Benjamin in the Jungle

JungleScan is nifty service chronicled in Amazon Hacks that tracks over time the sales rank of many thousands of Amazon items. Add any item you want, and it will automatically go on the list. You can easily imagine that any author who knows about this service would be a regular, even neurotic, visitor to the JungleScan page for their book: “How am I doing today?”

Here’s an example. Benjamin Franklin is one of my heros. A few years ago I was looking for a good book about him, and I was surprised that there were no relative recent readable biographies of him. A few years passed, and BANG! now there are three, not to mention the superb recent PBS special. I conclude that I am either on the vanguard or stunningly average in my desires, depending on how you look at it. Anyway, two of the Franklin books are in the JungleScan database. Here is the chart for Edmund Morgan’s “Benjamin Franklin”, currently ranked at 7311. Here is Walter Isaacson’s book of the same title, now ranked at 22. Obviously Isaacson is giving Morgan a nasty spanking in the sales department, but it’s also interesting to look at the 90-day trendlines and try to guess at other dynamics going on. For instance, did the introduction of Isaacson’s book increase sales for Morgan’s? Maybe so.

Who made this jellybean?

As a kid, one of my favorite parts of Sesame Street was when they’d do a segment on how bottles get made or candy bars get wrapped. To this day, I’m fascinated by the machines that turn raw or partially completed materials into the consumer goods we see in the store. These days we’re absolutely swamped by high quality sleekly designed super-processed goods. These things appear magically, having been created far far away and cheaply transported to to our fingertips. We lose touch with how their many pieces emerge from the muck and came together. Some people think the way to fight this modern materialistic loss of connection to the earth is to renounce technology, live in a dark cabin, and grow your own food. I think it’s much easier and more entertaining to visit the factories where goods are made. After all, the connection to the earth is still there. It’s just more roundabout. That only makes sorting it all out that much more fun.

The Alliance for Innovative Manufacturing at Stanford has assembled a remarkable collection of videos on how everyday items are made. Check out the video on jellybeans. It takes up to nine days to make a Jelly Belly jellybean. Even more bizarre than that is the fact that Hot Buttered Popcorn is the most popular Jelly Belly flavor. Who knew?

Drugs here and there

What’s the dang deal with these cheap Canadian drugs? Will they poison you? Are we idiots to pay so much here in the US? Is the Canadian government subsidizing the medical expenses American senior citizens? There’s a lot of trash talk going on, but when you look at the macroeconomics of it, there are some straightforward truths.

First of all, we can dispense with the idea that Canadian drugs are unregulated and dangerous. This is insulting and absurd. As for subsidy, Canadian drugstores are happy to sell to Americans. They’re making money on every sale. So where is the imbalance coming from? The problem is this: drugs cost a lot of money to invent and develop, and that expense has to be paid for across all markets. But medicine is a funny business. In broad terms, Canada, like a lot of countries, legislates low drug prices; the US lets them float. If you beat down prices one place, they need to pop up somewhere else, namely the US. All this means the US is paying for the lion’s share of new drug development. Of course we can beat down prices here too, but you won’t get many new drugs that way. Profits permit research and development. It’s a very simple equation. Everybody likes cheap pills, but the drug you really want is the one that will save your life one day but has yet to be invented.

My favorite information source on the drug industry is Derek Lowe on Read what he has to say on this topic, including this question: “Just how many of the best-selling drugs in Canada were invented or discovered there?”

Roller coaster from hell

Last fall my group from work went on an outing to Six Flags of New England. The Superman rollercoaster (they’re named after superheroes) was a real monster: you accelerate to 77 miles per hour going (what feels like) straight down and spend a mile worth of track looping and twisting before you decelerate enough to stop the train. I was pretty impressed. Here are some pictures that Matt posted from that trip. Then I remembered to check the Roller Coaster DataBase,
a “comprehensive, searchable database with information and statistics on over 1700 roller coasters throughout the world.” I wanted to see how the Superman ride stacked up against the others. It’s in the top ten in terms of speed, but there are some faster ones. Then I noticed that one rollercoaster absolutely dominates all others in the categories of speed, height, and drop: the Top Thrill Dragster of Cedar Point in Ohio. I remember reading an article in Wired about roller coasters like this long ago. I did a little more research and found this extremely entertaining review at One hundred twenty miles per hour, 420 feet straight up and straight back down… here’s what a professional ride reviewer had to say about his ride:

[After three seconds] I can’t scream anymore. Unqualified terror and the forces pummeling my body literally strangle me into silence. We’re still accelerating. Four… Knifing through the air, the train hits 120 brain-splattering miles per hour. And now things really go berserk.

Finally, here’s a video of what it looks like in action (Windows media). I hope my group doesn’t go on any outings to Cedar Point. With enough peer pressure I might end up riding this thing.

Coming soon: the DNA printer

Sure you sequenced the human genome, Craig Venter, but what have you done for us lately? Plenty, as it turns out. Venter (and some of his close friends) have figured out how to assemble (relatively) long sequences of wholly synthesized DNA, enough to make a complete virus, in fact. This is one step closer to the “DNA Printer” where you just specify the sequence and squirt out a chromosome. Here is the story in New Scientist. This somewhat more technical version from GNN is more revealing: Synthetic Genome Has Potential Value for Energy and Environment.

The article talks about energy because Venter’s plan is to make a kind of wacky tobacky that can spew hydrogen gas. Which is pretty nifty stuff so far as it goes, but you don’t have to be too clever to see this has other implications: “If we can get them little bugs to make hydrogen gas, I wonder what else we can make ’em do?”

