Archive for the ‘Blather’ Category

The MacFarlane (Tor), Correia, Hines Cage Match: Put It In The C Story

Posted in Blather  by John Brown on January 31st, 2014

Larry Correia is a big-booted barbarian who likes to fight in a cage. And a lot of us love to watch big-booted barbarians go at it.

We like demanding matches. We like a little blood and good sportsmanship (of course, sportsmanship in the cage is different than in other venues). And we respect both sides for showing up and giving it their best.

This last week Larry Correia battled with Alex Dally MacFarlane (and Tor, the silent partner, who thought her new column would be a great idea and has given her their big platform to talk) and Jim Hines. If you didn’t watch the match, here are the links.

I’ve enjoyed reading the give and take in this fight. For me, the barbarians seem to have landed more blows (and done so with many more funny and memorable one-liners.) But that doesn’t mean Alex Dally MacFarlane shouldn’t crusade.

And I mean crusade, as in battle.

Underneath it all MacFarlane wants to change something. She wants to change hearts and minds. A lot of us want to change hearts and minds about various things. A lot of us will show up and risk getting bloody for such things in a variety of settings. Heck, Correia the Barbarian was even willing to spend two years of his barbarian life trying to change hearts and minds in a setting where big boots are not allowed (poor Correia, more sad puppies).

But here’s the deal.

If you want to win someone like me, you’re going to do it not by scolding or brow beating me or by mandating something and then trying to back it up with sticks.

You’re going to do it by writing something so delightul that I cannot but help listen to you.

You’re not going to tell me what I can’t write.

You’re not going to tell me what I must write.

You’re going to model writing that makes me want to write that thing.

You’re going to be like Tolkien and spawn five decades of writers who want to do nothing more than imagine worlds filled with strange races and wonderous settings and weird talking tree men who have lost their wives.

You’re going to invite like-minded folks to join you in creating wonders. Or in just having a good old time.  And not worry about other writers inviting folks to their creations, which might be totally different from yours.

And those wonders and good times are the things that will work the magic.

Miguel Sabido is a master of entertainment with message. Here’s a great piece in The New Yorker introducing him, his work, and methods. Notice what made his stuff so effective. The new ways of thinking he wanted to offer were never found in the A story. They were never found in the B story.


Because the number one thing the story had to do was suck people in (entertain).

And so the new thing to consider was in the C story.

MacFarlane, put it in the C story. And build a Middle-earth. Or a ring world. Or at least some vampires that sparkle.

In the meantime, I’ve got a barbarian book on the shelf that looks like a mighty good time. I think I’m going to give it a read.


Why I think the 10,000 hour idea is bogus

Posted in Blather  by John Brown on January 24th, 2014

Here’s the idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated: put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (as opposed to mindless practice) into the area of your choice, and you will succeed. 10,000 hours is more important than anything else. 

10,000 hours.

The idea that deliberate practice makes perfect and leads to success seems to make a lot of sense.

Except I don’t think the data holds up.

First, there’s a huge survivorship bias in the 10,000 hour idea.

Both Gladwell and Colvin based their stuff on Anders Ericsson’s research. I contacted Mr. Ericsson and asked him if there were any studies that weren’t correlational. Any that took similar groups of schlubs and showed that deliberate practice is what took them to elite levels of performance.

He said no there weren’t, but graciously sent me some files to help. Here’s the money quote in those files:

“The main focus of deliberate practice was to explain individual differences among those individuals who had had access to all necessary training and practice opportunities. I proposed those factors which could explain the performance differences within groups of expert musicians who had accumulated over ten years of instruction and mentoring by skilled teachers.”

These were not studies designed to look at those who became elite and those that didn’t and figure out what made the difference.

And there are huge issues using what he identified to make claims about what leads to expertise.

Big issue one: he has no idea what kind of practice any of these folks had before he met with them. It’s all self-reported. There were no controls to verify the amounts of “deliberate” practice the musicians had in the long years up to the time he studied them.

Big issue two (and just as important): he’s looking at experts. It’s all after-the-fact.

He took a bunch of successful people and looked at their current work habits and speculated about their reports of earlier practice. Hum, they’ve put in a lot of hours. And these guys doing better, seem to be doing a specific type of practice. But he did NOT look at a cohort of people who all started out at the same time, track their progress, and then identify factors that made the difference between those who became elite, those who became so-so, and those who ended up in the mud pit.

But somehow his stuff got twisted into the idea that if you’re starting out and just put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, you’ll be successful just like those big guys! 

