Making a Scene

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I read something today that made me realize that sometimes good things come from the most surprising places.

Everyone would agree that car accidents – from the most minor fender bender to the worst wrecks – are bad. The lawyers that inevitably become involved in court cases don’t always agree about who has the most accurate recollection of how an accident happened. That’s where Pierre Nugues and his team at Lund University in Sweden come in.

Researchers there are developing what they call “CarSim,” a text-to-scene converter for vehicle accident reports. What this means is that the software will be able to take a written report and convert it into a three-dimensional animated “film.” For example, if at some point the report said “the car turned right,” the software would show a car turning right on the screen. The idea is that if a witness can actually see a replay on TV, he or she will be able to be more accurate about what happened.

At the moment, it’s all fairly basic and primitive, but if you think about what this software might be able to do in the future, the implications for Hollywood – and people like you and me – are astounding.

For example, consider what this will do for movies. Software called “MovieSim” would be able to read a script and immediately convert it to an animated film, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “straight to video.” This, in turn, might improve the quality of films because execs could watch scripts before inflicting them on the general public. Consider the following studio board meeting:

EXEC1: Right guys, time to review this week’s script submissions. Someone feed the computer.
EXEC2: Okay, this first one is about a prize fighter named Rocko that beats the odds.
[They watch the MovieSim]
EXEC1: That was terrible! Full of cliches and really bad acting!
EXEC2: Okay, let’s try this one. It’s all about an unlikely crew in a space shuttle trying to stop an asteroid from smashing into Earth.
[They watch.]
EXEC1: That’s was awful! The plot was threadbare, the science all over the map, and the soundtrack was far too loud!
EXEC2: Er, those were our two best scripts. We did stuff like this last year, and the year before and…
EXEC1: This is what we’ve been producing?! Ye gods, I had no idea.

In addition to quality control, the software could also be used to prevent movie tragedies altogether. Many a production company thought it would be a good idea to convert a popular product or novel to a movie. When fed something like the Nintendo game “Super Mario Bros.” or the ponderous and dense novel Ulysses by James Joyce, the software would simply throw a “DOES NOT COMPUTE! ERROR!” message. This would save millions for the studios and prevent movie critic suffering world wide.

A plug-in for the software would improve the quality of TV shows, too. All you would have to do is put together a database of all previous TV shows and then have the software analyze your new scripts. With any luck, you’d get a report like this:

Line 22: This dialogue sounds like a four-year-old wrote it.
Line 87: This was done on Episode 22 of “M*A*S*H,” Episode 59 of “St. Elsewhere” and Episodes 43, 105, 210 and 347 of “ER.”
Line 108: Your audience can see how this is going to end a mile away.
Line 390: This is a really stupid plot development.
Line 506: This is totally out of character.
Line 1089: Please step away from your keyboard. Do not attempt another script.

The most interesting development though, will be what it allows average people to do. Just as the Internet has allowed every Tom, Dick and Harry to publish his innermost thoughts on a daily – nay – hourly basis, text-to-scene software will allow just about anyone to be a filmmaker. Just think of all the new vignettes, short films and feature length productions there will be. New camera angles, new techniques, thousands of new videos from people all around the world converting what they’re thinking to film.

Indeed, the amateur porn industry may never be the same.

Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@sethdoylee

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Actually, entrepreneurs are not risk-takers

Probably not the best approach to business.

Probably not the best approach to business.

Every group has its own mythology. For entrepreneurs, the prevailing mythos is that, to a person, they are all daredevil adventurers. When they’re not heli-skiing or bungee jumping, they approach their business decisions with the famous Branson screw it, let’s do it attitude. The business press is full of stories about ventures where the principals supposedly closed their eyes, made a breath-taking gamble, and won.

Don’t you believe it for a second.

For every entrepreneur who claims to have hit the jackpot with that kind of approach, there are dozens more that flamed out spectacularly. Insofar as we can rely on stats about privately-owned ventures, the numbers tell the tale: StatisticsBrain suggests that 24% of businesses fail in the first year, with up to 44% failing by their 3rd year. In Canada, StatsCan posted a 5-year survival rate for new businesses at a measly 0.36. The US government data puts businesses started in 2010 at 668,861 firms, and the business exit rate for that same year at 690,504 firms.

