50 things we never need to hear at another game development conference

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Joe Ludwig shares 50 things we never need to hear at another game development conference:

  1. Korea is the future. They are five years ahead of us and where Korea goes, the rest of the world will follow. (I have been hearing this for at least five years. )
  2. Free to play with micro transactions is the one true business model.
  3. Client downloads are death.
  4. We must look beyond the core gamer audience and embrace more casual players.
  5. Women are 50% of the audience.
  6. Don’t trust the client, it is in the hands of the enemy.
  7. You game is a service.
  8. MMOs are hard. No, they’re really really hard. Seriously. You can’t possibly imagine how hard they are.
  9. [...]

Will Amazon Become the Wal-Mart of the Web?

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Will Amazon become the Wal-Mart of the Web? Hasn’t it already?

Sometime later this year, if current trends continue, worldwide sales of media products — the books, movies and music that Amazon started with — will be surpassed for the first time by sales of other merchandise on the site. (That transition already occurred this year in its North American business.)
Over the last year, shoppers have bought fewer books, CDs and DVDs, in many cases opting for cheaper digital downloads. In the quarter ending in June, for example, Amazon’s worldwide media sales grew only 1 percent, to $2.4 billion, highlighted by a slowdown in video games.

But during the same quarter, sales of other products, which the company lumps together on its balance sheet in a grouping dubbed “electronics and general merchandise,” grew by 35 percent, to $2.07 billion.

One of Amazon’s key strengths is its supply chain management:

Instead of storing similar items next to each other — televisions with other electronics, shampoo with other personal care items — randomness abounds. In the warehouse where Terry Jones loudly roams the aisles, which the company somewhat randomly dubs Phoenix 3, “Star Wars” action figures are stocked next to sleeping bags; bagel chips sit next to the “Beatles: Rock Band” video game.

In one high-risk valuables area, monitored by overhead video cameras, a single Impulse Jack Rabbit sex toy is wedged between a Rosetta Stone Spanish CD and an iPod Nano.

In nearby Goodyear, Ariz., at an even larger distribution center known as Phoenix 5, Amazon stores and ships more unwieldy items. Samsung 54-inch plasma HDTVs are stacked three high on the floor, next to crates of Pampers. Across the aisle, a kayak ($879) sits alone on the floor, wrapped tightly in cardboard and plastic.

Amazon says it stores dissimilar products next to each other on purpose, to minimize the possibility that employees select the wrong item. That seems unlikely: every product, shelving unit, forklift, roller cart and employee badge in these shipping centers has a bar code. Each physical move is orchestrated by software that calculates the most efficient path from shelf to the shipping area, telling employees on their wireless bar code readers which aisle and palette to go to next.

“Imagine how many customers we serve and if they were all here now,” said Bert Wegner, Amazon’s director of North American fulfillment, gesturing over the open space in Phoenix 5. “We are doing the heavy lifting for all of them in a hyper-efficient manner.”

Amazon also benefits greatly from its advanced inventory management methods and ability to negotiate beneficial payment terms with vendors. The company sells such a large volume of merchandise, and can predict customer demand so accurately, that it generally sells products within 65 days, before it has to pay suppliers for them.

That arrangement, which analysts call “negative working capital,” is unusual outside of grocery stores and allows Amazon to avoid the huge capital charges associated with buying and storing such a broad line of inventory. It also boosts the company’s cash flow, which it has used to pay down its debt to $109 million at the end of June from a hefty $2 billion in 2000, and to add more product lines to its Web site.

Amazon’s profit and margins have always been slender; it earned only $645 million in 2008, up 36 percent from the year before, compared to Wal-Mart’s $13.4 billion, up 5 percent. But Wall Street is more enamored by the promise of the online retailer, valuing Amazon at around 60 times earnings and Wal-Mart at 15 times earnings.

“They don’t have to incur huge inventory carrying costs and can add product categories almost ad infinitum,” said Jeffrey Lindsay, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. “Amazon has an almost magical business model in terms of inventory management.”

Belatedly, Egypt Spots Flaws in Wiping Out Pigs

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Belatedly, Egypt spots flaws in wiping out pigs:

Cairo’s garbage collection belonged to the informal sector. The government hired multinational companies to collect the trash, and the companies decided to place bins around the city.

But they failed to understand the ethos of the community. People do not take their garbage out. They are accustomed to seeing someone collecting it from the door.

