Monthly Archives: June 2016

To Compete Better, States Are Trying to Curb Noncompete Pacts

30 June 2016

From MSN Money:

In today’s on-your-own economy, workers are urged to be entrepreneurial job hoppers, constantly adapting and searching for the next opportunity.

But an estimated 30 million Americans — nearly one fifth of the nation’s work force — are hobbled by so-called noncompete agreements, fine print in their employment contracts that keeps them from working for corporate rivals in their next job.

Now a number of states are looking to untangle workers from these agreements. The Massachusetts House of Representatives is scheduled to vote this week on a noncompete reform bill. The state is also the location of a union organizing campaign on the noncompete practices of the EMC Corporation, a large technology company based in Hopkinton, Mass., that is known for its aggressive application of these employment contracts.

Other states are also taking steps as noncompete agreements have spread to summer interns and sandwich shop employees. Hawaii banned noncompete agreements for technology jobs last year, while New Mexico passed a law prohibiting noncompetes for health care workers. And Oregon and Utah have limited the duration of noncompete arrangements.

. . . .

The issue hits Massachusetts with particular force because of its technology heritage and failure to keep up with Silicon Valley. In the early 1980s, the Route 128 corridor outside Boston, birthplace of the minicomputer industry and long-gone tech giants like the Digital Equipment Corporation, was seen as the Silicon Valley of the East.

Noncompete pacts were only one ingredient in the recipe that worked against Massachusetts and to the advantage of Silicon Valley, where employees can depart and start their own companies mostly without fear of a lawsuit. But they mattered. In California, companies are generally prohibited from enforcing noncompete agreements because of a worker-friendly statute from the 19th century.

“It’s hurt our economy in the past, and it’s a statement of values about entrepreneurship and mobility that Massachusetts has noncompetes and California does not,” said Stephen Kraus, a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners and president of the New England Venture Capital Association.

. . . .

Technical workers in Massachusetts would be paid about 7 percent more if the state’s noncompete practices mirrored California’s, said Evan Starr, an economist at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Job mobility is reduced, according to other research, and workers are more likely to detour from their original career paths. Sometimes companies sue departing employees, but those cases are the exception.

“It’s not about the lawsuit, but about the far larger chilling effect,” said Matthew Marx, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management.

In 2008, Brian Connolly, an engineer with years of experience writing software for medical devices, joined a start-up developing diagnostic technology to identify biohazards, First Light Biosciences. After the financial crisis hit, the start-up laid off 12 of its 14 employees, including Mr. Connolly.

Shortly after meeting with a new company, Mr. Connolly got a call from his previous employer, telling him the noncompete prohibited him from joining any company in diagnostic devices, even if the application and the technology were different.

“I understood noncompetes were common practice, but I didn’t think they would enforce it, and that broadly, after a layoff,” he said.

Link to the rest at MSN Money and thanks to Kat for the tip.

PG has discussed the problems that non-compete clauses in publishing agreements present for authors on several previous occasions.

Assuming that the publisher would never enforce a non-compete clause against an author (even when the editor representing the publisher says this is the case) is a bad idea. Typical publishing contracts are assignable and, even if the statement is true with respect to the publisher’s current owners, it may not be with the publisher’s future owners.

With the disruptive changes sweeping through publishing, PG says you can expect more and more traditional publishers to merge, file for bankruptcy or hold fire sales of their assets. Those assets will include all the publishing contracts authors have signed with those publishers. The publisher who holds rights to your books in 2040 will almost certainly be substantially different than the publisher you sign with in 2016.

During the life of a “full term of the copyright” publishing contract, it is certain that the management of publishers will change and very likely that the ownership of publishers will change. It’s a bad idea for an author to accept any contract provisions that aren’t exactly right for the author’s long-term career prospects.

One of the many advantages of self-publishing is that, following Amazon’s lead (and pursuant to standard practices for tech companies using click-to-accept online contracts), self-published authors can expect their contracts will permit them to terminate the agreement with their distributor/etailer at any time.

However, don’t assume this is the case. You need to read those click-to-accept contracts, AKA
Terms and Conditions, when you decide to work with a distributor/etailer to license your ebooks or sell your physical books.

PG is sorry this is the case. He knows you would rather swallow worms than read that turgid lawyerese. He knows that outlandish terms in such contracts might be overturned by a judge if challenged, but his advice stands.

PG will also reveal that more than one tech company has failed to read or understand the Terms and Conditions contract it received from its attorney and just posted the document on its website. If you see something you don’t like in the contract, send an email to the company to tell them it’s a deal-breaker. You may be surprised learn that management of the company agrees with you.

A cluttered desk

30 June 2016

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?

Albert Einstein

Google My Activity

30 June 2016

The recent announcement of a new service – Google My Activity – has enlightened many internet users about the information they leave behind as they bounce around the online world.