The numbers are worse in the tech category, where 3 out of 4 start-ups go kablooie. And before you go blaming economic conditions, remember that the story was the same back in the 90s, when money flowed like wine. In true dot-com fashion, there was even a website dedicated to chronicling the blowouts.

So why the discrepancy between the media reports and the reality? And is that a bad thing?

The media question is easy. First, the media loves a sexy story, and at the moment, there’s nothing sexier than stories about slightly nerdy young people who become overnight billionaires. Entrepreneurs are hawt, and it’s the outliers that get the coverage.

Second, there’s a lot of active myth-building going on by the people behind the success stories. That’s only natural. After all, when a reporter comes calling, what’s going to get you the most ink? The tale of how you spent hours tweaking your projections in an Excel spreadsheet, or the (ahem) slightly (cough, cough) exaggerated story of how you jacked yourself up on espresso to program a killer app, scored VC funding over a bottle of Jack Daniels, and went skydiving, all in the space of a month?

But is that bad? You bet it is, because it leads a lot of people into business who really, really shouldn’t be. And that by itself wouldn’t be terrible, except that failed businesses hurt more than just the wannabe entrepreneurs. They leave vendors unpaid, landlords with vacancies, and good people suddenly unemployed.

The truth is that real entrepreneurs only take calculated risks. Even the ones who appear to do everything on intuition are really just very, very well-versed in their fields and can do the math in their heads, while the rest of us have to commit it to paper. And all of the entrepreneurs that I know that are really bankin’ it measure the crap out of everything, and leave as little as possible to chance.

What does that mean for your business idea? Before you bet the farm, and with apologies to Desi Arnaz: you’ve got some plannin’ to do.

You’ll want to start with originality: you need either a new product or service, or a new way to produce an existing product better, faster or cheaper. And if you’re doing the latter, it had better be orders of magnitude better, faster, or cheaper, because otherwise, you’re an also-ran, and they become statistics, fast. That should be obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a pizzeria open in a city where there’s already one on every block; likewise don’t try to start a new job-hunting website when there are already several big guns and dozens of smaller competitors in the field.

You’ll want to continue by figuring out how to make a profit. You’ll notice I didn’t say revenue. That’s because it’s actually quite easy to make money; keeping it is quite another matter. If you don’t have a solid plan for profitability in place before you launch, you’ll soon find yourself on the wrong side of the ledger with no clear way to get back. (VC funding you say? Nice if you can get it. But know this: VCs sleep like babies. That is, they wake up crying every two hours. They’ll want a return on any money they give you, and fast.)

Finally, you need to figure out what it all looks like one year, three years and five years out. If you have no idea what the end looks like, you won’t be putting the right things — staffing plans, growth projections, safeguards — in place now. Begin with the end in mind.

There’s nothing more dazzling and seemingly romantic than the entrepreneurial lifestyle at the moment, especially when job security seems so tenuous. However, there’s no such thing as a fairy tale existence; there’s a great deal more that has to come before and after that bit about “they lived happily ever after.”

Photo credit: Canva

Feel the Wind (Power) in My Hair

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It’s tough trying to be an environmentally conscious consumer. Hybrid cars? They are still pretty pricey; get on the waiting list. Biodegradeable disposable diapers? Not at your local grocery store. Phosphate-free soaps? Only at expensive, hard-to-get-to health boutiques.

Promising solutions seem to drop out of sight. For years, I’ve heard of alternative fuel sources — everything from vegetable oil to hydrogen. These things seem to be in perpetual development; none of them ever make it to the market.