For more than half a century, those collectors were the zabaleen, a community of Egyptian Christians who live on the cliffs on the eastern edge of the city. They collected the trash, sold the recyclables and fed the organic waste to their pigs — which they then slaughtered and ate.

Killing all the pigs, all at once, “was the stupidest thing they ever did,” Ms. Kamel said, adding, “This is just one more example of poorly informed decision makers.”

When the swine flu fear first emerged, long before even one case was reported in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak ordered that all the pigs be killed in order to prevent the spread of the disease.

When health officials worldwide said that the virus was not being passed by pigs, the Egyptian government said that the cull was no longer about the flu, but was about cleaning up the zabaleen’s crowded, filthy, neighborhood.

That was in May.

Today the streets of the zabaleen community are as packed with stinking trash and as clouded with flies as ever before. But the zabaleen have done exactly what they said they would do: they stopped taking care of most of the organic waste.

Instead they dump it wherever they can or, at best, pile it beside trash bins scattered around the city by the international companies that have struggled in vain to keep up with the trash.

“They killed the pigs, let them clean the city,” said Moussa Rateb, a former garbage collector and pig owner who lives in the community of the zabaleen. “Everything used to go to the pigs, now there are no pigs, so it goes to the administration.”

The recent trash problem was compounded when employees of one of the multinational companies — men and women in green uniforms with crude brooms dispatched around the city — stopped working in a dispute with the city.

The government says that the dispute has been resolved, but nothing has been done to repair the damage to the informal system that once had the zabaleen take Cairo’s trash home.

Eric Falkenstein’s Finding Alpha

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Tyler Cowen definitely liked Eric Falkenstein's Finding Alpha:

It’s the best readable summary I know of why CAPM fails (see my comments here). Market data do not, upon examination, show a close connection between risk and return, at least not once you start moving out on the risk spectrum beyond T-Bills and the like. It’s not just the famous Fama and French papers, it is worse than you think. I also like the author’s “relative status” theory for why many people enjoy risk; it reminds me of Reuven Brenner, a neglected economist to this day.

Microlending doesn’t really fight poverty

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Billions of dollars and a Nobel Prize later, it looks like microlending doesn’t really fight poverty:

[T]wo new research papers suggest that microcredit is not nearly the powerful tool it has been made out to be. The papers, by leading development economists affiliated with MIT’s Jameel Poverty Action Lab, have not yet been published, but they are already being called the most thorough, careful studies yet done on the topic. What they find is that, by most measures, microcredit does not offer a way out of poverty. It helps a few of the more entrepreneurial poor to start up businesses, and at the margins it may boost the profits of existing microenterprises, but that doesn’t translate into gains for the borrowers, as measured by indicators like income, spending, health, or education. In fact, most microcredit clients actually spend their borrowed money not on a business, but on household expenses, on paying off other debts or on a relatively big-ticket item like a TV or a daughter’s wedding. And while microcredit champions point to microloans as a tool for empowering women, the studies see no impact on gender roles, and find evidence that if any one group benefits more, it’s male entrepreneurs with existing businesses.

Forget the Goggles

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

It may be a bit soon to say, forget the goggles, but it does look like chlorophyll eye drops might give night vision:

In the 1990s, marine biologist Ron Douglas of City University London discovered that, unlike other deep-sea fish, the dragonfish Malacosteus niger can perceive red light. Douglas was surprised when he isolated the chemical responsible for absorbing red: It was chlorophyll. “That was weird,” he says. The fish had somehow co-opted chlorophyll, most likely from bacteria in their food, and turned it into a vision enhancer.

In 2004, Ilyas Washington, an ophthalmic scientist at Columbia University Medical Center, came across Douglas’s findings. Washington knew that the mechanisms involved in vision tend to be similar throughout the animal kingdom, so he wondered whether chlorophyll could also enhance the vision of other animals, including humans. His latest experiments in mice and rabbits suggest that administering chlorophyll to the eyes can double their ability to see in low light. The pigment absorbs hues of red light that are normally invisible in dim conditions. That information is then transmitted to the brain, allowing enhanced vision.

Lewis vs Haldane

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

J. B. S. Haldane was quite a character, one of the founders of modern population genetics and a rabid Communist. He famously remarked that important theories go through four stages of acceptance:

  1. This is worthless nonsense.
  2. This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view.
  3. This is true, but quite unimportant.
  4. I always said so.