Still, it’s fascinating stuff, and the ride is just starting. A living cell is already a sophisticated information processing system. Once we figure out how to communicate with it (through techniques like the ones Venter is working on), it will cough up its secrets with amazing speed.

Dreck the Halls


Bose was the first company to introduce noise cancellation headsets on a big scale. But they’re still very expensive tech toys, priced at either $200 or $300 depending on the model. My friend Roy found a much much cheaper version from Maxell, the HP-NC1 Noisebuster, but sadly it’s been taken off the market. But other similar products will soon take its place. In the meantime, it’s made me think of the product I REALLY want: a Christmas Carol Cancellation Headset. I had to go to the mall today, and they’re already schlocking it to us with dreadful Christmas music. Imagine putting on your Yule-Ban headset and stopping Frosty in mid stride. I’d pay good money for that.

Drawing as a performance art

Long time Star Chamber associate the CoffeeCzar has got his blog back on line after a long child-induced hiatus. He kicks off with a friendly link to yours truly and a link to a video of a performance art piece in which the artist “paints” in real time with a sand table. It’s a long video, but I found it spellbinding to watch the technique in action. Like writing, drawing is primarily a solitary activity, so to see how the artist conducts his line is like going behind the scenes at a movie.

The video is a Windows media file from a site called I think you’ll enjoy this Jamizine interview with annoying Italian funnyman Roberto Benigni, primarily because you can’t read it.

Markets are everywhere

So DARPA had to trash their innovative terrorism markets program because Congress got their collective panties in a proverbial twist. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if just the opposite is true. When congressmen all start thumping on the national bible, it’s time to buy whatever they hate. At any rate, the predictive power of markets is well-established, and if you’re clever you can spin that into gold by mitigating risk in the venture of your choice.

Here’s a good NY Times article about innovative futures markets: Predict the Future of Technology and Win a Plasma TV. Give away a few baubles and trinkets, and you can get your hands on priceless information. What’s the Next Big Thing in the tech toy market? How’s that can’t-miss film with Ben Affleck and What’s-Her-Name going to do at the box office? There are lots of funky futures markets out there. Yale Econ professor Robert Shilller’s New Financial Order website has a good list. Here is an amusing quote from from the site: is an Irish firm that allows betting on world events, such as election or ouster of world leaders. Even after the DARPA terrorism futures scandal, Tradesports continued to trade terrorism events like the U. S. terrorism alert levels and the capture of Saddam Hussein. When the terrorism futures scandal broke in the U. S., Tradesports created a contract on the ouster of John Poindexter as head of DARPA.

Is anything sacred? Well, what’s it worth to ya?

Micropayments must die

This is a damn good article by Clay Shirky about why micropayment systems don’t work and won’t work: Fame vs Fortune: Micropayments and Free Content. The gist of it is that, while the monetary cost of acquiring content can get vanishingly small, the mental cost does not. There is a significant mental expense even to think about whether you want to buy content. Sifting through thousands of ten-cent online offerings trying to find a good read is headache-inducing at best. Since there’s a lot of really good free content out there, the obvious conclusion is that even a small cost will cause people to substitute the free stuff.

I remember having long email discussions about this with my Star Chamber co-authors back years ago, but I lacked the wit to say it as forcefully as Shirky puts it here. My argument was that we are all, all of us who create original content, going to have to get used to giving away big chunks of what we make, if we want to be successful. Here’s a good quote from Shirky about the paradoxical effect of the Internet:

People want to believe in things like micropayments because without a magic bullet to believe in, they would be left with the uncomfortable conclusion that what seems to be happening — free content is growing in both amount and quality — is what’s actually happening.

Free, good, and plenty of it… how do all these virtues come to coincide? As Shirky observes, when you give cheap publishing tools to a writer, you don’t get a publisher who writes, you get a writer who publishes. Publishers must have money, but a writer may happily substitute fame. Creators hunger to see their ideas in motion. This all raises the next question: where does the money come from? Surely writers must eat, or at least drink expensive coffee. My answer is that none of this means paid writing jobs are going away. I am not any less inclined to buy magazines and books now than I was before the Net came along. But my selections, my expectations, and my general information-space standard of living have all improved vastly. Micropayments can slip beneath the waves and no one ever need shed a tear.

Find that quote!

Amazon has been doing this search-the-entire-book search for a few weeks now. Here is what the New York Times has to say about it: In Amazon’s Text-Search, a Field Day for Book Browsers

It sounded cool, so I tried it and discovered it really was cool. Here’s my example: for a long time I was trying to remember a quote by Stanislaw Ulam about nuclear physics and the bomb. The quote, paraphrased, was something like, “It’s amazing how a few scribbles on a blackboard can change history.” I had read it in a great big very good book called “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes, but I don’t own the book, and I couldn’t find it on the web, so I had to make a special trip to the bookstore to find and write down that quote. So for my Amazon test, I typed

“stan ulam scribbles”

and in a few seconds I had my answer.

It is still an unending source of surprise for me to see how a few scribbles ona blackboard or on a sheet of paper could change the course of human affairs.

Read what Jon Udell has to say about Amazon’s new service. He points out one of the big advantages of the feature: getting more value out of your own library. Just as I used Napster to grab music that I owned but was too lazy to walk downstairs for, this search tool is a great way to pick information out of books on your bookshelf.