Ericsson did not study, and Gladwell and Colvin do not address the factor early success plays. Especially in writing and other tournament-style endeavors where rejection plays a huge role.

So many people quit because the effort is not worth the reward. What you have left then are a bunch of people who persevered, but was it the hours they put in that led them to the top? Or did they have a lot of hours because they hung in there?

And did they hang in because they had early success?

And did they have early success because of luck or some natural aptitude or advantage like birthday that seems to factor so heavily in Canadian hockey (I think Gladwell talked about that in the same book–right birth date means you’re older compared to the other kids and therefore seem to have “talent” when it’s just a few months more physical development, which makes a big difference when you’re young) or some parent who had expertise and gave them a leg up against the other kids in their cohort?

You see the effect of success in reading. My wife works as a 7th and 8th grade language arts teacher. The studies have shown that kids, in general, need to have about 94% comprehension rate to stick with reading. Below that they start to feel failure, get frustrated, and quit. In most cases, reading a super hard book will decrease motivation. Which then leads to less practice. And less skill. They’ve found that kids will work down around an 89% comprehension rate, a struggling range, if they have support. Below that the failure rate leads them to self select out of reading.

Where in all these studies was self-selection included? Nowhere. Motivation. Early success. Quitting. Disregarding those is a huge oversight.

And all of this is compounded, especially for artists buying into the 10,000 hour idea, that even if you do get some skillz, that’s a completely separate thing from being noticed.

Duncan Watts did a fascinating study about cumulative advantage reported in the NY Times here:

Basically he took a bunch of songs with varying quality and wanted to see how social influence (download counts) affected which songs rose to the top. He put the same set of songs in 8 discrete and separate online environments to see which songs would be most popular. His finding:

“In all the social-influence worlds, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition. At the same time, however, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds, just as cumulative-advantage theory would predict. Introducing social influence into human decision making, in other words, didn’t just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable. . .

. . . When we added up downloads across all eight social-influence worlds, “good” songs had higher market share, on average, than “bad” ones. But the impact of a listener’s own reactions is easily overwhelmed by his or her reactions to others.”

So even if your stuff is good, that does not mean it will be popular.

And when you meet failure after failure after failure . . .

You’ve got to practice well to get better, to offer more awesome gifts. But you’re not going to practice without the motivation. Motivation is the KEY to learning. And early success is a key part to motivation.

Another piece of data that seems to belie the 10,000 hour claim is that when you do some simple math and look at surveys of writers breaking in, 10,000 hours starts to look very odd indeed.

Let’s say you’re a poopy-slow writer and can only get 250 words in per hour. In 10,000 hours will you have written 2.5 million words or about twenty-five 100k novels.

25 novels?

Hey, you say, you can’t be typing the whole time.

Okay, what if you spend about half that 10,000 hours writing and the other editing and doing pre-draft work? That’s still 12.5 finished novels.

That sounds like Brandon Sanderson. Except it’s not. Remember, he sold number 5 or 6.

Furthermore, the problem is that from all the surveys I’ve seen, writers who break into the old traditional publishing system aren’t averaging 12.5 novels. They aren’t averaging 5 or 6. They’re averaging 3-4, with a lot selling their first or second.

Hello, Stephenie Meyer and JK Rowling. And a lot of indie authors.

Jim Hines reports from a survey of authors he conducted:

“I also asked how many books people had written before they sold one to a major publisher. The average was between three and four. Median was two. I was surprised, however, to see that the mode was zero. 58 authors sold the first novel they wrote.” More at:

10,000 hours? A million words?

I don’t think so.

Gladwell scoffs at this 10,000-hours-will-make-you-a-success reading of his original writings on the matter:

But this is precisely the message so many have taken from the studies. Just put in the time and you’ll become great because the practice is more important than any natural aptitude . . . or early success.

I don’t think it is.

John, what in the Sam Hill are you doing? Trying to depress everyone and tell them they can’t succeed?


What I’m saying is that we must practice and improve our craft. That’s a given. But we cannot expect that alone to make us successful. Especially not as artists. We can’t expect that 10,000 alone will make our work super popular.

Working hard WILL increase the probability of success (what’s that saying?–the harder I work, the luckier I get).  But as writers we’ve got to realize that there’s no guarantee of popularity. Or even expertise.

So what are we left with?

Nothing, and maybe everything. Because there is passion. There is sharing. And if you can tap into that and rejoice in the sharing that does occur, it might well be the best reward. Bricks of gold in the basement and your name on everyone’s lips must be awesome. But a memory of walking a number of afternoons with a daughter in the hills and telling (sharing) a fine tale to that audience of one might just be worth more than all the gold bricks in China.

