On Liberty

17 March 2018

In 1854, British philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote a book titled, On Liberty.

Here are a couple of quotes:

Popular opinions … are … seldom or never the whole truth. They are part of the truth; … but … disjoined from the truths by which they ought to be accompanied and limited.

. . . .

Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.

. . . .

[T]he opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. Its condemnation may be allowed to rest on this common argument, not the worse for being common.

. . . .

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

One Question In A Poll Of College Students Crystallizes The Debate Over Free Speech

16 March 2018

fdFrom MSN:

Free speech just isn’t as cool as it used to be, according to a Gallup and the Knight Foundation study of college students’ views on the subject.

The news isn’t great for this bedrock principle in America’s higher-learning institutions. College students overwhelmingly support free speech in the abstract, but when it comes to the real world, they are accepting of restrictions on it, which is in effect, not very supportive of free speech. And the numbers have gotten worse for speech on a lot of fronts since 2016.

Almost 90 percent of students say protection of free speech is extremely or very important to American democracy, but two-thirds also believe hate speech shouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment, and 83 percent support free-speech zones on campus, to contain pre-approved protests and distribution of messages. Not exactly the open inquiry we used to love.

There is some good news. In question after question, it appears the forces that are found shouting down speakers like Christina Hoff Sommers or burning Berkeley or attacking Charles Murray at Middlebury are a very loud minority. “Nine in 10 students say violence is ‘never acceptable'” to counter speech and a solid majority of 62 percent believe shouting down speakers is “never acceptable.” This leaves too-large percentages who think violence and shouting down are fine, but the vast majority of college students are in favor of traditional forms of protest without shutting down speech.

. . . .

There’s one question in the survey that crystallizes the problem with how we think about free speech in a pluralistic society these days, and might explain some of free speech’s recent backslide. The question was a new addition to the survey since the 2016 version. Students were asked to express how important they think the values of diversity and inclusion, and free speech, are to American society.

The good news is huge majorities thought both values were important. Eighty-nine percent of students thought protecting free speech rights is extremely or very important. An inclusive, diverse society garnered 83 percent.

But then they were asked to choose.

“When asked to choose which objective is more important to a democracy, college students prioritize promoting an inclusive society that is welcoming of diverse groups over one that protects citizens’ free speech rights, 53 to 46%,” the study finds. “Women, blacks and Democrats are more likely than their counterparts to choose inclusion over free speech.”

Link to the rest at MSN and thanks to Felix for the tip.

TPV is a blog about the book business, mostly from the viewpoint of authors, not a political blog.

However PG would like to clarify (for any who require it) that the First Amendment protects freedom of religion and freedom of speech and the press. Here it is:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Attentive readers will observer no mention of hate speech in this language. The US Constitution and the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments) were drafted and approved in 1787. The American Revolutionary War ended in 1783.

There was plenty of hate speech directed by Americans toward King George, his generals, his admirals, his army, his navy and Parliament during the Revolutionary War. Here are a few examples of hate speech directed at King George contained in the Declaration of Independence:

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

. . . .

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

. . . .

A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

A great many people involved in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence were also involved in drafting the Constitution and Bill of Rights. They didn’t change their minds about free speech between 1776 and 1787.

As far as the US Supreme Court’s application of the First Amendment to “hate speech”, in a unanimous opinion last summer in Matal v. Tam , they reiterated the lack of the right of government or any portion of it, to restrict speech that offends people or to restrict speech based on the content thereof.

Here are excerpts from the opinions of two of the justices:

Justice Samuel Alito wrote for for four justices:

[The idea that the government may restrict] speech expressing ideas that offend … strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express “the thought that we hate.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote separately, also for four justices, but on this point the opinions agreed:

A law found to discriminate based on viewpoint is an “egregious form of content discrimination,” which is “presumptively unconstitutional.” … A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.

And the justices made clear that speech that some view as racially offensive is protected not just against outright prohibition but also against lesser restrictions.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post



Light Blogging

16 March 2018

PG will be attending the funeral of his friend, Bill Whitaker, today, so blogging will be lighter than normal.

There are two kinds of companies

15 March 2018

There are two kinds of companies, those that work to try to charge more and those that work to charge less. We will be the second.

Jeff Bezos

Walmart just filed a patent for robot bees amid ongoing battle with Amazon

15 March 2018

PG thinks the headline’s author was stretching things a bit looking for clicks with the image of Walmart robot bees battling Amazon.

The tactic seems to have worked on PG.

From Big Think:

Walmart has filed a patent for robotic bees that would pollinate crops just like the real insects.