C. S. Lewis was, of course, a Christian apologist — perhaps better known for his children’s fantasy novels, The Chronicles of Narnia. But Lewis also wrote science fiction. David Foster summarizes the third novel of Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy, That Hideous Strength:

Mark, a young sociologist, is hired by a government agency called NICE — the National Institute for Coordinated Experimentation — having as its stated mission the application of science to social problems. (Unbelievably, today the real-life British agency which establishes rationing policies for healthcare is also called NICE.) In the novel, NICE turns out to be a conspiracy devoted to very diabolical purposes, as Mark gradually discovers. It also turns out that the main reason NICE wanted to hire Mark is to get control of his wife, Jane (maiden name: Tudor) who has clairvoyant powers. The NICE officials want to use Jane’s abilities to get in touch with the magician Merlin and to effect a junction between modern scientific power and the ancient powers of magic, thereby bringing about the enslavement of mankind and worse. Jane, though, becomes involved with a group which represents the polar opposite of NICE, led by a philology professor named Ransom, who is clearly intended as a Christ-figure. The conflict between NICE and the Ransom group will determine the future of humanity.

In 1946, Haldane criticized the novels, and Foster finds the exchange between the two still relevant to our current political and philosophical landscape. Consider Lewis’s thoughts on money and power, in response to Haldane’s celebration that “Mammon has been cleared off a sixth of our planet’s surface [the USSR]”:

The difference between us is that the Professor sees the ‘World’ purely in terms of those threats and those allurements which depend on money. I do not. The most ‘worldly’ society I have ever lived in is that of schoolboys: most worldly in the cruelty and arrogance of the strong, the toadyism and mutual treachery of the weak, and the unqualified snobbery of both. Nothing was so base that most members of the school proletariat would not do it, or suffer it, to win the favour of the school aristocracy: hardly any injustice too bad for the aristocracy to practise. But the class system did not in the least depend on the amount of pocket money. Who needs to care about money if most of the things he wants will be offered by cringing servility and the remainder can be taken by force?

This lesson has remained with me all my life. That is one of the reasons why I cannot share Professor Haldanes exaltation at the banishment of Mammon from ‘a sixth of our planet’s surface’. I have already lived in a world from which Mammon was banished: it was the most wicked and miserable I have yet known. If Mammon were the only devil, it would be another matter. But where Mammon vacates the throne, how if Moloch takes his place?

As Aristotle said, ‘Men do not become tyrants in order to keep warm’. All men, of course, desire pleasure and safety. But all men also desire power and all men desire the mere sense of being ‘in the know’ or the ‘inner ring’, of not being ‘outsiders’: a passion insufficiently studied and the chief theme of my story. When the state of society is such that money is the passport to all these prizes, then of course money will be the prime temptation. But when the passport changes, the desires will remain.

On centralized scientific planning:

Every tyrant must begin by claiming to have what his victims respect and to give what they want. The majority in most modern countries respect science and want to be planned. And, therefore, almost by definition, if any man or group wishes to enslave us it will of course describe itself as ’scientific planned democracy’.
My fears of such a tyranny will seem to the Professor either insincere or pusillanimous. For him the danger is all in the opposite direction, in the chaotic selfishness of individualism. I must try to explain why I fear more the disciplined cruelty of some ideological oligarchy. The Professor has his own explanation of this; he thinks I am unconsciously motivated by the fact that I ’stand to lose by social change’. And indeed it would be hard for me to welcome a change which might well consign me to a concentration camp. I might add that it would be likewise easy for the Professor to welcome a change which might place him in the highest rank of an omnicompetent oligarchy. That is why the motive game is so uninteresting. Each side can go on playing ad nauseam, but when all the mud has been flung every man’s views still remain to be considered on their merits.

