Is the Los Angeles Times Simply Publishing Press Releases for Companies Like Barnes & Noble?

The Los Angeles Times published an online article entitled “Barnes & Noble says e-books outsell physical books online.” While I understand that this is a quiet holiday week, the Times should be doing better work than simply republishing press releases from corporations trying to garner post-holiday sales.  Some of the thoughts they might have included:

“Customers bought or downloaded 1 million e-books on Christmas day alone”?

There is certainly no debating the continuous growth of the electronic book industry; even Amazon.com has said they’re selling more electronic books than physical books. The key word in the quoted sentence above is “or”. I seriously doubt a significant portion of the 1 million e-books were actually purchased on Christmas day. The real investigative journalism here would have discovered the percentage of free (primarily public domain) e-books that were downloaded versus those that were purchased.

Given that analysts estimate 2 million Nooks have sold (the majority within the last six months and likely the preponderance of them since Thanksgiving) this means that half of all Nook users downloaded at least one book on Christmas day. Perhaps this isn’t surprising for those who would have received a Nook as a holiday present and may have downloaded one or more e-books to test out its functionality. The real question will remain, how many of these 2 million users will actually be purchasing books in e-book format 6 months from now?

I’d also be curious to know if the analyst estimate is 2 million units sold to consumers or 2 million shipped to retail? I would bet that it is units shipped and not sold.

I hope the Times will be doing something besides transcription (or worse: cut and paste) after the holidays.

 


Poor State of Automated Machine-Based Language Translation

You know that automated machine language translation is not in good shape when the editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Signal Processing Magazine says:

As an anecdote, during the early stage in creating the Chinese translation of the [Signal Processing] magazine, we experimented with automated machine translation first, only to quickly switch to professional human translation.  This makes us appreciate why “universal translation” is the “needs and wants” of the future rather than of the present; see [3] for a long list of of future needs and wants to be enabled by signal processing technology.

 

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The Hidden Player

Thomas Henry Huxley

Improved Reading and Workflows with Instapaper and Tab Candy aka Panorama for Firefox

Over the summer, Ars Technica and others reported about the new feature Tab Candy being built into Firefox by Aza Raskin.  Essentially it’s a better graphical way of keeping “tabs” on the hundreds of tabs some of us like to keep open for our daily workflows.  One can now group series of related tabs together and view them separately from other groupings.  Many of us loved the feature in the early Minefield build of Firefox, but the recent release of Firefox 4.0 beta 7 includes the nearly finished and stable version of Tab Candy, which has been renamed Panorama, and it is great.

Though Panorama is a brilliant, one of the functionalities it doesn’t have and which is mentioned in the Ars Technica article, is that of “reading later.” I find, as do many, that the majority of the tabs I keep open during the day are for things I have the best intentions of reading later.  Sadly, often days go by and many of these tabs remain open and unread because I simply don’t have time during the work day and don’t come back later in my free time to give them the attention they deserve.  (It also coincidentally has the side effect of soaking up additional memory, a symptom which can be remedied with this helpful tip from Lifehacker.)

I’ve now got the answer for these unread stories in neglected tabs: Instapaper.com.  Instapaper, the brainchild of former Tumblr exec Marco Arment, is similar to many extant bookmarking tools, but with increased functionality that makes it infinitely easier to come back and actually read those stories.  Typically I use the Instapaper bookmarklet tool on a webpage with a story I want to come back to later, and it bookmarks the story for me and is configurable to allow closing that tab once done.

The unique portion of the tool is that Instapaper provides multiple ways of pulling out the bookmarked content for easy reading later.  For those who are RSS fans, you can subscribe to your bookmarked stream with tools like Google Reader.  But even better, the site allows one to easily download .mobi or .epub bundled files of the stories that can be put onto your e-reader of choice.  (I personally email copies to my Kindle 3 (affiliate link.)) Once this is done, I can simply and easily read all those stories I never got around to, reading them like a daily personal newspaper at my convenience – something I’m much more prone to do given my addiction to my Kindle, which provides a so-called “sit back experience.”