If you click through to https://myactivity.google.com/ Google will show you what it remembers about you. For most people, this information will continue for page after page after page.

 

Dream Sequences

30 June 2016

From author David Farland:

Most editors will warn you against writing too many dream sequences.  The problems in writing about dreams are multitudinous.  Very often, a new author will write an opening to a story and feel that it is dull, so he or she will spice it up by putting in an action scene—and then have the character wake up at the end.  The editor always feels cheated, and then has to wade through the tedious information that the author was trying to avoid.  Editors are very aware of that, and so we get angry when we find that we’ve been suckered into a dream sequence.  Usually, we get our vengeance: by gleefully rejecting the manuscript.

Now, the technique can work, but it’s hard to pull off.  Your description has to be vivid; your characters need to come alive and become strong protagonists; and you need to be very imaginative.  So you can open a tale with a dream sequence, but be forewarned.

The only cliché worse than opening with a dream is where the writer tells an entire story or novel and then ends with a character waking from his dream.  Don’t do that one folks.  If your editor reads it and then shoots you, it’s considered justifiable homicide.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

Here’s a link to Dave Farland’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

The Year of Numbered Rooms

30 June 2016

From Humanities:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is the winner of the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award and was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award.

. . . .

By the time I arrived in Michigan this past fall, I’d been on tour for so long that I had to take a picture of my hotel room door every time I checked into a new place, because otherwise I’d forget my room number. “We have a budget for five cities,” my American publicist had told me at the outset, before the book for which I was touring came out, but then five cities somehow became 17, then 30, and then the tour turned into a sort of self-perpetuating phenomenon that seemed somehow to replicate by itself.

The e-mail from the Michigan Humanities Council arrived in January 2015, somewhere around my fortieth book tour event: The book had been chosen as the 2015–2016 Great Michigan Read selection. It’s a biennial program, in which a series of regional committees pick a book that has some bearing on both Michigan and the humanities. I have no particular connection to the state of Michigan, but the book in question, Station Eleven, involves a traveling Shakespearean theater company in a postapocalyptic Michigan lakeshore region. If I agreed to participate, the Michigan Humanities Council would distribute several thousand copies to schools and libraries and then send me on a series of tours all over the state.

I was declining most event offers by that point, because it was clear by then that what had started as five cities in six or seven days was going to be something closer to 50 cities in 14 months. I am aware at all times of how lucky I was with Station Eleven, having published three previous novels that came and went without a trace, but it is possible to exist in a state of profound gratitude for extraordinary circumstances and simultaneously long to go home. I missed my husband. I was increasingly worn down by life in hotel rooms and airports, and worn down by other people; most of the people I’d met on tour had been wonderful, but a few too many seemed to expect serious responses to questions and statements like, “What’s with all the sentence fragments?” and “Don’t take this personal, but I found your characters a bit over-the-top, by which I mean they weren’t believable” and—my personal favorite—“Obviously, All The Light We Cannot See was better, but yours was good too.” In the brief intervals when I was home between tours, I’d come to dread the inevitable hour when I left for the airport.

. . . .

Travel was easier before Room 948 than after, although never as difficult as I feared it would be. The tour shifted from the Antipodes to the Midwest. Room 409 was the best room, in Iowa City. It had a kitchen, I could walk to the event venue, and the hotel was next to a grocery store. Room 411 was the worst of all the rooms, in a Marriott. Where? It doesn’t really matter, because all Marriotts are the same. “Have you stayed with us before?” the woman at the front desk asked, and I honestly wasn’t sure how to answer, because if you’ve stayed in one Marriott, haven’t you stayed in all of them? The room was very beige. The corridors were empty. It was a long dark Marriott of the soul, but what made it a bad room wasn’t that it was a Marriott, it was that there was yet another gun massacre in a different state that day.

. . . .

I flew to Chicago, or more precisely to a hotel marooned in an ocean of parking lots on the outskirts of Chicagoland. The lights of big-box stores shone in the distance. The hotel bar was full of independent booksellers. I stayed in Room 627 that night, memorable because it was the first room in some time with a window that opened. By then the pregnancy was extremely obvious. “Congratulations,” one of my favorite Penguin Random House sales reps said, in the hotel lobby. “I don’t know how you found the time.”

. . . .

A woman at the back raised her hand to ask whether my book is modern or postmodern. I’d actually never thought about it. It occurred to me that if I were a little less tired, I’d be able to remember the technical definition of what constitutes a postmodern novel and could probably dance my way to an adequate response, but in that moment both the definition and the jargon eluded me. “I don’t know,” I said.

“Even though you don’t know much about literature and couldn’t say whether your book’s modern or postmodern, I think your book could still be taught in colleges,” she assured me later, in the signing line. Even though you don’t know much about literature. I refrained from throwing a book at her head and left as quickly as possible for Scottville.