Blame Big Oil, you say? Well, maybe. Certainly there’s a lot of money to be made in oil, and the players aren’t going to leave the field without a fight. But it has to be said that sometimes, environmentalists aren’t doing us any favours either. Consider:

PRODUCT DEVELOPER: Right, so we want to talk about this amazing new technology that can convert discarded chicken parts – straight from the poultry-processing plant – into clean fuel.
ENVIRONMENTALIST: Did the chickens lead happy lives?
PD: Er, they were free-range, I think…
EN: But did they get a chance to self-actualize? Realize their full potential?
PD: Right, perhaps you’d like to see our proposal for these wind generators…
EN: Too noisy.
PD: Oh, but these are located along coastlines and more remote areas, and they’re practically silent-running.
EN: Underground, I mean. Vibration, etc. Disturbs the woodchucks.
PD: Disturbs… the… woodchucks. Okay, so, how about we talk about solar panels?
EN: Nope. Bad for bugs.
PD: How?!
EN: They get hot. Bugs land on them, and …ffft!
PD: Ffft? Ffft?!!
EN: You okay? You seem to be getting a bit hot under the collar.
PD: Must be that global warming thing.

Of course, economists are no better. Many an enthusiastic proposal has been squashed by an economist with a calculator and too much time on his hands. Inevitably they forecast that the new energy system will cost billions, even trillions, and that its benefits are doubtful. One wonders what would have been said if our current situation had been put forward as a proposal, back in the late 1800s.

FUTURIST1: Gentlemen! We must do something to replace the horse. They eat too much. They leave horse… stuff all over the place. They kick. People fall off them and break their necks. Suggestions?
FUTURIST2: I know! First, let’s drill large holes in random places until we find pockets of the liquid, rotten remains of long-dead animals and plants. Then we’ll set up expensive, smelly refineries to convert this goo into a wide variety of toxic chemicals. Meanwhile, we’ll begin paving over millions of acres of green landscape with a hard, but nevertheless non-durable, substance that will be prone to crack, break up, or develop something called “potholes” on a weekly basis and require repair. Finally we will have to find a way to transport the refined goo to distribution stations; this will occasionally result in an accident — you know, dropping several million litres in the ocean, or having something blow up now and then. All this will be to fuel the horseless carriage.

[Short pause]

FUTURIST1: Sounds good! Where do I invest?

The point is, of course, that things are in a bit of a mess, and so, yes, it’s going to cost money to fix or replace it. The solutions are not going to be perfect either — short of us leaving the planet, there is never going to be a time when we’re not disturbing something, consuming a resource, or both. So let’s just get on with whatever system will cause less damage than the one we’ve got, and we’ll figure it out from there.

I’m sure the woodchucks would agree — even the ones that are somewhat disturbed.*

* And to prove my commitment to the environment, let me just say this: No woodchucks were actually disturbed in the process of writing this column.

Photo credit: Alexander Blecher via Wikimedia Commons

 

Give Blood, Play Hockey

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It’s winter here in North America: the leaves are gone, the temperature outside is freezing, and … thousands of people are paying perfectly good money to sit in freezing cold arenas.

That’s right, it’s hockey season for the National Hockey League and fanatics everywhere are devouring the regular seasion. This means that driveways are not being cleared, dishes are not being done, and loved ones are writing letters that begin with “Dear Sweetest: The kids and I moved out during 2nd period. We might send a forwarding address when we find a new apartment.”

So, following my longstanding policy to promote relationship harmony, I am going to try to help non-hockey fans understand what all the fuss is about. With that in mind, I proudly present:

CHANDRA’S NHL HOCKEY GLOSSARY

Hockey: NHL Hockey is game where 10 very large men move around at top speed on an ice surface while balancing on what amounts to oversized razor blades. The players carry around hunks of lumber called sticks, which they used to hit a slab of hard rubber called a puck. The first object of the game is to use the puck to pick off as many spectators in the stands as possible. The second object is to try to hospitalize members of the other team. Occasionally, players will also try to score goals. The game is divided into three 20-minute periods, each of which lasts a little over an hour.

Stanley Cup: A) The championship trophy coveted by all hockey players. B) A piece of protective equipment belonging to a guy named Stanley.

Penalty: A punishment handed out by a referee to a player who gets caught doing something that is against the rules, such as: slashing, knifing, thumping, elbowing, evading taxes, cross-checking, embezzling, kneeing, biting, gunning down, tripping, or saying nasty things about the other guy’s mother.