As if all this isn’t good enough, Instapaper allows you to create differentiable folders (along with separate requisite RSS feeds and bookmarklet tools) so that you can easily separate your newspaper articles from your tech articles, or even your communication theory research papers from your genetics scientific articles.  This can allow you to take your daily twitter feed article links and turn them into a personalized newspaper for easy reading on your choice of e-book reader.  With the upcoming pending Christmas of the e-reader and tablets, this is as close to perfect timing for the killer app as a developer could hope.

The e-book reader combined with Instapaper is easily the best invention since Gutenberg’s original press.

(N.B.: One could bookmark every interesting article in the daily New York Times and read them in e-book format this way, but I would recommend using an application like Calibre for reducing the time required for doing this instead. Instapaper is best used as a custom newspaper creator.)

Matt Ridley’s Thesis: When Ideas Have Sex

When extrapolated a bit, this thesis is one of the best arguments for why Twitter and other methods of social media are so useful.  There really is a great idea at the core of this presentation.

 

Paul Halmos on Prerequisites

Definitely the quote of the day:

Paul Halmos (1916 – 2006, Hungarian-born American mathematician
in Measure Theory (1950)

 

This is essentially the mathematician’s equivalent of the adage “Fake it ’til you make it.”

Riemann’s On the Hypotheses Which Lie at the Foundations of Geometry

One must be truly enamored of the internet that it allows one to find and read a copy of Bernhard Riemann’s doctoral thesis Habilitation Lecture (in English translation) at the University of Göttingen from 1854!

His brief paper has created a tsunami of mathematical work and research in the ensuing 156 years. It has ultimately become one of the seminal works in the development of the algebra and calculus of n-dimensional manifolds.

Brief Thoughts on the Google/Verizon Compromise and Net Neutrality in the Mobile Space

This last week there’s been a lot of interesting discussion about net neutrality as it relates particularly to the mobile space.  Though there has been some generally good discussion and interesting debate on the topic, I’ve found the best spirited discussion to be that held by Leo Laporte, Gina Trapani, Jeff Jarvis, and guest Stacey Higginbotham on this week’s episode of This Week in Google.

What I’ve found most interesting in many of these debates, including this one, is that though there is occasional discussion of building out additional infrastructure to provide additional capacity, there is generally never discussion of utilizing information theory to improve bandwidth either mathematically or from an engineering perspective.  Claude Shannon is rolling in his grave.

Apparently, despite last year’s great “digital switch” in television frequencies from analog to provide additional television capacity and the subsequent auction of the 700MHz spectrum, everyone forgets that engineering additional capacity is often cheaper and easier than just physically building more.  Shannon’s original limit is far from a reality, so we know there’s much room for improvement here, particularly because most of the improvement on reaching his limit in the past two decades has come about particularly because of the research in and growth of the mobile communications industry.

Perhaps our leaders could borrow a page from JFK in launching the space race in the 60’s, but instead of focusing on space, they might look at science and mathematics in making our communications infrastructure more robust and guaranteeing free and open internet access to all Americans?

Terence Tao Teaching Real Analysis at UCLA this Fall

Holy cow! I discovered on Friday that Terence Tao, a Fields Medal winner, will be teaching a graduate level Real Analysis class this fall at UCLA.

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Surprisingly, to me, it ony has 4 students currently enrolled!! Having won a Fields Medal in August 2006, this is a true shock, for who wouldn’t want to learn analysis from such a distinguished professor? Are there so few graduate students at UCLA who need a course in advanced analysis? I would imagine that there would be graduate students in engineering and even physics who might take such a course, but perhaps I’m wrong?

Most of his ratings on RateMyProfessors are actually fairly glowing; the one generally negative review was given for a topology class and generally seems to be an outlier.

On his own website in a section about the class and related announcements we seem to find the answer to the mystery about enrollment.  There he says:

 I intend this to be a serious course, focused on teaching the material in the course description.  As such, students who are taking or auditing the course out of idle curiosity or mathematical “sightseeing”, rather than to learn the basics of measure theory and integration theory, may be disappointed.  I would therefore prefer that frivolous enrollments in the class be kept to a minimum.

