Monthly Archives: November 2016

The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s First Mad Scientist Science Fiction Writing Contest

29 November 2016

From Small Wars Journal:

The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command is pleased to announce its first Mad Scientist Science Fiction Writing Contest and will accept submissions between November 22, 2016 and February 15, 2017.

The topic for this competition is “Warfare in 2030 to 2050.”  Writers from all walks of life have the opportunity to contribute ideas that are outside what the Army is already considering about the future.  These stories are being used to explore fresh ideas about the future of warfare and technology. Writers are asked to consider (but not limited to) how trends in science, technology, society, the global economy, and other aspects could change the world in a meaningful way, with implications for how the Army operates in future conflicts.

Link to the rest at Small Wars Journal and thanks to N. for the tip.

How Amazon Gets Its Holiday Hires Up to Speed in Two Days

29 November 2016

From The Wall Street Journal: Inc. wants its warehouse employees to get to work—fast.

To prepare for the flood of holiday orders already under way, the retail giant has been using technology ranging from touch screens to robots to shrink the time it takes to train new hires to as little as two days, compared with up to six weeks for a conventional warehouse job.

The shorter training period saves Amazon money, and could give the company room to offer higher wages as it seeks to expand its workforce about 40% by adding 120,000 temporary workers at its U.S. warehouses for the peak sales season that runs roughly from November through December.
Complicating that task is the tight labor market, which is forcing Amazon to slug it out with rivals like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and package-delivery companies like United Parcel Service Inc. as they all try to staff up for the holidays.

. . . .

Rapid turnover, along with low unemployment and recent pay gains for the nation’s lowest-wage workers, have forced Amazon to get nimbler to attract seasonal help, in part by making training fast, easy and flexible for its recruits, who typically make more than minimum wage. At Amazon and other warehouse operators, these types of workers can stay on from six weeks to three months into the New Year to drive forklifts, pick orders or deliver boxes.

. . . .

Though worker training is a year-round challenge for Amazon, one of its priorities for the fourth quarter is, “what is the technology that can set an employee up as efficiently and as safely as possible?” said John Olsen,Amazon’s vice president of human resources, world-wide operations. Amazon says its holiday sales this season could increase as much as 27% from last year to a high-end range of $45.5 billion.

This year alone, Amazon has built 26 new warehouses, bringing its world-wide total to 149. Wal-Mart, meanwhile, has added 10 new e-commerce hubs over roughly two years to its dozens of smaller e-commerce and store warehouses, along with 80 stores that ship directly to consumers. Other traditional retailers and smaller e-commerce companies might have just three or four U.S. warehouses targeting major population centers

. . . .

Amazon’s newest facilities incorporate the most automation, using screens, robots, scanners and other technology to quickly get workers up to speed, according to Mr. Olsen. Amazon trainees get hands-on training as early as their first day on the job, which he said has proven to be a huge advantage in getting them up to speed. On the warehouse floor, they learn how to pack up shipments, coached by a screen that tells them which box size to use and automatically spits out a piece of tape to fit it.

In conventional warehouses, by contrast, new employees typically spend their first days in classroom training, say supply-chain experts.

The difference may give Amazon an edge. “Employee turnover becomes a little less of a problem when the learning curve is short,” said Brian Devine, senior vice president at logistics staffing firm ProLogistix.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

Researchers have quantified what makes us love Harry Potter

29 November 2016

From The Washington Post:

A good story often takes its reader on an emotional journey from despair to elation, and hits many notes in between.

It’s something that writers and readers understand intuitively. But it also can be analyzed, quantified and graphed. In a fascinating new study, researchers use machine-learning techniques to analyze 1,327 literary works — including “Romeo and Juliet,” “Frankenstein” and Harry Potter — and reveal what exactly it is about popular stories that makes us love them most.

The idea of graphing the emotional arc of popular stories is not a new one. The author Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote about it in a master’s thesis, which he called his “prettiest contribution to the culture.” The University of Chicago actually rejected the thesis, but Vonnegut went on to write and speak more about the idea.

In one of his most popular lectures, Vonnegut stands before a blackboard and graphs the emotional roller coasters of Cinderella, Hamlet and the Bible. In Vonnegut’s graphs, the horizontal axis tracks the story from beginning to end, while the vertical axis reflects positive or negative change in the characters’ fortunes. When Cinderella gets a fairy godmother, the line rises. When Romeo and Juliet quaff their poison, it plummets.

. . . .

