Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Depth of Talent

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One of the undying joys of sports is watching an underdog beat a massive favorite. The U.S. Olympic hockey team beating the USSR in the semi-finals of the 1980 Winter Olympics is one such win, as was the #15 seed University of Richmond basketball team’s win in the first round against my alma mater, the #2 seed Syracuse Orange. Even though those wins were improbable, they came in contests among reasonably well-matched teams. Richmond and Syracuse are both Division I programs, so they could recruit and offer scholarships to elite players.

Few tournaments remain where teams of all levels compete on equal terms. Even the famed Indiana state high school basketball tournament changed to four divisions based on enrollment in 1997. The exception is soccer, or football as it’s called everywhere except  in the U.S. and Canada. Most national organizations hold a tournament where teams of all levels compete. In England, that tournament is the FA (Football Association) Cup. Premier League, League Championship, and League 1 teams get byes through the early rounds, but the lower division sides advance and, on occasion, knock off one of the big boys. It’s unusual for a League 1 or League 2 side to beat a Premier League team, but it does happen.

And then there’s Lincoln. Lincoln plays in the National League, which is, in rank order, below the Premier League, League Championship, League 1, and League 2. According to the New York Times, Lincoln was 81 places below Premier League side Burnley when they played on February 18. No National League team had ever beaten a Premier League side in an FA Cup game until Lincoln pulled it off.

While the win is shocking, it’s doesn’t come against Lincoln’s run of form. They reached the Round of 16 by beating League Championship sides Ipswich and Brighton, so they were clearly playing well. And Burnley is a mid-table club, substantially behind the leaders but well above the cutoff line for relegation to the League Championship. (The bottom three Premier League teams are relegated, while the top two League Championship teams, plus the winner of a playoff between the sides that finished third through sixth, are promoted.) Burnley has the money to attract top-flight foreign talent, while Lincoln fields part-timers who work to supplement their meager football pay.

Upsets of this magnitude make for great stories, but they also point to the depth of talent available to take the field for English sides at all levels of the game. The history of the game, its cultural significance, and the pride that comes from playing well shine through Lincoln’s success. As the saying goes, “England expects.” Lincoln has exceeded those expectations.

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Written by curtisfrye

February 24, 2017 at 10:00 am

Review of Driverless from MIT Press

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Title: Driverless

Authors: Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2016

ISBN13: 978-0-262-03522-4

Length: 328

Price: $29.95

Rating: 94%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Research and development of driverless cars has reached the popular press over the past few years, but until now attempts to frame the debate have remained in the specialty press and academic journals. In Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead, Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman offer a valuable perspective on the technological and policy implications of autonomous vehicles.

Seven Myths

The concept of the driverless car has been around almost as long as the automobile itself, but only in the past few years has the technology underpinning the concept advanced and evolved enough to bring it close to realization. Even so, there is enough disagreement and skepticism to slow the adoption of driverless cars.

Lipson and Kurman organize their narrative around what they call the Seven Delaying Myths that slow advances in driverless car networks:

  1. Autonomous driving technology will evolve out of today’s driver-assist technology
  2. Technological progress is linear
  3. The public is resistant
  4. Driverless cars require extensive investment in infrastructure
  5. Driverless cars represent an ethical dilemma
  6. Driverless cars need to have a nearly perfect driving record to be safe enough
  7. The adoption of driverless cars will be abrupt

I can’t address each point in depth here, but I’ll make a few notes. The second myth, that technological progress is linear, is clearly false. Elementary analyses of networks show that non-linear growth occurs as the number of interconnected members increases. Those connections drive innovation through aggressive idea sharing, competition, and cooperation. The staggering growth of internet technologies and platforms puts this myth to rest easily.