The patent outlines how tiny autonomous “pollination drones” would use sensors to locate crops, transport pollen, and verify which crops have been successfully pollinated. It would be a significantly more efficient way to pollinate crops than crop dusting, the patent suggests.

In total, Walmart has filed six patents for drone farming technology, including ones that would identify pests and monitor crop health. The retail giant has yet to comment on exactly how it plans to use the new technology, but it’s possible Walmart plans to start an agricultural operation, a move that could help expand its grocery business and lead to more control of its food supply chain.

It’s among the latest developments in the ongoing battle between Walmart and Amazon over retail and, more recently, groceries. In February, Amazon began offering free same-day grocery delivery service to its Prime members in select cities, and earlier this week Walmart announced plans to offer grocery delivery service in more than 800 of its stores for a flat rate of $9.95.

Link to the rest at Big Think

Under the category of persnickety lawyer comments, PG notes that Walmart has filed a series of patent applications. The United States Patent and Trademark Office will determine whether some, all or none of the claims in the applications eventually are protected by patents which the USPTO and equivalent government agencies in other countries issue.

The OP also notes a Black Mirror episode featuring Autonomous Drone Insects.


Toy Makers Stare at $11 Billion Hole With Death of Toys ‘R’ Us

15 March 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

The liquidation of Toys “R” Us Inc. has sent the toy industry reeling, leaving Mattel Inc., Hasbro Inc. and other manufacturers without a large chain devoted to selling games and dolls and forcing them to scramble to secure other outlets to carry their items.

Toys “R” Us, which had more than $11 billion in revenue in its last fiscal year, is part of a group of chains that were once seen by vendors as “category killers” and have emerged as crucial checks on the power of Amazon.com Inc.  Stores like Best Buy Co.  and Barnes & Noble Co. provide electronics manufacturers and book publishers with vast networks of physical showrooms.

The likely death of Toys “R” Us, which early Thursday filed plans to liquidate the U.S. operations and other businesses, means the $27 billion U.S. toy industry will no longer have a national partner to showcase their wares year-round, test experimental products and find the next Shopkins or Zhu Zhu pet.

It was a quick unraveling for Toys “R” Us since its September chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. In a call with employees Wednesday, Toys “R” Us Chief Executive David Brandon described a cascading series of events, starting with what he described as a “devastating” holiday season that led to plans to close more stores and then to exit from the baby-products business to focus on toys.

“The hole that we dug in the holiday season put us in a position where our lender became justifiably nervous as the company was continuing to consume cash,” Mr. Brandon said.

Ultimately, the company is expected to liquidate its entire U.S. operation, a decision that would impact 33,000 jobs. The company also is liquidating operations in other countries, and plans to sell its business in Canada, Central Europe and Asia.

. . . .

“This industry has been devastated,” said Tom Murdough, founder and CEO of Simplay3 Co., which makes plastic play sets and ridable vehicles. “This is a major, major hit to the industry.”

. . . .

The toy-industry growth rate could slump going forward too. Toys “R” Us was primarily responsible for uncovering what would become the next big thing, since it took chances that other retailers avoided. “There aren’t going to be as many breakout hits, not as many new items that can blossom,” said BMO Capital Markets analyst Gerrick Johnson. “Toys ‘R’ Us was a testing ground for a lot of things.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG notes the mention of Barnes & Noble as playing a similar role in the book world as Toys R Us does in the toy world (although as he mentions in the WaPo item below this post, Toys R Us sells childrens books and major publishers have taken and will take a hit from the loss of this customer).

Toys R Us to close all 800 of its U.S. stores

15 March 2018

From The Washington Post:

Toy store chain Toys R Us is planning to sell or close all 800 of its U.S. stores, affecting as many as 33,000 jobs as the company winds down its operations after six decades, according to a source familiar with the matter.

The news comes six months after the retailer filed for bankruptcy. The company has struggled to pay down nearly $8 billion in debt — much of it dating to a 2005 leveraged buyout — and has had trouble finding a buyer. There were reports earlier this week that Toys R Us had stopped paying its suppliers, which include the country’s largest toymakers. On Wednesday, the company announced it would close all 100 of its U.K. stores. In the United States, the company told employees closures would likely occur over time, and not all at once.

. . . .

 Toys R Us, once the country’s preeminent toy retailer, has been unable to keep up with big-box and online competitors.

. . . .

 “There is no toy business without Toys R Us,” Larian said, noting that he sold his first product to the chain in 1979. “It’s a big deal and I’m going to try to salvage as much of it as possible.”

. . . .

 Despite turnaround efforts at Toys R Us, which included adding more hands-on “play labs,” retail experts say the 60-year-old company has been unable to get customers back into its stores.

. . . .