On democracy — which looks an awful lot like conservatism:

I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations. And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic, held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future. To attach to a party programme — whose highest real claim is to reasonable prudence — the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of intoxication.
Being a democrat, I am opposed to all very drastic and sudden changes of society (in whatever direction) because they never in fact take place except by a particular technique. That technique involves the seizure of power by a small, highly disciplined group of people; the terror and the secret police follow, it would seem, automatically. I do not think any group good enough to have such power. They are men of like passions with ourselves. The secrecy and discipline of their organisation will have already inflamed in them that passion for the inner ring which I think at least as corrupting as avarice; and their high ideological pretensions will have lent all their passions the dangerous prestige of the Cause. Hence, in whatever direction the change is made, it is for me damned by its modus operandi. The worst of all public dangers is the committee of public safety. The character in That Hideous Strength whom the Professor never mentions is Miss Hardcastle, the chief of the secret police. She is the common factor in all revolutions; and, as she says, you won’t get anyone to do her job well unless they get some kick out of it.

College Student With Sword Kills Burglary Suspect

Friday, September 18th, 2009

College student with sword kills burglary suspect:

Some shocked neighbors said they heard bloodcurdling screams in an area just blocks from the university. Police held the student, a junior chemistry major who turns 21 on Sunday, for several hours, but he was not charged with any crimes Tuesday, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.

Around 1:20 a.m., the student heard noises behind the home and noticed a door to the garage was open, Guglielmi said. He grabbed the sword and confronted the intruder — identified by police as Donald D. Rice, 49, a habitual offender who had just been released from jail.

Rice was crouching beneath a counter, police said. The student asked him what he was doing and threatened to call police.

“When he said that, the suspect lunged at him, kind of forced the kid against the wall, and he struck him with the sword,” Guglielmi said.

Rice’s left hand was nearly severed — Guglielmi described it as “hanging on by a thread” — and he suffered a severe cut to the upper body. He died at the scene.

(Hat tip to Shannon Love.)

Lean Software Development

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Mary Poppendieck (Leading Lean Software Development) never heard the term waterfall while working at 3M:

We always had developers understand their customers and test every bit of code as they wrote it. The first time I heard about this thing called “waterfall,” it was prescribed by a contract for the State of Minnesota, and I couldn’t figure out how it could possibly work. Actually, it didn’t work very well at all, and I decided it was a rather strange way to develop software. So I decided to write a book, taking ideas from Lean Manufacturing and applying them to software development.

Lean is from manufacturing, but many of the ideas carry over to other fields with little modification:

Well, Lean works for banking, which is a service business. Svenska Handelsbanken is a bank in Sweden that has been using Lean principles for 25 years. It puts the bank in a position to deal with discontinuous change in the financial markets by expecting local teams to make independent decisions. By having many individual teams seeing what opportunities are out there and responding, the bank stays ahead of changes in the markets.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, also believes in small, independent teams; he calls them two-pizza teams. A two-pizza team is the number of people that can be fed with two pizzas. Amazon’s cloud is a service-oriented architecture in which each service is owned by a two-pizza team. The team is responsible for the service from cradle to grave: determining what is needed, development, operations, support — everything.

Toyota is the same; teams of six to eight people, with good mentoring from their manager, get work done better and faster.

An underlying concept of Lean is that if you can’t create small independent-thinking teams, you can’t respond rapidly in the face of continuous change. So you need to create a governance structure that allows the teams to make the right decisions and makes it possible for them to focus on the outcomes of the ultimate customer.

(Hat tip to Kevin Meyer at Evolving Excellence.)

Nonscientists Naive about Science

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Nonscientists are often naive about science, Eric Falkenstein says, even when they have great faith in it:

If you go to The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, you invariably hear a bunch of caricatures of those who disagree with conventional wisdom on science — most of which truly are quacks, but not always — and they pedantically emphasize how these alternative views are ‘not science’: they have beliefs that do not have peer-reviewed tests supporting a falsifiable hypothesis. Or listen to Chris Mooney, a journalists who thinks the masses are insufficiently scientific, and argues that Republicans hate or are ignorant of science. He argues we should have more ‘pro science’ candidates, reflecting the 19th century progressive notion that with education, most disagreements and bad policy disappears. Most importantly, if the masses knew more, he surely thinks then popular opinion would converge to his. This from a journalist, a clan whose scientific proficiency is similar to the athleticism of mathematicians.