The fourth point, that driverless cars require extensive investment in infrastructure, was true under the completely impractical Electronic Highway paradigm promulgated in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Lane sensors and wires embedded in the road and sensors installed in the cars were prohibitively expensive and required far more computing power than was reasonably available at the time. By 2014, the U.S. government backed research into a paradigm called V2X, where cars exchanged data with other cars, the road, and roadside sensors. Even though the available technologies and processing power were exponentially better than what was available in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the V2X system used a top-down approach where the system, writ broadly, managed each car’s behavior.

One of the authors attended a 2014 U.S. Department of Transportation conference on autonomous vehicles and was astounded to see just a single session of the multi-day event devoted to Google’s self-driving cars and deep learning algorithms. Disagreeing with the DOT’s top-down approach (noted by including the phrase intelligent cars in the book’s subtitle), the authors believe that putting the smarts and sensors in the cars and using the highway’s infrastructure as a series of checkpoints and information relays is the superior solution. I find their argument persuasive. Advances in deep learning and agent-based models let individual vehicles build their skills, which they can combine with other vehicles’ experiences to develop an ever-improving ensemble model through a process the authors call fleet learning.

The Road Ahead

Driverless vehicles have started to appear on American roads, but significant objections remain. What Lipson and Kurman label as Myth #6, that driverless cars need to have a perfect driving record to be safe enough, poses two problems. The first is that it’s easy for critics to move the goal posts. Whatever safety level driverless cars have attained, it’s easy to use the specter of a runaway or hacked vehicle a passenger has no way to control to argue that the cars must be even safer. Second, humans are horrible drivers. According to World Health Organization figures updated in May 2014, 1.2 million people are killed in car accidents worldwide every year.

And yet, even though driverless cars offer the prospect of safer roads, the loss of privacy and autonomy weighs heavily in the balance. While Myth #3, that the public is resistant, is less true than it was, a significant proporation of Americans identify strongly with their car and see it as a way to maintain their freedom. Leaving the driving to a robot would deprive those individuals of an activity they cherish, which is an attitudinal barrier policy makers can’t ignore.

Conclusion

Driverless is an excellent book that offers a systematic and informative narrative on the history, state of the art, and future of driverless cars. Framing the issues through their Seven Myths offers a lens into the rhetoric supporting innovation and adoption of autonomous vehicles. There is much work to do on both the technological and policy sides—Lipson and Kurman’s work contributes meaningfully to that discussion.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 50 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

February 22, 2017 at 10:00 am

In Praise of Room Tone

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As an online course author, I record content that video editors, graphic artists, compositors, and other professionals transform into a final product. I edited two of my own courses, so I can say with certainty that there are plenty of folks out there who are much better at it than I am and deserve to be paid well for their work.

Room tone, a recording of silence in the area where the course is recorded (in my case, a sound booth manufactured by WhisperRoom), lets editors smooth out the rough transitions that result when they cut out part of a track. The team asks authors to provide 30 seconds of room tone so editors can lay it under multiple cuts without too many paste operations.

I use those 30 seconds to reflect on the course I just recorded, remembering the work it took to put the raw materials in place for the production team to work their magic. I say “magic” intentionally–if something seems effortless, you know a lot of work went into making it look that way. As I remember my own efforts, I reaffirm my appreciation for the work the rest of the team does to create, distribute, and promote the course.

Written by curtisfrye

February 16, 2017 at 4:29 pm

Review of Hungry Ghosts, by Stephen Blackmoore

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Title: Hungry Ghosts

Author: Stephen Blackmoore

Publisher: DAW Books

ISBN13: 978-0-756-40941-8

Release: February 7, 2017

Available for purchase from Powell’s, Amazon, or B&N.


I received a free electronic copy of this book for review.

I enjoy urban fantasy, specifically stories that borrow heavily from the film noir and hard-boiled detective genres. Stephen Blackmoore’s Eric Carter novels fit the bill nicely.

Hungry Ghosts is the third installment in the series, following Dead Things and Broken Souls. In Blackmoore’s world, magic relies on a local grid wizards can tap into. The specific expression of that power varies among wizards, with Eric Carter drawn to one of the rarest specialties: necromancer. He is a strong natural talent, but a series of adventures has given him exceptional abilities.