Referee: A position created by kindhearted NHL officials to employ players who have become vision-impaired as a result of slashing, knifing, thumping, elbowing …

Coach: A man who’s job it is to A) swear at the referees, B) swear at the players and C) swear at the spectators. As a rule, these men are physically incapable of smiling, even after their team scores a goal.

Goalie: A masochist who has to catch rock hard pucks with various soft bits of his body (i.e.., face, stomach) as 250 lb. men rush at him on skates without a reliable braking system.

The Bench: An area where the players sit between shifts on the ice. In a TV broadcast, the camera will zoom in for extreme close-ups of The Bench area so you can see your favorite player bleed, spit, or clean his nose.

Butterfly: A) A goal tending style in which the goalie keeps his knees together and feet slightly apart. B) What a player sees after being cross-checked into the boards. See also Stars, Chirping Birds, and Large Blue Spots in the Field of Vision.

Intermission: A pause between periods when fans are entertained by a large, unattractive piece of  ice-resurfacing machinery called a Zamboni.

Butt-Ending: A) A penalty for striking an opponent with the top of the shaft of the stick or B) what I landed on the last time I tried to skate.

Rink Music: Rousing tunes played during lulls in the action. For example, enthusiastic hockey fans can often be heard yelling “chaaaaaarge!” after the cavalry tune is played. Confused curling fans, who figured they’d purchased World Curling Championship tickets from the scalpers outside the arena, will yell “sweeeeeeep!” after this tune is played.

Faceoff: A threat issued by one player to another, i.e.., “Call my mother that again, and I will rip your faceoff.”

Clutch and Grab: A) A defensive style of play often used by slower teams to prevent faster teams from using their speed. B) What a player does to his Stanley Cup region after he gets kneed by an opponent.

Next week: Cricket, Sumo Wrestling and Aussie Rules Football made easy.

Photo credit: Ralf Roletschek via Wikimedia Commons.

Dear Silicon Valley: Here’s What You Really Need To Disrupt

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Photo Credit: DTTSP

There are many things I admire about America: its energy, its enthusiasm, and above all, its willingness to change.

That is especially true of the culture in California, and specifically in Silicon Valley, where the bywords are ‘disruptive,’ ‘innovative,’ and ‘democratize.’

Yet, looking through ProductHunt these past few weeks, I can’t help but think that, with a few notable exceptions (e.g., Elon Musk, Peter Diamandis), we’ve lost a lot of the ‘think big’ mentality that has served us so well. (I’m not the first to say this, either.)

For example, right now the top items on PH are Skype for Slack, an inexpensive standing desk, and… a password manager.

Further down, there’s a dating-related app, a project management app, and a designer resources app.

Are these useful things? Probably. Do we really need more of these? Almost certainly not.

And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to compete in these niches, all that time and money would make a much bigger ‘dent in the universe’ if applied elsewhere.

Consider:

  • Statistics vary depending on the source, but most agree that billions of pounds of disposable diapers go to US landfills every year, and that diapers as they’re manufactured right now will take hundreds of years to decompose. They’re also expensive, costing up to $1500 per year, which means low income parents can’t afford them. Cloth reusable diapers require a hefty upfront investment; they take a lot of time to wash and dry, and you need enough to have 5-6 changes per child available every single day. And frankly, they are a lot of extra work, which puts another burden on sleep-deprived moms, especially moms working outside the home. We could really use a better solution here.
  • It’s awesome that we’re finally getting serious about hybrid, electric, and hydrogen cars. But let’s not forget about another dirty secret: the two-stroke engine. These stinky, smoky beasts can be found everywhere: your chainsaw, your lawnmower, your weedeater. Indeed, a gas-powered leafblower emits more crap than a 6,200-pound 2011 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor. And two-stroke engines power a huge percentage of the vehicles in Asia, in the form of motorcycles, scooters, and tuk tuks. If you want to make a difference, this would huge.
  • I must see at least three ‘sleep hacking’ articles a week. But I have yet to see anything about ‘mattress hacking.’ They super expensive to buy, which means that most low income households must make due with what they have for years, leading to very poor sleep quality and the consequent health issues. They emit volatile organic compounds. And, like disposable diapers, they are dumped by the millions every year, often right in the street. Some states have instituted mattress recycling programs, but these will be expensive and hard to maintain, not least because mattresses have never been built to be recycled. This needs to change.