Link to the rest at Humanities

PG expects an endless book tour strikes more than a few authors as a special kind of hell. It’s one of those things that is flattering at first, but becomes physically and emotionally exhausting for an introvert after a few days.

PG would be interested in knowing how much the author earned from additional book sales for each day of traveling. Certainly much less than the publisher did.

A publisher would think twice before sending an executive on an extended promotional trip consisting of a series of meetings with small groups of readers. But, of course, the author’s time doesn’t cost the publisher anything.

Walmart Is Offering a Free Trial for Its Amazon Prime ‘Killer’

30 June 2016

From Fortune:

Walmart is sweetening the deal for the shoppers it wants to win over from Amazon.com by offering a free one-month trial of “ShippingPass,” its answer to its online rival’s wildly successful Prime subscription plan.

The world’s largest retailer, looking to rev up online sales growth that has sagged in recent quarters, said on Tuesday it was as of Friday offering a free 30-day trial ofShippingPass. That annual subscription service, like Prime, offers members unlimited free two-day shipping (that was three days until recently for Walmart) and no order minimums. The program’s cost is $49 a year, compared to $99 for Amazon Prime.

In its most recent quarter, Walmart reported global e-commerce sales rose 7%, their slowest rate of growth yet. Meanwhile, Amazon’s sales rose more than 20%, thanks in large part to Prime. Prosper Insights and Analytics, a retail data firm, estimated last month that one-third of American adults are Prime subscribers. Walmart’s e-commerce sales came to nearly $13 billion last year, or about one-sixth of Amazon’s total.

. . . .

Walmart has a lot of work to do to get consumers to consider signing up. A year ago, Prosper surveyed shoppers on their interest in ShippingPass program and found that 12.4% indicated they would be “likely” or “very likely” to subscribe. Now, according to a survey published this week, that has risen to 14.8%, a slight improvement at best despite improvements to the subscription offering.

Link to the rest at Fortune

PG checked out Walmart’s ecommerce site. Others may have a different response, but it felt several years behind Amazon. PG checked some comparable prices. In all cases, Amazon was either less expensive or the same price as the same item at Walmart.

For those online shoppers who live in states with no physical Amazon presence and who occasionally “forget” to pay their state use tax when Amazon doesn’t collect the sales tax, Walmart’s ubiquitous presence in every state (and thus its obligation to collect sales tax in every state) may also be a negative.

Official Star Trek Fan Film Rules Released By CBS and Paramount

30 June 2016

From SlashFilm:

Recently, there was a bit of an uproar surrounding a Star Trek fan film, Axanar. The producers behind Axanar raised around a million dollars. Shortly after funding was acquired, this labor of love was hit with a lawsuit by CBS and Paramount. J.J. Abrams and Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin urged Paramount to drop the lawsuit, which they haven’t yet, but Abrams insisted the studio will do so soon.Now, if you’re a Trek fan and want to make your own fan film but you’re not terribly interested in getting sued, then you should probably read CBS and Paramount’s Star Trek fan film rules.

. . . .

Here’s a portion of the list, which you can read all of at Star Trek.com:

1. The fan production must be less than 15 minutes for a single self-contained story, or no more than 2 segments, episodes or parts, not to exceed 30 minutes total, with no additional seasons, episodes, parts, sequels or remakes.

2. The title of the fan production or any parts cannot include the name “Star Trek.” However, the title must contain a subtitle with the phrase: “A STAR TREK FAN PRODUCTION” in plain typeface. The fan production cannot use the term “official” in either its title or subtitle or in any marketing, promotions or social media for the fan production.

3. The content in the fan production must be original, not reproductions, recreations or clips from any Star Trek production. If non-Star Trek third party content is used, all necessary permissions for any third party content should be obtained in writing.

4. If the fan production uses commercially-available Star Trek uniforms, accessories, toys and props, these items must be official merchandise and not bootleg items or imitations of such commercially available products.

5. The fan production must be a real “fan” production, i.e., creators, actors and all other participants must be amateurs, cannot be compensated for their services, and cannot be currently or previously employed on any Star Trek series, films, production of DVDs or with any of CBS or Paramount Pictures’ licensees.

Link to the rest at SlashFilm and thanks to Gordon for the tip.

Why kids may learn more from tales of fantasy than realism

29 June 2016

From Aeon:

Children have a lot of learning to do. Arguably, this is the purpose of childhood: to provide children with protected time so that they can focus on learning how to communicate, how the world around them works, what values their culture finds important, and so on. Given the massive amount of information that children need to absorb, it would seem prudent for them to spend as much of this protected time as possible engaged in the serious study of real-world issues and problems.

