LGBTP, and Willi would like anyone that's making signs to hold up in front of television cameras, whatever the cause, to get that P on the end.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

PTSD, what is to become of us?

In the last couple days Willi has read two articles in the New York Times that concern what might be called stress or trauma:

The first story related how a rabbi who, near the close of WWII, entered a German concentration camp where there were stacks of dead bodies all over the place. He was actually in the United States army serving as a chaplain under General George Patton whose troops had just liberated the camp. Willi still remembers vividly seeing pictures like this at what were called "newsreels" shown at movie theaters after the main features had ended; there were no TV's then, and radio could not possibly have given one even a hint of the catastrophe before one's eyes. There were bodies stacked like cordwood, and some people were still alive, but so thin that they looked as though they might have been dead the day after tomorrow. The GI's would give the survivors smokes which produced peculiar, incongruous grins on their faces, peculiar because they had nothing obvious to be smiling about, considering what they had endured.

The rabbi's concern was whether there were any people still alive in this particular camp that had contained thousands of prisoners, mostly Jews. An American soldier among the liberators said that there were, and he took the chaplain to another area of the camp where there were hundreds of people barely surviving among even more dead bodies. Then the rabbi thought he saw something moving among the dead. It turned out to be a young boy who had managed somehow—with a number of other children—to survive this massacre; his parents had been killed. The story moistened Wili's eyes.

The chaplain was assigned to lead a contingent of soldiers to escort some hundreds of these boys to France and Switzerland and other places in Europe, to see that they were taken care of as well as possible considering that Europe was a shambles. This story in the Times was prompted not by an anniversary of the liberation but by the rabbis death; it was his obituary. The boy, by the way, survived and later became an American citizen.

The second article told of how some $14,000,000 donated by sympathetic people was to be allocated to those in need after the recent shootings at a school in Newtown Connecticut. Here is the Times on that story:

Both United Way and local officials say their mandate is to serve an array of different if unequal needs, from helping families who lost children to providing mental health care for the hundreds of traumatized children who survived.

These two articles taken together made Willi think about a number of things:

The Newtown shooting was certainly traumatic for those who were there and survived, and for the families of the dead and their friends as well. He was touched that so many strangers sympathetically donated money to help the traumatized survivors. But the scale of the first tragedy was so far beyond that of the second that it made Willi thoughtful concerning their equivalence and today's reaction to trauma.

The world went on after WWII and if people had PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) afterwards, a term not then invented, they didn't talk about it and they mostly—not all—came out all right. And finally he wonders just what "mental health care"—regardless of the amount of money spent—can do for a young person who accidentally witnessed the shooting at Newtown. Just what does a shrink, or a psychologist, say to that person to make them feel better? To make them forget? To make order of disorder? So he looked it up and here it is (from "a trusted non-profit resource"):

In treatment for PTSD, you'll:

Explore your thoughts and feelings about the trauma

Work through feelings of guilt, self-blame, and mistrust

Learn how to cope with and control intrusive memories

Address problems PTSD has caused in your life and relationships


Willi is somehow not impressed. This is an answer that is not an answer. Is there any data whatsoever to show that this "treatment" has any better affect than just to go on living? He doubts it, and especially for young people who have a long life ahead of them, with new things every day. No, the feelings are not forgotten, they are submerged under new thoughts. Not much help but that's life; one can still fall in love, make a living, and move on.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Voice recognition: A Status Report

Siri, Dragon, Samsung, Microsoft Windows, … , the list goes on and on. Nearly everyone in the computer device game recognizes that as the hardware get smaller and smaller—and their onscreen keyboards shrink proportionately—more reliable voice recognition will be a game changer. It has to be done: In the near future, smart phones—or a part of them anyway—will shrink again and be strapped to your wrist ala Dick Tracy. Google Glass, in which the display is projected on your glasses, is perhaps the ultimate example of shrinking displays, at least until contact lenses become computer displays.