Great strength often comes at great cost, and Carter’s power boost is no exception. The events of the first two books led to his becoming entangled with Santa Muerte, originally known as Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death. “Entangled with” as in “married to.” Mortals pledging themselves to gods can result in significant complications and side effects up to and including fates worse than death, so Carter is properly motivated to take extreme measures to save himself.

The first two novels in the series set up the action in Hungry Ghosts, so I won’t detail the events that put the author’s protagonist in this bind. The action is entertaining and, true to the book’s hard-boiled antecedents, occasionally violent. Okay, fine…you got me: more than occasionally. And yet I never have the feeling that Blackmoore adds violence for its own sake. Instead, frequenting the world of the dead (literally) and carrying around the messed-up baggage that comes with it makes Eric Carter familiar with and capable of delivering death in its various forms.

As an author, Blackmoore writes in a straightforward style that I find engaging. The gritty industrial locations of his mortal criminals’ lairs stand in sharp contrast to the land of the dead and the magical elements present when Aztec gods manifest. The events of Hungry Ghosts takes Eric Carter through regions of existence he had (mostly) heard of but hoped never to traverse. The ongoing exploration of the landscape and Carter’s reaction to it kept me interested throughout. Again, Blackmoore’s direct style serves him well here. He splits his narrative between milieu and character wisely, providing every detail I need to appreciate the challenges of the setting and the consequences of failure while following his protagonist’s thought process as he works through increasingly daunting situations.

I highly recommend Hungry Ghosts and its predecessors, though I do have a couple of caveats given the books’ subject matter and presentation. First, the novels include a fair amount of profanity. I believe the characters’ language, like the violence, is organic to the story, so it doesn’t bother me. Second, readers who shy away from descriptions of bloody crime scenes or casually mentioning a shotgun blast to the back of the knee should pick other books.

I loved all three Eric Carter novels, especially Hungry Ghosts. If you enjoy (or think you might enjoy) urban fantasy, I’m sure you will, too.

Written by curtisfrye

January 7, 2017 at 4:24 pm

Sometimes the Secret is Effort

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I was recently accepted into the University of Illinois’ iMBA program, which offers students the opportunity to earn an accredited MBA degree in a fully online setting. I’m currently in my fifth class, but have supplemented my reading with studies and articles on business topics outside of the required reading. As you might imagine, process measurement and management come up frequently; references to Lean, Six Sigma, and other methodologies abound in the literature.

These frameworks use precise measurements to analyze the defect rate, or the rate at which failures occur. Those defects could be missed deliveries, flights arriving more than fifteen minutes late, or products failing within the standard warranty period. Analysts spend hundreds of hours examining processes in an attempt to squeeze a bit more productivity out of the system, whether by reducing the number of movements autoworkers make when attaching a door to a frame, picking items from warehouse bins, or building algorithms to limit the number of miles traveled by delivery vehicles.

Even though these analytical methods have led to substantial process improvements, there is a lot to be said for the empirical knowledge you gain from working within a system. Long-time workers have often developed their own efficiencies (management-speak for shortcuts) they share with their co-workers out of earshot of their supervisors so they don’t get in trouble for deviating from protocol. One prominent example of applied empirical knowledge is the dabbawalas, or tiffinwalas, who deliver hot lunches in Mumbai, India. Customers who want home-cooked meals at work often can’t bring their own food because the trains are too crowded for the containers or because their water supply isn’t available in time for cooking in the morning. Rather than eat at the company canteen, they order their meals from cooks around town. The meals are picked up and delivered by the dabbawalas through an intricate system of hand-offs that uses trains, buses, carts, bikes, and human muscle to get the aluminum lunch containers (the tiffins) to their destination on time.