This is generally sound advice, but would even the most serious mathematical tourists really bother to make an attempt at such an advanced course? Why bother if you’re not going to do the work?!

Fans of the Mathematical Genealogy Project will be interested to notice that Dr. Tao is requiring his Ph.D. advisor’s text Real Analysis: Measure Theory, Integration, and Hilbert Spaces. He’s also recommending Folland‘s often used text as well, though if he really wanted to scare off the lookie-loos he could just say he’ll be using Rudin‘s text.

A New Low in Quantum Mechanics

R. Shankar in Principles of Quantum Mechanics

 

He really has a great sense of humor, doesn’t he?

Baum’s Point Set Topology

You know it's a good start to the weekend when you've just acquired Baum's Point Set Topology for $2.72!
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Elements of Point-Set Topology (Dover Books on Advanced Mathematics) Elements of Point-Set Topology by John D. Baum

Commenting only after reading to page 11, but having skimmed some other parts/sections, it’s a nice and condensed volume with most of the standard material on point set topology. It reads somewhat breezily, is well laid out, and isn’t bogged down with all the technicalities which those who haven’t seen any of this material before might have interest in. It seems better for those with some experience in axiomatic mathematics (I’ve always enjoyed Robert Ash’s A Primer of Abstract Mathematics for much of this material), but in my mind isn’t as clear or as thorough as James Munkres’ Topology, which I find in general to be a much better book, particularly for the self-learning crowd. The early problems and exercises are quite easy.

Given it’s 1964 publication date, most of the notation is fairly standard from a modern perspective and it was probably a bit ahead of it’s time from a pedagogical viewpoint.

View all my reviews >>

Information Flow in Hollywood is Changing Rapidly as Alyssa Milano’s Representation Drops the Ball

There are many in the industry who have Twitter and Facebook accounts, but generally they shy away from using them, particularly when it relates to their daily workflow.  Naturally there are instances when representatives and business affairs executives will post the occasional congratulatory emails, but typically nothing relevant or revealing is ever said.

But tonight Twitter began to change the landscape of how Hollywood, and in particular the representation segment, does its day-to-day business.

It began with the news that Alyssa Milano’s ABC series ROMANTICALLY CHALLENGED, which premiered on April 19th earlier this year, had been cancelled. Michael Ausiello of the Ausiello Files for Entertainment Weekly broke the story online at 7:44 pm (Pacific) and tweeted out the news. Alyssa Milano saw the news on Twitter about an hour later, and at 8:45 pm, she tweeted out her disappointment to the world.

Her agent/manager is going to have a fire to put out tomorrow, if it doesn’t burn itself into oblivion tonight!  If anything, her agent typically could have or should have been amongst one of the first to know, generally being informed by the studio executive in charge of the project or potentially by the producer of the show who would also have been in that first round to know about the cancellation. And following the news from the network, Alyssa should have been notified immediately.

Typically this type of news is treated like pure commodity within the representation world. If a competing agent, particularly one who wanted a client like Alyssa, to move to their agency, they would dig up the early news, call her at home, break the bad news early and fault the current representative for dropping the ball and not doing their job.  Further, the agent would likely put together a group of several new scripts (which the servicing agent either wouldn’t have access to or wouldn’t have sent her) and have them sent over to her for her immediate consideration.  Suddenly there’s an unhappy client who is seriously considering taking their business across the street.

The major difference here is that it isn’t a competing agent breaking the bad news, but the broader internet! Despite the brevity of the less than 140 characters Ms. Milano had, it’s quite obvious that she’s both shocked and a bit upset at the news.  We cannot imagine that she’s happy with the source of the news; it’s very likely that her representation got an upset call this evening which they’re currently scurrying to verify and then put out the subsequent fire.

Beyond this frayed relationship, there is also the subsequent strain on the relationships between representation and the overseeing studio executive(s), studio/network chief, and potentially further between the Agency and the Network over what is certain to be one of the more expensive television talent deals in the business right now.