(Yes China, not Fort Knox. You didn’t hear?–we had to ship everything over before we could get another loan.)

Harry Reid’s Chickens

Posted in Blather  by John Brown on October 10th, 2013
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Are we all wearing Coke bottle glasses with this government shut down?

First, it seems silly to me when reporters ask Americans who is causing the shut down. It’s like, duh, if either party just gave into the other party’s demands, we wouldn’t have the issue. Which means that BOTH parties are causing the shut down.

Second, it seems a lot of folks have forgotten that this is precisely what should happen.


Yes, our government is designed to allow these types of things.

But, John, isn’t that just asinine?

No. It’s not an oversight. I think it’s smart. Even if it causes some pain.

Let me explain what it seems some in the media and elsewhere are forgetting.

This is not a nation that belongs to a government. It’s not a nation owned by some lord or entity. This is a nation of individuals who decided to band together because we thought that banding together would allow us to protect our lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness better than if we stood alone individually.

This is a nation of individuals who said, you know, we think we can figure things out better together ourselves than having someone dictating to us what we’re going to do. We’ll get together and talk. We’ll argue. We’ll persuade. We’ll try to convince each other of our individual ways of thinking. And when enough of us are convinced that we should do something, we’ll act.

We’ll set up a process for talking and making decisions that ensures everyone can be heard. It would be great if we could get 100% agreement on everything, but we know that’s not realistic. At the same time, we don’t like the idea of forcing our will on others. So we’ll make a compromise; we’ll set up the rules for making decisions so it requires that a good majority of us are in agreement before we can take action, especially on matters that are important to a lot of us.

Finally, we’ll make sure no individual or group can take control and deprive us of this way of living. We did the monarch thing, and we’re done with that. We will not bow to any king ever again. We’re going to be very careful about this one item because a lot of bad things begin to happen when any one person or group gets too much power.

So we set up the rules and started working together this way. And the basic premise under all of this is that we would respect each other’s free will. We’re a land of liberty. We’re a land where we get together and agree on a course of action. Not one where we impose our will on others.

One of the main methods we used to ensure that no individual or group could take control of the rest of us and that a good majority of us must agree before taking a course of governmental action was to distribute the power to make and enforce rules. We did this in a wide variety of ways. We did this because power’s a slippery thing and easily abused. Furthermore, because we knew no system is perfect, we also set up a system of checks and balances so that if one person or group abused their power, we could stop them and force them to remember to respect the freewill that the rest of us have.

So what has caused this shutdown?

It’s very simple.

A lot of Americans do not agree with Obamacare. By most polls, it’s a majority of Americans. They were not listened to when it was being developed. They were not listened to when it was made law. They feel it was passed, not with open discussion, but a lot of chicanery. They feel it’s not some minor regulation, but a very big thing that will infringe on their rights to live how they want to live.

Now, it might be that all their fears are unfounded. It might be that Obamacare is going to usher in utopia. Many signs suggest it’s not going to do anything of the sort. But let’s just say it is the finest piece of legislation ever. Let’s say is a celestial piece of governing.

That isn’t enough.

It’s not nearly enough.

Because this is not a nation that belongs to any group. We are a nation of individuals who have banded together, agreeing that we will talk things out amongst ourselves and only act when a good majority of us agree on a course of action. This is a nation that tries to tread lightly on each other’s liberty.

But many of the folks in Washington back in 2009-2010 forgot this and forced this thing called Obamacare upon the rest of us; in doing so, they violated one of the basic agreements of our compact. If they had followed the underlying intent of our union, they would not have done what they did. They would have crafted legislation that a good majority of us could get behind.

In 2010, those of us who protested this use of power voted in new folks into the House of Representatives to deal with the matter. In fact, when given the chance, Americans (both Republican and Democrat) in the heavily Democratic state of Massachusetts voted Republican Scott Brown into office, hoping to stop this legislation in the Senate before it became law. But Harry Reid didn’t listen. He didn’t care. He and Pelosi and Obama weren’t interested in allowing a full national discussion. He and the others were more concerned with getting their way. And so he used a parliamentary trick to force it through.

This shut down is about one group of people forcing their will on the rest of us. It’s about using the checks and balances designed into the system to correct such errors. It’s about the chickens of some poor decisions coming home to roost.

I know the shut down has caused issues. It’s a partial shutdown; 13% of the government. I think 87% is still funded and running. Still, I know it’s causing some pain.