For their recent study, the researchers fed the emotional arcs of the more than 1,000 literary works back into a machine-learning algorithm, which then sorted them into broad clusters. As the Harry Potter graph above demonstrates, individual stories may have very complex emotional arcs. But analyzing the emotional arcs very broadly, they found that there were six types that fit 85 percent of the books they had analyzed, Reagan said.

Roughly one-third of the stories were either rags-to-riches stories, in which the emotional arc rises through the bulk of the story, or the opposite, riches-to-rags stories, in which it broadly falls. “Romeo and Juliet” and many of Shakespeare’s tragedies show up in this second category.

. . . .

The researchers also find a subcategory of stories in which the emotional arc rises, then falls, which they label Icarus, after the Greek mythological figure who falls into the sea after flying too close to the sun. Another arc, where emotions rise, then fall, then rise again, is labeled “Cinderella,” after the fairy godmother tale. Its opposite, a fall-rise-fall pattern, is labeled “Oedipus,” after the Greek tragedy in which a king unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. (“Frankenstein,” graphed below, fits the bill.)

Link to the rest at The Washington Post and thanks to Tom for the tip.

The Need to Read

28 November 2016

From The Wall Street Journal:

We all ask each other a lot of questions. But we should all ask one question a lot more often: “What are you reading?”

It’s a simple question but a powerful one, and it can change lives.

Here’s one example: I met, at a bookstore, a woman who told me that she had fallen sadly out of touch with her beloved grandson. She lived in Florida. He and his parents lived elsewhere. She would call him and ask him about school or about his day. He would respond in one-word answers: Fine. Nothing. Nope.

And then one day, she asked him what he was reading. He had just started “The Hunger Games,” a series of dystopian young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins.The grandmother decided to read the first volume so that she could talk about it with her grandson the next time they chatted on the phone. She didn’t know what to expect, but she found herself hooked from the first pages, in which Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the annual battle-to-the-death among a select group of teens.

The book helped this grandmother cut through the superficialities of phone chat and engage her grandson on the most important questions that humans face about survival and destruction and loyalty and betrayal and good and evil, and about politics as well. Now her grandson couldn’t wait to talk to her when she called—to tell her where he was, to find out where she was and to speculate about what would happen next.

Other than belonging to the same family, they had never had much in common. Now they did. The conduit was reading.

We need to read and to be readers now more than ever.

. . . .

Connectivity is one of the great blessings of the internet era, and it makes extraordinary things possible. But constant connectivity can be a curse, encouraging the lesser angels of our nature. None of the nine Muses of classical times bore the names Impatience or Distraction.

. . . .

Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page.

The technology of a book is genius: The order of the words is fixed, whether on the page or on the screen, but the speed at which you read them is entirely up to you. Sure, this allows you to skip ahead and jump around. But it also allows you to slow down, savor and ponder.

At the trial in which he would be sentenced to death, Socrates (as quoted by Plato) said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Reading is the best way I know to learn how to examine your life. By comparing what you’ve done to what others have done, and your thoughts and theories and feelings to those of others, you learn about yourself and the world around you. Perhaps that is why reading is one of the few things you do alone that can make you feel less alone. It is a solitary activity that connects you to others.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire) and thanks to Julia for the tip.

Facebook’s Stumbles Expose Flaws in Its Plan to Rule Advertising

28 November 2016

From Wired:

The internet was supposed to mean a whole new world for the business of advertising. Gobs of data let advertisers become wildly efficient in who they target and how they measure results. Consumers also ostensibly win: If you’re in the market want a quality winter coat, the thinking goes, you’re not going to be annoyed if you see an ad for one.

In this new world, Facebook is on top. It knows so much about its users that it can deliver ads precisely calibrated for virtually any demographic you can dream of, from suburban grandmothers to millennials living abroad. But lately, Facebook has faltered, exposing cracks in the basic assumptions about the superiority of digital advertising—the business model on which so much of the internet has run for the past 20 years.

Last week, Facebook said it found flaws in the metrics it reported to advertisers—the measurements by which those advertisers judge the success of their ad campaigns on the platform. The company said it overstated the reach of Facebook Pages and Instant Articles, as well as its count of referrals to apps from ads. This admission of miscounting came just a few months after Facebook said it had inflated how much time on average viewers spent watching video ads for two years.

Facebook has promised more transparency. But in media and advertising circles, some critics are starting to ask whether they’ve been spending their money wisely on Facebook. Were they duped into making costly business decisions based on wrong information?