We’re sure there will be a few more agents, managers, and attorneys who sign up for Twitter accounts tomorrow and begin monitoring their clients’ brands more closely on the real-time web.

[As a small caveat to all of this, keep in mind that the show was picked up in early August last year and only aired four episodes premiering in April of this year, so from a technical point of view, the show’s cancellation isn’t a major surprise simply given the timing of the pick-up and the premiere, the promotional push behind the show, or the show’s ratings. Nevertheless, this is sure to have an effect on the flow of business.]

Vintage Tanker Desk Hobby

Refurbishing a McDowell & Craig vintage executive dual pedestal tanker desk

I had always wanted a nice McDowell & Craig vintage executive dual pedestal tanker desk, but the $2,000-$3,000 price tags for the ones in excellent condition or that had been refinished was way too steep for me. Some of the others I’ve seen for sale at lower prices were in mediocre shape and were in such ugly institutional colors, I couldn’t imagine having one at home.

Unfinished Desk

Unfinished Desk - Rusted Top

Late last year, I found a couple from the 1950’s and 60’s that were in horrible physical shape that were going to be scrapped for their steel. I got both of them for $10 bucks and did some research on how to refurbish them myself.

I stripped off the corroded, stained, and torn linoleum off the tops, took them to a local place that does sandblasting to have them stripped and then sanded down the heavily rusting portions. (These desks are usually made of heavy 20 gauge solid steel, so they’re literally the “tanks” of office furniture.) Both were in relatively good condition structurally and didn’t have any significant body damage aside from some significant rust, so I decided not to bondo the couple of dings they had, which in the end I think just adds to their vintage beauty.

Jr. Tanker Desk - Unfinished with rusted bottom

For the blue/gray one I found an industrial paint shop to do an old style enamel process. For the smaller red one, I sandblasted and painted/sealed the undercarriage and inside drawers and then used a special brushing process to obtain a nice brushed steel effect followed by a 5 layer clear coat seal to give it a high shine while still having the brushed steel visible through the clear coat.
Partially refinished tanker desk chair with blue upholstry

Finally, I tried to find a place to recreate the original linoleum desktops, but there really isnt’ a supplier who does this and some of the alternatives were prohibitively expensive as was the process of redoing the metal trim to hold it on after the fact. I contemplated doing some various laminates and even formica, but ultimately decided that the bare metal top was too pretty to cover up. I finally gave a local glass shop a template for the top of the desk and had them cut out custom 1/4″ glass tops with rounded corners to match the desk shape and then bevel the edges slightly.

Finished Executive Tanker Desk in gunmetal grey with blue highlighted drawers

At long last they’re now both finished!  They are truly beautiful and it’s nice having a desk about the size of a compact car and certainly as heavy! When I originally got the desks, Sonia refused to let me keep them they were in such terrible shape, and I spent a while convincing her to let me keep them. Once the first one was done she forbid me to “hide” it in our office and insisted that I put it in our living room because it was so pretty. I finally got the second one finished and gave it to her for her birthday in September.

Jr. Executive Tanker desk with clear coated metal and red highlighted drawers

It’s been an interesting enough process with such a beautiful end result, that I’m in the midst of acquiring a few additional desks including one that may be from the 30’s/40’s with some nice art deco design touches.

So I suppose I’m calling it my “hobby” at the moment.

I’ve posted a gallery of additional photos of the desks on Flickr.

Jesse Jackson and my signed copy of Green Eggs and Ham

Tonight Jesse Jackson spoke at the Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium. I’d recently seen his appearance on Saturday Night Live, so I brought my copy of Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss along with me.

After the lecture I had the chance to meet him and chat, but the best part was the look on his face when I presented him my copy of Green Eggs and Ham for an autograph. He kindly obliged with the observation that he knew that “this” was coming eventually, but said that I was the first one to ask for a signature on this particular book.

He got his second opportunity just moments later when my freshman year roommate Gary showed up with his own copy. Who knew that we thought so much alike?

Saturday Night Live

Transcript of the Saturday Night Live Episode segment