In a quite different domain, coming as soon as the next decade or so, many new kinds of devices will call out for voice recognition—perhaps literally. Think of your automobile, your dishwasher, the lights in your home, things like that.

But the bottom line today is that most voice recognition is crappy. Even Microsoft's own speech recognition engineers admit its failings. Speech recognition at Microsoft now has in fact been relegated to the Ease of Use section of Windows Control Panel, downplaying it and implying, without quite saying so, that it is aimed at people unable to use a keyboard. Yet Willi who is not all handicapped—unless one chats with his wife—has dictated literally hundreds of thousands of words, in some cases complete books. He hasn't used a keyboard for years. He is dictating this blog post using Microsoft's speech recognition, which is considerably better than you might expect, both to give commands and to dictate words, though it still has a way to go. He has also used both Siri and Dragon to some extent (enough to know that they're not much good—yet).

As to speed, there's no question in Wili's mind that he can dictate faster, using Microsoft's technology, than the fastest typist, assuming there is a prepared text for both, and that includes corrections. But that's not really the point; when dictating without a prepared text, one can only speak as fast as one can think, and for most of us that's not very fast. Another factor in speech dictation that is often overlooked is that what one writes is often more natural and smooth than what one types on a keyboard. This can be important for writers.

To get one's head around the current status of speech recognition it is important to understand a few basics:

First, the distinction between speaking commands and dictation. Commands are far easier to understand for the simple reason that there are a limited number of them from which to pick, so that when you speak, it is a relatively simple task to determine which you mean; speech recognition is a statistical game. It is a pretty simple job to discriminate between "Lights on" or "Lights off".

Dictation is a far more difficult animal because when you say something the realm of possibilities includes every word in the language you're using (and yes you can use languages other than English; it's a global world now in the computer business). In the English language there are, give or take, 200,000 words. There are more, really, if one counts medical terms and other scientific esoterica. And then, with dictation there's the added difficulty of distinguishing what you mean when you say a homonym such as "to", which could be interpreted as "to", "too", or "two ", depending on the context. So you see this is not a simple proposition. Yet surprising progress has been made in this direction.

The next consideration is ambient noise: speech recognition in a quiet room is vastly easier to understand than speech in a work cubicle, an automobile, on the street, or in a bar—in roughly that order of difficulty, unless you inhabit quiet bars, as does Willi when he is able.

Finally, the quality of the microphone that is trying to listen to what you're saying is often important, depending upon the other three considerations listed above. Willi, at this moment, is in a quiet room and is being listened to by the simple but profound little microphone built into the edge of his computer a Microsoft Surface Pro. Yes, there are noise canceling microphones; Willi has tried them; they don't help a lot.

These are the basic parameters with which to evaluate the practicalities of speech recognition. To sum up the current status of speech recognition one should take away the thought that more work is needed both on the software, which is a complicated matter in itself, but even more work is needed on some sort of noise filtering hardware. This remains the single biggest roadblock to practical, everyday use of this technology.

One does not always have a quiet room to work in. And it is "on the go" when one most needs this technology. Willi thought about a throat MIC, as was used in airplanes for WWII where the noise from the engines was overwhelming. Perhaps a new such device could be made as cool-looking throat ornamentation—a leather choker encrusted with fake diamonds. It would take sound directly from your larynx. Never underestimate the benefits of fashion to sell an idea.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Feast or Famine

FUQ Department

Those of us of any age whatsoever tend to think of the finances of our nation as similar to the finances of our families: if you're running out of money, stop spending so much.

This seems to be the mindset of the Europeans right now; they are all working on austerity plans. The entire EU, though some members more than others, have zipped their wallets shut tightly. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in London, is reining in, as is the Chancellor of Germany, and the Nordic countries have frozen their budgets. But the Latin nations in the south are not so sure about this deal. Greece and Italy have just had an election and the people, fed up now with austerity, threw out their tightwad governments which, they claimed, were listening too much to the tightwad Germans who were whining at being stuck with the bill after the southerners had dined sumptuously.