But none of that pain needs to occur. Everyone wants to fund cancer research. Everyone wants to help poor single mothers. Those things aren’t the issue. The issue is that not everyone agrees with Obamacare.

If you’re a supporter of Obamacare, let me ask you this: if the tables were turned, what would you do?

Would you not stare at the folks trying to force their will on you and say, hey, come on. We’re adults here. We all agreed that we wouldn’t do anything unless a good majority of us were convinced it was the right course of action. Let’s get together and come up with something a good majority of us can get behind.

If you’re an opponent of Obamacare, you too should recognize that a good portion of your fellow citizens are clamoring to change the way things are. They’ve been clamoring for some time. Should you force your will on them? Or should you sit down and listen and try to come up with something that addresses the points we can agree on?

I don’t know if the folks many of us voted to go to Washington will stick to their guns and correct this. I hope they do. And I hope that those on both sides who have forgotten one of the basic tenets of our social compact will wake up and remember we are banded together, not to game the system to get what we want, but to act on only what a good majority of us want.

Pew Study on American Reading Habits

Posted in Blather  by John Brown on October 23rd, 2012

Pew Research Center just published the results of a national study surveying reader habits. It answers questions like:

  • Do folks read ebooks more often on cell phones, e-readers, or computers?
  • How many books does each age group read per year?
  • How do readers under 30 discover books to read? 

Lots of great stuff. You can read the full survey here:

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Obama, Romney, Rich People, Roasts, and A Good Cause

Posted in Blather  by John Brown on October 19th, 2012

Every year the Alfred E. Smith Foundation hosts a millionaires-only fundraising dinner for Catholic charities. It’s a custom to have the two main candidates speak in election years.  President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney roasted themselves and each other this week, just two days after their brouhaha second debate.

Not only are both talks funny, but the fact that these two men came together for this purpose says a lot about both of them. Go Obama and Romney! It’s the perfect antidote to bitter political rancor.


President Obama’s Speech


Mitt Romney’s Speech



No Apology: Chapter 1 – The Pursuit of the Difficult

Posted in Blather  by John Brown on October 3rd, 2012
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Romney starts the chapter with a quote his dad used to recite to him: “the pursuit of the difficult makes men strong.” Romney states that over the years, he’s come to believe that this idea applies to more than individuals—it applies to businesses and nations as well.

He maintains that America has always faced great challenges. He cites a few examples from America’s history and states that there really hasn’t been a time when we were free of challenges. It seemed, after Reagan and Bush had presided over the fall of the Soviet Union, many thought “peace and prosperity were here to stay—without threat, without sacrifice.” Of course, that proved untrue.

America has faced great challenges in the past and faces huge challenges now. He believes we will “remain the leading nation in the world only if we face our challenges head on.” If we do not face and overcome them, we will become “the France—still a great country, but no longer the world’s leading nation.”

The question is: what’s so bad about that?

The answer is that some other nation or nations would fill the power vacuum. Romney poses the fundamental question: “what nation or nations would rise, and what would be the consequences for our safety, freedom, and prosperity?”


Romney suggests that there are a number of nations and groups who are “intent on replacing America as the world’s political, economic, and military leader.” He states that there are, in fact, “four major strategies currently being pursued to achieve world leadership.”

The first global strategy to achieve world power is the one represented by the United States. It is a strategy based on two fundamental principles: economic freedom and political freedom. Those nations that follow this strategy have become economic powerhouses and account for more than 60% of the world’s GDP. They are also the countries who have given humankind the most freedom.

The second global strategy is the one pursued by China. Its fundamental principles are free enterprise and authoritarian rule. He spends a couple of pages discussing how well Chinese enterprise is doing. Then he believes China is intent on becoming stronger than the United States.

The third main global strategy is the one pursued by Russia. It’s fundamental principles are authoritarian rule and controlling energy. “By controlling people and energy, Russia aims to reassert itself as a global superpower.” He then explains how this could be possible.

The fourth main strategy for global power is the one pursued by the violent jihadists, who count many foreign leaders in their numbers. Their strategy is based on conquest and compulsion through a variety of tactical means.

Of these four strategies in competition today only one is founded on freedom. Romney then suggests that we can be confident that our children and grandchildren will be free ONLY IF the economic and military strength of America and the West endure. He suggests that our superpower status is not inevitable. “Three other global strategies, each pursued by at least one state or major actor, are aggressively being pursued to surpass us, and in some cases, to suppress us. The proponents of each are convinced they will succeed. And world history offers us no encouragement.”