These are just three items off the top of my head. I bet if you look around right now you can see dozens of products that need to be rebuilt from the ground up to be less expensive, just as convenient, and most important, not end up in the trash.

 

Photo Credits: –CFeyecare (software window) and Con-Struct (red x) via Wikimedia Commons

Walk On

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So today I read about an exercise craze called “Nordic walking.”

This is like regular walking, only it requires the use of two sticks – you’re meant to use them like ski poles and push yourself along. Not just ordinary sticks of course, but carbon-fibre poles that retail for £70 (US $126).

Experts say that Nordic walking is better than regular walking because it forces you to move your upper body more, providing mobility, flexibility and a higher caloric burn. Oh, and because walking like a Nord is such hard work, gloves are required, to prevent blisters from handling those carbon-fibre poles.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of reading the news every day and learning that once again, I’m in the wrong business. So as of right now, I’m starting an exercise craze.

I’m going to call it “Canadian flailing.” There will be three kinds of Canadian flailing.

First, there’s beginner mode. This is where you stand in one spot, pretending that you’re experiencing a -30C Canadian winter. You must simulate the need to keep warm, so you gently bounce up and down in place, and make a patting, self-hugging motion with your arms.

Then there’s intermediate mode. This is where you must pretend you are cleaning the snow off your car with a brush. You must bend at the waist, stretch out, and make wide, sweeping motions. After each brush stroke, you must do a few minutes of the beginner mode.

Finally, there’s advanced mode. In any good Canadian winter, the ground around the car will be slick with hidden ice patches. So as you make your way around the car, you will suddenly find ice, and in order to keep your balance, you must flail your arms.

To recap then, the advanced mode of exercise will be: 1) Bounce and pat-hug, 2) Stretch and sweep, 3) Step, slide and flail, and 4) Repeat.

Clearly, to maximize the benefits of this hot, er, cold new exercise regime, you must purchase accessories. First, there is the ThermaParka Plus – a body suit weighing about 10 kg. This makes it difficult to move, forcing your muscles to work harder and burn more calories. The flail is particularly difficult in the outfit, which will help improve your balance and coordination. Of course, people new to Canadian flailing should purchase the Butt ProTech padding system for when a flail goes awry. Naturally, both accessories will be made of advanced, space age materials, which moisture wick, protect against UV rays, and emit ions to increase your, um, endorphins.

A genuine, weighted, Canadian snow brush will also be a must-have accessory. It will be hand crafted by the Inuit peoples of Baffin Island, with a handle made from only the finest polymers, and a brush constructed of durable nylon fibres. A deluxe version will be available for the truly discerning flailing enthusiast, made of moose antler and walrus whiskers.

For the truly rich, I shall create special Canada Units. For a mere $25,000 (Canadian dollars, of course), you will be able to recreate the cold of a Canadian winter in the comfort of your own home. It will come with ice and snow making machines, a turbo Newfoundland Blizzard Fan attachment and it will have three settings ranging from cold to coldest: Wimpy Minnesota Weather, Canadian July, and The Toronto Maple Leafs Win the Stanley Cup (also known as When Hell Freezes Over).

Since technique is very important, I’m starting a certification program to train flailing instructors. When you sign up for flailing classes or workshops, please ask the instructor to provide evidence that he or she is a Genuine Canadian Flailing Guru.

For those of you who live in thoroughly unhip neighbourhoods with no access to flailing studios, I’ll produce a series of flailing DVDs. Titles will include: Classic Flailing Techniques, Flailing For Life, MTV Flailing, and Flail Now! with Jim Carrey.

I mustn’t forget the Internet! I will start the Flailing Blog, and release flailing podcasts and ebooks. Obviously there must also be a flailing mailing list. I’ll try to keep the Hot Flailing Mamas Video! email spam to a minimum.

Does all this sound ridiculous? Maybe. But just remember…

This was the industry that sold you “exercise steps” for $70, even though you could have used the complete set of stairs in your home … for free.

Photo Credit: Rosa-Maria Rinkl, via Wikimedia Commons