Yet anyone who has spent time around young children knows that they hardly look like a set of serious, focused scholars. Instead, children spend a lot of their time singing songs, running around, and making a mess – that is, playing. Not only do they take great joy in uncovering the structure of reality through their exploratory play, children (like many adults) also tend to be deeply attracted to unrealistic games and stories. They pretend to have magical, superhero powers, and imagine interactions with impossible beings such as mermaids and dragons.

For a long time, both parents and researchers assumed that these flights of fancy were, at best, harmless episodes of fun – perhaps necessary to let off a little steam now and then, but with no real purpose. At worst, some have argued that these were dangerous distractions from the important task of understanding the real world, or manifestations of an unhealthy confusion about the barrier between reality and fiction. But new work in developmental science shows that not only are children perfectly capable of separating reality from fiction, but also that an attraction to fantastical scenarios might actually be helpful to their learning.

. . . .

A large body of literature in psychology has shown that the more similar the learning context is to the context where the information is eventually going to be applied, the better. This strongly suggests that the realistic books should have helped children learn the meanings of words better and report them more accurately on the post-test. But our study showed exactly the opposite: the fantasy books, the ones that were less similar to reality, allowed children to learn more.

In more recent work, our lab has been replicating the effect. One ongoing study is finding that children learn new facts about animals better from fantastical stories than from realistic ones. Other researchers, using a variety of methods and measures, have shown that representations of seemingly impossible events can help children’s learning. For example, infants are more prepared to accept new information when they are surprised, thus violating their assumptions about the physical world.

What can be going on? Perhaps children are more engaged and attentive when they see events that challenge their understanding of how reality works. After all, the events in these fantastical stories aren’t things that children can see every day. So they might pay more attention, leading them to learn more.

A different, and richer, possibility is that there’s something about fantastical contexts that is particularly helpful for learning. From this perspective, fantastical fiction might do something more than hold children’s interest better than realistic fiction. Rather, immersion in a scenario where they need to think about impossible events might engage children’s deeper processing, precisely because they can’t treat these scenarios as they would every other scenario that they encounter in reality.

Link to the rest at Aeon

How Amazon Triggered a Robot Arms Race

29 June 2016

From Bloomberg:

An Amazon warehouse is a flurry of activity. Workers jog around a manmade cavern plopping items into yellow and black crates. Towering hydraulic arms lift heavy boxes toward the rafters. And an army of stubby orange robots slide along the floor like giant, sentient hockey pucks, piled high with towers of consumer gratification ranging from bestsellers to kitchenware.

Those are Kiva robots, once the marvel of warehouses everywhere. Amazon whipped out its wallet and threw down $775 million to purchase these robot legions in 2012. The acquisition effectively gave Jeff Bezos, its 52-year-old chief executive, command of an entire industry. He decided to use the robots for Amazon and Amazon alone, ending the sale of Kiva’s products to warehouse operators and retailers that had come to rely on them. As contracts expired, they had to find other options to keep up with an ever-increasing consumer need for speed. The only problem was that there were no other options. Kiva was pretty much it.

It’s taken four years, but a handful of startups are finally ready to replace Kiva and equip the world’s warehouses with new robotics. Amazon’s Kiva bots proved this kind of automation is more efficient than an all-human workforce. The new robots being rolled out look different, partly because the industry is still experimenting and partly because of patent issues. Some focus on picking items off shelves, others zoom around with touch screens. All are aimed at saving retailers money as they race to get their wares to your doorstep as quickly as possible.

Amazon has about 30,000 Kiva robots scuttling about its warehouses across the globe. Dave Clark, the retailer’s senior vice president of worldwide operations and customer service, estimated the addition of the bots reduced operating expenses by about 20 percent. According to an analysis by Deutsche Bank, adding them to one new warehouse saves $22 million in fulfillment expenses. Bringing the Kivas to the 100 or so distribution centers that still haven’t implemented the tech would save Amazon a further $2.5 billion.

“To be great in e-commerce, you need to be sophisticated inside the warehouse,” said Karl Siebrecht, chief executive at Flexe, which bills itself as the Airbnb for warehouse space.

. . . .

But it’s really only Amazon that has this kind of technology at scale, thanks in large part to Kiva. The world’s biggest retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Macy’s Inc., and Target Corp., have yet to populate their warehouses with widespread robotic systems. They rely on the old method—otherwise known as humans: Hordes of pickers and packers who send boxes down conveyor belts.

. . . .

“I have as no idea if this is as far as Amazon wants to take it,” said Jason Helfstein, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. “Do you get into autonomous vehicles? Self-driving trucks?”

. . . .

In June, [Bezos] divulged that Amazon has been working on artificial intelligence for four years and now devotes more than 1,000 staffers to it. “It’s probably hard to overstate how big of an impact it’s going to have on society over next 20 years,” he said.

Link to the rest at Bloomberg and thanks to Matt for the tip.

How good it is

29 June 2016

How good it is to be among people who are reading.

Rainer Maria Rilke

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