Here in America, we can't seem to make up our minds. The Democrats want to spend while the Republicans want to cut the budget. Thus we come to our Frequently Unanswered Question: Is it better for the government to quit spending so much or is it better to have them prime the pump once again with a few trillion which we don't have but which we can print just as fast as those presses will run, and that's pretty fast.

Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate for Economics, says we should spend more. On the other hand President Obama got a Nobel prize for peace before he'd hardly got down to work. So who knows about this Nobel business? Anyway, Krugman claims that the national economy is not like your family's budget, and he explains it pretty well this way: unlike a family, for a nation of people, one person's spending is another person's income; as a consequence we can keep printing money until inflation starts to go up, which it hasn't yet, much. Still, the Europeans have economists too, and Willi bets at least one of them have a Nobel prize, probably a flock of them do. Yet they seem to come to the opposite conclusion: spend less!

It seems to Willi incredible that economists who study this matter cannot come to a consensus. Once again, Harry Truman was right on point when he said something like this: Give me a one-armed economist any time, that way he can't say, "On the one hand…"

We should by this time have enough computers in the cloud to simulate just about anything and come up with the answer. We have an IBM computer, named Watson, which can beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy, and one named Deep Blue which can make grandmaster chess players quiver. There is a helluva rig over there in Europe on the border of France and Switzerland called the Large Hadron Collider which has analyzed some billion trillion particle collisions in order to find a boson named Higgs. They think they've spotted him, but now they think he might have his whole family with him—though maybe they're just angling for some more money. The point is these people can do a lot of shit. But they can't seem to come up with the answer to a simple yes/no question: spend more/spend less. Why is this so hard?

Willi doesn't know.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The FUQ Department

Willi has decided on a change, or addition, to his blog, modernizing it so to speak. The first thing to say about this new department is that it is not what you think it is—those of you of scurrilous mind—you know you are. No, its meaning is simply this: the Electronic Media is full of topics intended to assist you in finding out how to use some arcane bit of software or a hardware device, something for which there are absolutely no intelligible instructions and people are forced to ask, if they're able to find a path to do so, just how to do something or other. These are then published by the developers or manufacturers as a sort of poor man's instruction booklet. These questions have quite naturally come to be known as Frequently Asked Questions, or FAQ's.

Willi's new FUQ department is similar in a manner of speaking, but different: it is concerned with Frequently Unasked Questions, or FUQ's. Sometimes it can stand for Frequently Unanswered Questions. It seems to him that FUQ's are in many ways more important than FAQ's, more subtle perhaps, yet more important for all of that.

This wide ranging and far reaching department will attempt to expose the numerous deficiencies that he finds to be slowly eating away at good and useful reportage—or anything else that the department can plunder for useful purposes. He supposes that it might have been called The Curmudgeon Department; he is after all 79 years old and one ought to expect these things at his age, but somehow that title didn't have as much zing to it, and zing is an important thing.

Stay tuned.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Rope a Pope

The media coverage of the election of a new pope at the Vatican is incredible. Willi had thought that this was the secular age. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Perhaps it's only a slow news cycle, but people are fascinated with this 2000 year old process. It makes him wonder what the hell is going on.

The New York Times, not exactly known as a bastion of religiosity, cannot get enough of this story, they've published literally dozens of articles. From the merest rumors of the machinations of the Red Hats, in conclave, to the precise details of just how black smoke or white smoke is generated after each round of balloting—here's a hint: the holy spirit doesn't do it—these people are fascinated. Why?

Pope Francis is now the head of the Church until he dies—or decides to retire. Can there be any one now in Europe, Asia, or the Western hemisphere, who does not know that name? Willi asks: what is the name of the top guy in the Eastern Orthodox Church? Who is the Large Lutheran? The Big Buddhist? The Rebbe Rabbi? The Hefty Hindu? The Major Muslim? Vastest Voodooist? No, you can't name any of them. But Willi bets that you can name the Pope. Why?

He doesn't know.