The dabbawalas’ marking system uses color and single characters to distinguish district, neighborhood, building, and floor, in part because most of the dabbawalas left school after their eighth year. Transfers happen quickly and with minimal errors. As a testament to the strength of their system, consider that a process is considered Six Sigma certifiable if its defect rate is less than 34 out of 1,000,000 opportunities. The dabbawalas’ miss a delivery target at a rate of 1 out of 6,000,000 opportunities. That’s astonishing. And, yes, the dabbawalas are Six Sigma certified, but they didn’t find out about the award until a couple of years after it happened!

To what may we attribute their success? Their system is amazing and has been the subject of numerous studies, but remember how the tiffins are delivered. Once the containers come off their final train ride, they’re transported by humans on bikes, carts, and the traditional method of grabbing a bunch of lunch pail handles and lugging them up several flights of stairs. And the walas work hard. When you watch one of the YouTube videos showing the process in action, you can’t help but notice the focus, determination, and sheer effort required to move the tiffins on and off trains, sort them accurately, and get them to their destination on time.

Less than 100 years ago, my grandparents worked in a shoe factory without the benefit of union protection. Steelworkers, pipefitters, plumbers, and construction workers work hard and for long hours at difficult jobs today. Along with the tradesmen and women who drive our economy forward, the dabbawalas reinforce the universal truth that the best system is worthless if you’re not willing to make the effort required for success.

Page 187

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Donald Trump just hit page 187.

Allow me to explain. Most contemporary nonfiction books with a dramatic arc run about 350 pages. The first part of the narrative builds up the protagonist, showing his or her path to the pinnacle of their experience. Of course, books about situations where everything goes smoothly don’t sell as well as books with flawed heroes whose fortunes take a turn for the worse. Based on a quick and completely unscientific check of five books in my library, that point appears to come around page 187.

The American media treated Donald Trump as a curiosity and an easy ratings boost until the Republican national convention in July. Now that he has secured the Republican presidential nomination, it’s time for the story to change. Earning the nomination is only the first half of the plot — there’s still another 150 to 200 pages to go.

As Marco Rubio might’ve said four or five times, let’s dispense with the fiction that the media doesn’t know what they’re doing. They know exactly what they’re doing. Up until now, coverage of Donald Trump has focused on the spectacle he creates among his followers. With infrequent (but increasing) exceptions, the media has simply broadcast his statements without significant comment. While there were some challenges from the mainstream media, especially liberal outlets such as MSNBC, most of the conversation surrounding Trump’s utterances reflected disbelief rather than critique.

Now that we are into August, and Trump is officially the nominee, it seems that the media has adopted a new approach. A much more aggressive approach. It’s in the media’s best interest to ensure that Trump remains a viable candidate for as long as possible so they have a race to cover, but they also have a duty to report and interpret the news. Setting aside the laughably inappropriate Fox News motto “We report, you decide”, and MSNBC’s admittedly liberal coverage, it’s now time for news outlets not owned by Rupert Murdoch to satisfy consumer desire by tearing Trump down from the top of the wall he has built. And who knows, maybe the Wall Street Journal will take a stand as well. I don’t expect positive mentions of Hillary Clinton on the Journal’s editorial page, but I don’t anticipate a ringing endorsement of Trump, either.

The trick to tearing down a public figure is to not empty your clip in one burst. There are 99 days until the general election, so media outlets will need to distribute their material over that time. Fortunately, Trump has given them plenty of items work with, helpfully distributing his offensive utterances over categories including, but not limited to: racism, sexism, abuse, ignorance of world affairs, and extreme sensitivity to criticism. The trick is not to find examples of unpresidential behavior, but rather to narrow down the available material into a coherent narrative and avoid saturating audiences with negative coverage.

Research has shown that a political attack ad or piece of adverse news coverage lives in voter memory for about three days. The 24-hour news cycle has changed that consideration a bit, but you don’t want to depress your viewers whenever they switch to your channel. As we work our way from page 188 to 350, we’ll see the media taking occasional breaks from a critical coverage of both candidates. Doing so gives consumers a chance to rest before the next plot point. That’s how accomplished storytellers ply their trade. Rest assured, though, that all respites will be temporary.