When journalists talk about science in general this is usually a pretext for saying those who disagree with their favorite idea are wrong, because they are unscientific. Who can be against science? There isn’t a formal anti-science movement because it’s indefensible in principle. They then caricature their opponents, taking the most inarticulate advocates from the other side, and skewering their illogic. They then sit back and take take inordinate pride in their scientific pretensions, as if their selective discussion was objective. The fact is, most ‘big’ scientific issues do not conform to the scientific method, where one puts out testable hypotheses, rejecting ones that are falsified.
God is dead, but faith did not disappear. Rather, people always have faith in whatever they think is really important. With God out, now what is important is some big cause that, when fixed, will create a better world. As Eric Hoffer noted in The True Believer, ‘all mass movements are interchangeable’, meaning nationalistic, religious, social, political movements have the same true believers. Western civilization has tossed off nationalism and religion, but we are just as ideological as ever, only now we pride ourselves that our beliefs in social or ecological justice as the result of truth, divined through science. If only.

Why Our Kind Can’t Cooperate

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Eliezer Yudkowsky examines why our kind can’t cooperate — meaning his kind, the atheist, libertarian, technophile, sf-fan, early-adopter, programmer, etc. crowd — which leads him to ask, How do things work on the Dark Side?

The respected leader speaks, and there comes a chorus of pure agreement: if there are any who harbor inward doubts, they keep them to themselves. So all the individual members of the audience see this atmosphere of pure agreement, and they feel more confident in the ideas presented — even if they, personally, harbored inward doubts, why, everyone else seems to agree with it.

(“Pluralistic ignorance” is the standard label for this.)

If anyone is still unpersuaded after that, they leave the group (or in some places, are executed) — and the remainder are more in agreement, and reinforce each other with less interference.

(I call that “evaporative cooling of groups“.)

The ideas themselves, not just the leader, generate unbounded enthusiasm and praise. The halo effect is that perceptions of all positive qualities correlate — e.g. telling subjects about the benefits of a food preservative made them judge it as lower-risk, even though the quantities were logically uncorrelated. This can create a positive feedback effect that makes an idea seem better and better and better, especially if criticism is perceived as traitorous or sinful.

(Which I term the “affective death spiral“.)

So these are all examples of strong Dark Side forces that can bind groups together.

And presumably we would not go so far as to dirty our hands with such…

Therefore, as a group, the Light Side will always be divided and weak. Atheists, libertarians, technophiles, nerds, science-fiction fans, scientists, or even non-fundamentalist religions, will never be capable of acting with the fanatic unity that animates radical Islam. Technological advantage can only go so far; your tools can be copied or stolen, and used against you. In the end the Light Side will always lose in any group conflict, and the future inevitably belongs to the Dark.

There’s much more. Read the whole thing.

Borlaug explaining wheat allergies

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Almost a decade ago, Ronald Bailey of Reason interviewed Norman Borlaug and, among other things, asked him about “unnaturally” crossing genetic barriers between crop species:

As a matter of fact, Mother Nature has crossed species barriers, and sometimes nature crosses barriers between genera — that is, between unrelated groups of species. Take the case of wheat. It is the result of a natural cross made by Mother Nature long before there was scientific man. Today’s modern red wheat variety is made up of three groups of seven chromosomes, and each of those three groups of seven chromosomes came from a different wild grass. First, Mother Nature crossed two of the grasses, and this cross became the durum wheats, which were the commercial grains of the first civilizations spanning from Sumeria until well into the Roman period. Then Mother Nature crossed that 14-chromosome durum wheat with another wild wheat grass to create what was essentially modern wheat at the time of the Roman Empire.

Durum wheat was OK for making flat Arab bread, but it didn’t have elastic gluten. The thing that makes modern wheat different from all of the other cereals is that it has two proteins that give it the doughy quality when it’s mixed with water. Durum wheats don’t have gluten, and that’s why we use them to make spaghetti today. The second cross of durum wheat with the other wild wheat produced a wheat whose dough could be fermented with yeast to produce a big loaf. So modern bread wheat is the result of crossing three species barriers, a kind of natural genetic engineering.

And that, Aretae quips, is Borlaug explaining wheat allergies.

Istanbul’s Crime Conundrum

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Istanbul’s crime conundrum, Claire Berlinski says, is that it’s one of the world’s safest cities, but burglaries are booming. So, why is Istanbul so safe?

Istanbul’s residents are religious, their values are traditional, their families are intact, they don’t drink much, they keep an eagle eye on their kids, they are nosy, their streets are busy, and if they see someone committing a crime, they beat him to a pulp. It’s a near-perfect crime-fighting formula.