Because of this, he believes that “our primary objective as a nation must be to keep America strong. I am convinced that every policy, every political initiative, every new law or regulation should be evaluated in large measure by whether it makes us stronger or weaker” because “our freedom, security, and prosperity are at stake.”


Romney next maintains that president Obama has introduced a foreign policy that “is a rupture with some of the key assumptions that have undergirded more than six decades of American foreign policy.”

He states that when World War 2 ended, America executed a “dramatic and profoundly meaningful shift in our relationship with the rest of the world.” Previously we had guarded our own hemisphere and attempted to stay isolated from the affairs of Europe and Asia. But we found with WW1 and WW2 that “our vital interests could not be secure in the face of threats to the cause of freedom elsewhere. At the dawn of the nuclear age, a third world war was unthinkable; it would mean the destruction of humankind.” So the president and leaders of both parties “shifted America’s foreign policy. America took on the task of anticipating, containing, and eventually defeating threats to the progress of freedom in the belief that actively protecting others was the best way to protect ourselves.”

This new order had three main pillars:

1. “Active involvement and participation in world affairs”
2. “Active promotion of American and Western values including democracy, free enterprise, and human rights”
3. “A collective security umbrella for America and her allies”

He talks about how all the presidents, Democrat and Republican, followed this new strategy. But President Obama is engineering a dramatic shift away from it based on his own underlying attitudes.

Obama envisions an America that arbitrates disputes rather than advocate ideals. This is one of the reasons why he apologized to countries around the globe for American arrogance, trying to placate our enemies. This is also why it seems he has undercut many allies, including Israel, Poland, and Columbia. To be an arbitrator, you need to be equidistant from both sides. Not advocating for one or the other.

Another one of Obama’s assumptions is that “America is in a state of inevitable decline.” He, therefore, considers it futile to fight it; instead, it’s his job to help us manage our decline. Romney suggests Obama believes maintaining a dominant America is “a bad idea even if it were possible.”

Of course, Romney fundamentally disagrees with that assessment.


Romney suggests several things we can do to get back on track:

• Treat our allies like allies
• Strengthen the American economy
• Increase our defense spending
• Remind ourselves that the most attractive thing about us is our ideas—so we should “encourage democracy where we can, give aid and comfort to those who want it, and not undermine those who already have it”

Undergirding all of this, Romney suggests, “must be a certain conception of the goodness and greatness of America.” This “doesn’t mean America is a perfect country. We have made mistakes and committed grave offenses over the centuries.” But we should recognize that “No nation has shed more blood for more noble causes than the United States. Its beneficence and benevolence are unmatched by any nation on earth, and by any nation in history.”

Romney concludes by saying that he believes America is “destined to remain as it has been since the birth of the Republic—the brightest hope of the world” but only IF we face our challenges head on and work to keep America strong.


First, I don’t know if I’m going to have the time to capture each chapter in such detail. We’ll see.

Second, I found the discussion of the four strategies insightful. Particularly because it put in explained a number of questions I had about why Putin’s Russia does what it does. It also gave me insight into China, which I thought was still mostly economically socialistic.

I found the explanation of America’s shift in foreign policy in the 20th century interesting. As well as the shift Obama has made. I think I need to understand Obama better. Does he really think this? The actions and speeches Romney cites certainly are suggestive. Has anyone seen the movie 2016? It sounds similar.

It might appear the book will continue allocating space for attacking Obama, but I believe the six pages in this thirty-page chapter form probably the biggest appearance Obama makes in the book.

It’s clear that Romney’s business experience, especially as a consultant, has influenced how he sees things. The whole talk of strategy and challenges and competition reminds me of Michael Porter.

Porter is a Harvard professor and founder of Monitor, a strategy consulting firm that has been hired by corporations and countries. He is claimed to be the most cited author in business and economics. According to Wikipedia “He is generally recognized as the father of the modern strategy field, and his ideas are taught in virtually every business school in the world. His work has also re-defined thinking about competitiveness, economic development, economically distressed urban communities, environmental policy, and the role of corporations in society. . . his main academic objectives focus on how a firm or a region can build a competitive advantage and develop competitive strategy.”

The idea that America is competing with other nations is, of course, true. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone running for president claim that their central goal, the goal any president should have, is to keep America strong because of the competitive threats we face. The talk is usually all focused on this issue or that without the broader picture I found here. I found Romney’s central tenet clarifying and refreshing. The rest of the book is going to be about how to keep our competitive advantages and strength.

Comments, observations, or issues from anyone who has read the chapter?