Donald Trump’s media strategy was to earn all of the free coverage he wanted. By some estimates, he’s already gotten over $1 billion of media time simply for being outrageous. If he truly believes that there is a no such thing as bad publicity, then the next 99 days should be an absolute joy.

I suspect he’ll change his mind.

Written by curtisfrye

August 1, 2016 at 11:03 am

Review of Infomocracy, by Malka Older

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Title: Infomocracy

Author: Malka Older

Publisher: Tor.com

Copyright: 2016

ISBN13: 978-0-765-38515-4

Length: 384

Price: $24.99

Rating: 98%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Timing, as they say, is everything. Tor.com releases Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy on June 7, into the teeth of a U.S. presidential election cycle, which is the best possible time for the book to come out. I’m happy to report that both publisher and author make the most of the opportunity.

World of Infomocracy

Infomocracy envisions a speculative future in the mid-to-late 21st century where most states have joined a world government system based on local rule. Under this system, the countries have been divided into centenals, which are governing units of 100,000 residents. Each centenal may chose the regime by which they wish to be governed, with choices including ideological governments such as Heritage (conservative), Liberty (libertarian), or Policy1st (everyone’s dream party that advocates the “demonstrably best” policies on each issue, for some definitions of “demonstrably best”); corporate governments including Phillip Morris, 888, and Coca-Cola; and a smattering of nationalist and local parties. The government that wins the most centenals gains the Supermajority, which gives it significant influence at the supranational level. Some countries, including likely candidates Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, decided not to join the world government scheme and govern independently.

At the center of Older’s world lies Information, a global service that combines our current internet, the Internet of Things (e.g., this pachinko machine paid out a 28,000 yen jackpot on such and such a date), as well as manipulable visualizations and heads-up displays. I think the combination of a governing scheme akin to that found in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash with an information service more like the one described in Minority Report serves the story’s needs admirably.

Ground Game

The popular aphorism that “all politics is local” describes a world divided into 100,000-person mini-states quite well. Infomocracy follows Ken, an undercover agent of influence for Policy1st, and Mishima, a researcher and sometime security worker for Information. As in William Gibson’s novels such as Pattern Recognition, we receive the barest hints of what the main characters look like, focusing instead on what they know, what they do, and how they react within their milieu.

As the story progresses, we follow Ken and Mishima around the world as they embark on assignments, react to emergencies, and explore their burgeoning relationship. Sometimes their efforts create the desired change, sometimes they get a mixed result, and sometimes everything goes wrong. Those varied outcomes, which highlight the joy and pain that are never far from the tactical-level worker’s mind, are no doubt the product of Older’s work as a humanitarian aid worker in Japan, Darfur, Mali, and other places (including three years as a team leader), as well as her appointment as a Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015. When you consider that experience in tandem with her master’s degree from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University and Ph.D. work at l’Institut d’Études Politques de Paris, you get a sense of the intellectual firepower she brings to the task.

Events in Infomocracy proceed in a manner that is both familiar and surprising. To paraphrase Chekhov, “If you see a global information network over the fireplace in Act One, it will go off in Act Five.” We don’t quite get to Act Five before the information and communication grid goes down, but fail it does and the hell that was breaking loose accelerates into a maelstrom Ken and Mishima must navigate.

Older brings the narrative to a satisfying conclusion. I didn’t give the book a 100% rating because I thought a few minor elements weren’t handled as well as they might have been, but I don’t feel compelled to write an artificially “balanced” review that makes too much of those quibbles. The book’s too good to spend much time on a few bits that were merely good instead of outstanding.

Conclusion

Infomocracy doesn’t read like a first novel—rather, it reads like the work of an experienced author who can leverage her significant life experience into a compelling narrative. I recommend Malka Older’s Infomocracy enthusiastically and without reservation. I look forward to her next book.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 40 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

May 31, 2016 at 3:56 pm