Start with religion and values. Turkey is officially secular, but 99.8 percent of its citizens are self-identified Muslims, and almost all believe in God. Turkish culture is obsessively preoccupied with honor, and to be seen as a criminal is immensely shameful. Tantan describes the stigma attached to crime: “If you commit theft, there’s no way you can ever walk around again or show your face, even to your family or the people closest to you.” Every Turk with whom I have spoken agrees.

Next, Turkish families. Only 6 percent of Turkish marriages end in divorce — as opposed to roughly 55 percent in the United States — and 90 percent of Turkish households are either nuclear, with both parents in the home, or extended by grandparents and other relatives. If the extended family doesn’t live in the same home, it usually lives nearby. Only a tiny minority of children are raised by single parents; having a child out of wedlock is shameful, and so is permitting one’s elderly parents to fend for themselves or putting them in a group home. Given what we know about the propensity of single-parent households to produce criminal offspring in the West, it’s hard to doubt the connection between Turkey’s intact families and Istanbul’s (mostly) low crime rate.

Moreover, out of both custom and economic necessity, children here tend to live with their parents until they get married. Parents consider it their right and duty to decide whether their children’s friends are suitable and to know where their children are at all times. As a consequence, unsupervised young people tend not to roam the streets at all hours. And if they are on the streets, at any time of the day, they’re sober. Alcohol is not alien to Turkish culture — old Turkish poetry is replete with references to wine — but most Turks, especially if they are pious, do not drink much. Public drunkenness, which is considered shameful, is extremely rare.

People in Istanbul watch, judge, and look out for one another in a way that people don’t, for example, in Paris, where I lived for five years without knowing my neighbors’ names. Istanbul is a city of busybodies — another reason for the rarity of violent crime. If I so much as drop a heavy dictionary on my floor, the shrieking hysteric who lives below me will be at my door in seconds to investigate.

I am friends with a martial-arts instructor whose apartment is in a poorer, conservative neighborhood. When he started giving lessons there, the neighbors called the police. They had seen young men going in; they had heard grunting and thumping; and they had seen the same men leaving, sweaty and exhausted. They came to the obvious conclusion: he was running a whorehouse. My friend knew that he would never be able to convince them that everything was aboveboard, and knew as well that if it continued, they would lynch him. The words “mind your own business” would have been useless. He moved the lessons elsewhere. As that story suggests, Istanbul has what Tantan calls “a culture of safety.” Obnoxious, even oppressive, this constant meddling nevertheless has a bright side: a Kitty Genovese story in Istanbul would be hard to imagine.

The density of Istanbul’s population and the vibrancy of its street life also ensure that potential wrongdoers are unlikely to escape the eyes of its inhabitants. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs famously described the role of sidewalks in ensuring public safety: “There must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to what we might call the natural proprietors of the street…. The sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the numbers of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in the buildings along the street to watch it in sufficient numbers…. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.”

Jacobs might have been describing Istanbul, whose sidewalks bustle with commerce. Almost every street in Istanbul is lined with small grocers and shopkeepers. They stand on the sidewalks most of the time, even in cold weather, socializing with one another and keeping watch over the neighborhood well into the night. They know who belongs and who doesn’t. When I walk down my street, five or six shopkeepers greet me, know me by name, ask me how I am, and would doubtless defend me if I found myself threatened or harassed. Turkey is patriarchal, but in this regard it’s also chivalrous.

That patriarchal culture — along with the low rates of female employment to which it gives rise, especially among older women in more religious and conservative families — also contributes to the city’s safety. Stuck at home, many of these women are frustrated and bored. Not only do they mind their children’s business; they mind everyone else’s. Having nothing better to do, they spend their lives looking out their windows and squawking excitedly if they see anything amiss.

A final, and critical, ingredient in Istanbul’s safety is vigilantism. If you commit a crime and get caught, odds are you’ll get a good thrashing. Not long ago, I was sitting at an outdoor café when a disheveled man wandered by, arguing madly with imaginary demons. For some reason, he felt moved to grab a handful of garbage from a nearby bin and throw it at a table of diners. The owner of the restaurant charged over, beat him savagely, then grabbed him by the collar and threw him into the busy street, where only luck saved him from being hit by a car.