Link to the rest at Wired

Describing Words Finds Adjectives For the Noun You’re Writing About

28 November 2016

From Lifehacker:

When you’re writing, adjectives give you the most flexibility to create a vivid picture. It’s also easy to slip into a cliche series of mundane, familiar adjectives. Describing Words helps inspire you with something different.

Head to Describing Words and enter the noun you want to write about. The site then gives you a list of descriptors. The list comes from an analysis of hundreds of books and authors over the last century. The creator of the tool used Project Gutenberg as a start for the database, later adding “around 100 gigabytes of text files.” The result is a varied and eclectic list of adjectives you can pull from. Words that show up in blue are used more frequently than boxes in gray.

Link to the rest at Lifehacker and thanks to Joshua for the tip.

Bamboozled: The new scam Amazon won’t warn you about

27 November 2016


If you plan to shop on this holiday season, be warned.

There’s a new scam afoot, and the con artists are using Amazon to steal your money. Based on the number of complaints reported to Bamboozled from across the country in the past few months, the problem is widespread, if not rampant.

Amazon isn’t doing anything about it, according to shoppers who fell victim to the scam.

. . . .

We’ve reported before about fake third-party sellers who lure buyers to leave Amazon’s site when it comes time for payment. Through untraceable wire transfers, the fraudsters take money for items they never deliver.

This time, the scammers are using Amazon gift cards to pull off the fraud.

And it seems to be working beautifully.

The dozens of complaints reported to Bamboozled share essentially the same story. And, the readers agree, Amazon hasn’t done a thing to help.

. . . .

Nick Gladis of Frenchtown wanted to buy himself a birthday present.

He decided to buy himself a drone.

“It was the biggest purchase I’d made for myself in years,” he said.

Looking on Amazon on Nov. 1, Gladis found the product he wanted for $500. The seller’s ad told him to text the seller before placing the order.

What followed was a series of texts and emails — emails that looked exactly like authentic Amazon emails — in which Gladis was instructed to purchase an Amazon gift card to make his payment. He gave the gift card numbers to the seller, and the seller took the money.

But no product arrived.

. . . .

Amazon said the gift card had already been used and nothing could be done to recover the money, Gladis said he was told.

Link to the rest at and thanks to Dave for the tip.

It is not the crook

27 November 2016

It is not the crook in modern business that we fear, but the honest man who doesn’t know what he is doing.

Owen D. Young

Here’s why Costco is the best bookstore in the world

27 November 2016

From Business Insider:

Amazon built its retail empire by first selling books online. It became the biggest bookstore in the world, and now it’s known for its convenience and rock-bottom prices on everything from aardvark sauce to ZymaDerm.

But sometimes, Costco is better. Even for books.

For children’s books, especially, Costco has deals on box sets that are often better than Amazon’s. If you want to get a ten-book “hardy Boys” box set, it’s $29.99 at Costco but about $34 on Amazon. Eight Captain America books are $22 at Costco and more than $47 on Amazon. A 23-book Peter Rabbit set by Beatrix Potter is $30 at Costco but more than $36 on Amazon. And 11 Disney Princess books are $47 at Costco, but a nice $69 on Amazon.

And then there are some items, like a “Frozen”-themed set of 12 books, that Amazon doesn’t sell at all.

If you’re taking care of children and want to buy a lot of books for them, Costco is a great place to check first instead of automatically defaulting to Amazon as a bookstore.

There are some drawbacks, of course. Costco’s book selection is much, much smaller than Amazon’s.

Link to the rest at Business Insider and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Indy’s oldest, funkiest bookstore may close

27 November 2016

From IndyStar:

It’s crunch time for the city’s oldest and likely funkiest used-book store.

“I’m right up at the edge,” said Michael Stafford, the 54-year-old proprietor of Books Unlimited in the Garfield Park neighborhood, noting he’s way behind on his rent and has for months tried to sell the business.

With no offers close to his $10,000 asking price, Stafford, who does not watch TV and remains wary of the digital age — “Where’s our utopia computers promised?” — plans to hang on to the bookstore as long as possible, or at least for another few weeks in hopes of a Christmas miracle.

. . . .

The other day, Stafford did something that suggests he harbors some optimism. He bought 50 sci-fi paperbacks at an estate auction. “Well, it would be defeatist not to have,” he said as he sorted them from behind his counter. The counter was cluttered not only with books but with wristwatches, doll furniture and small cat figurines made of glass.

“This is more than books here,” he said, referring now not to science fiction and glass cats, etc., but, perhaps, to his life’s purpose. “I’m selling some reality in this crazy world. I’m selling culture.”

Link to the rest at Indy Star and thanks to Dave for the tip.

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