I’ve seen this sort of thing more than once, and it is not pretty. This kind of justice is neither blind nor merciful. Taking the law into one’s own hands is just as illegal, on the books, in Turkey as it is in America, but the cops tend to look the other way when it happens. When I reported that my apartment had been burgled, I asked the police officers at the station what the law would have allowed me to do, precisely, had I woken up and confronted the intruder. “The law says you can defend yourself with proportionate force,” said one detective in an officious, pencil-pushing way. Then his tone grew sly. “But if he got frightened and tried to flee — off the balcony, say” — my balcony is five stories from the ground — “well, these things happen!” He chuckled, and so did all the other cops.

So, why all the burglaries?

The rights of children have been at the top of Turkey’s legal-reform project: it is now nearly impossible to incarcerate them here, just as it is in Europe. Obviously, the protection of children is a welcome development, but it also creates a perverse incentive for criminals to exploit them: even those children who are caught red-handed can be back at work the next day. In response to the question, “Why burglary, but not mugging?,” could the answer be that kids simply aren’t very good at mugging adults? They’re terrific little burglars, though — they can get through windows that adults can’t squeeze through. They’re light, so they can climb stairs and pad through apartments without waking people up.

Google Lets You Custom-Print Millions of Public Domain Books

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Google now lets you custom-print millions of public domain books through their partner On Demand Books and the Espresso Book Machine:

And now Google Book Search, in partnership with On Demand Books, is letting readers turn those digital copies back into paper copies, individually printed by bookstores around the world.

Or at least by those booksellers that have ordered its $100,000 Espresso Book Machine, which cranks out a 300 page gray-scale book with a color cover in about 4 minutes, at a cost to the bookstore of about $3 for materials. The machine prints the pages, binds them together perfectly, and then cuts the book to size and then dumps a book out, literally hot off the press, with a satisfying clunk. (The company says a machine can print about 60,000 books a year.)

That means you can stop into the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, and for less than $10, custom-order your own copy of Dame Curtsey’s Book of Candy Making, the third edition of which was published in 1920 and which can only be found online for $47.00 used.

Dane Neller, On Demand Books CEO, says the announcement flips book distribution on its head.

“We believe this is a revolution,” Neller said. “Content retrieval is now centralized and production is decentralized.”

On Demand Books suggests that book stores price the books at about $8, leaving retailers with a $3 profit after both Google and On Demand Books collect a buck-a-book fee. Google plans to donate its share to a yet-unspecified charity, which might be a reaction to its messy legal and public policy fight over a copyright settlement that covers books that are still in copyright. (All the books that are being added to On Demand Books repertoire in this agreement are out of copyright in the country where it will be printed.)

Google spokeswoman Jennie Johnson notes that “Most people can’t get into the Harvard Library, but you can print their books next door,” at the Harvard Bookstore.

Fungus-treated Violin Outdoes Stradivarius

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

A fungus-treated violin has outperformed a Stradivarius:

September 1st 2009 was a day of reckoning for Empa scientist Francis Schwarze and the Swiss violin maker Michael Rhonheimer. The violin they had created using wood treated with a specially selected fungus was to take part in a blind test against an instrument made in 1711 by the master violin maker of Cremona himself, Antonio Stradivarius.

In the test, the British star violinist Matthew Trusler played five different instruments behind a curtain, so that the audience did not know which was being played. One of the violins Trusler played was his own strad, worth two million dollars. The other four were all made by Rhonheimer — two with fungally-treated wood, the other two with untreated wood.

A jury of experts, together with the conference participants, judged the tone quality of the violins. Of the more than 180 attendees, an overwhelming number — 90 persons — felt the tone of the fungally treated violin “Opus 58″ to be the best. Trusler’s stradivarius reached second place with 39 votes, but amazingly enough 113 members of the audience thought that “Opus 58″ was actually the strad! “Opus 58″ is made from wood which had been treated with fungus for the longest time, nine months.

Why does a Stradivarius sound so good, and why would fungus help achieve that sound?

Stradivarius himself knew nothing of fungi which attack wood, but he received inadvertent help from the “Little Ice Age” which occurred from 1645 to 1715. During this period Central Europe suffered long winters and cool summers which caused trees to grow slowly and uniformly — ideal conditions in fact for producing wood with excellent acoustic qualities.
The fungal attack changes the cell structure of the wood, reducing its density and simultaneously increasing its homogeneity. “Compared to a conventional instrument, a violin made of wood treated with the fungus has a warmer, more rounded sound,” explains Francis Schwarze.