 “The liquidation of Toys R Us is the unfortunate but inevitable conclusion of a retailer that lost its way,” Neil Saunders, managing director of the research firm GlobalData Retail, wrote in an email. “Even during recent store closeouts, Toys R Us failed to create any sense of excitement. The brand lost relevance, customers and ultimately sales.”

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

PG notes that Toys R Us also sells childrens books.

How Amazon’s Bottomless Appetite Became Corporate America’s Nightmare

15 March 2018

From Bloomberg:

Amazon makes no sense. It’s the most befuddling, illogically sprawling, and—to a growing sea of competitors—flat-out terrifying company in the world.

It sells soap and produces televised soap operas. It sells complex computing horsepower to the U.S. government and will dispatch a courier to deliver cold medicine on Christmas Eve. It’s the third-most-valuable company on Earth, with smaller annual profits than Southwest Airlines Co., which as of this writing ranks 426th. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest person, his fortune built on labor conditions that critics say resemble a Dickens novel with robots, yet he has enough mainstream appeal to play himself in a Super Bowl commercial. Amazon was born in cyberspace, but it occupies warehouses, grocery stores, and other physical real estate equivalent to 90 Empire State Buildings, with a little left over.

Investors have grown to love Amazon.com Inc. despite, or perhaps because of, its contradictions. Shareholders pushed its value above Microsoft Corp.’s for the first time on Valentine’s Day and to an all-time high of $774 billion on March 12. Only Apple Inc. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. remain more valuable, and unlike them, Amazon breaks all the rules of the modern corporation. It’s also wielding its power against an unprecedented range of other businesses.

. . . .

The company has grown so large and difficult to comprehend that it’s worth taking stock of why and how it’s left corporate America so thoroughly freaked out. Executives at the biggest U.S. companies mentioned Amazon thousands of times during investor calls last year, according to transcripts—more than President Trump and almost as often as taxes. Other companies become verbs because of their products: to Google or to Xerox. Amazon became a verb because of the damage it can inflict on other companies. To be Amazoned means to have your business crushed because the company got into your industry. And fear of being Amazoned has become such a defining feature of commerce, it’s easy to forget the phenomenon has arisen mostly in about three years.

. . . .

In 2014 everything was going wrong. Amazon introduced the Fire smartphone, one of the bigger flops in the history of consumer electronics. It posted its steepest quarterly loss before taxes and interest—an ignominious milestone for a company with a history of slim or no profits. Revenue growth in the 2014 holiday season was the second­-worst since 2001, and executives started to sound downright pessimistic, as if the business was starting to mature or even stall. They promised the company would be more discerning about spending on projects that might not pay off for years or decades. At one point, Amazon’s top finance executive even tried to blame disappointing sales on students trying to save money by renting textbooks. It was a lame excuse befitting a stodgy company struggling to adapt, not a rising technology superpower.

Investors lost patience. Over the course of 2014, Amazon’s stock price fell more than 20 percent, making the company much less valuable than Walmart Inc. or China’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., an Amazon look-alike that went public that September.

. . . .

In April 2015, Amazon had what technology analyst Ben Thompson called a second initial public offering. It disclosed for the first time the staggering profitability of Amazon Web Services, which started in 2006 as an experiment to rent out computing horsepower to companies that needed it. It proved to be a big idea that allowed young businesses to get off the ground more quickly and cheaply than before. Large companies, notably Netflix Inc., also started using AWS—first for side projects, then eventually to support essential operations.

Amazon had always been the clear market leader in this kind of cloud computing service, but few outside the company were prepared for just how valuable AWS had become. Inside Amazon was a division with the muscular profit margins of Starbucks Corp. and higher annual sales than the entire Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant chain.

The AWS disclosure changed the way investors and stock watchers valued Amazon. Suddenly there was evidence the company could be consistently and nicely profitable if it chose that route. It was also among the biggest signs that Amazon’s head-scratching investments could pay off in a huge way. In 2015, AWS was responsible for two-thirds of total operating profit. Last year it was more than 100 percent.

Two other long-gestating Amazon businesses also found their groove in 2015. The company tested the loyalty of its 10-year-old Amazon Prime program by holding its first Prime Day, a fake shopping holiday during the summer retail doldrums. The program, which ­delivers fast, free shipping and other benefits to members, gave Amazon not only a predictable stream of membership fees but also a psychological advantage with shoppers. Once they pay their annual dues, they have an incentive to buy as much as possible from Amazon. A year later, on the second Prime Day, total orders rose 60 percent above the first outing. Like Costco Wholesale Corp., Amazon had found a way to compel customers to pay them for the privilege of buying more stuff.

. . . .

No other company in Amazon’s ballpark is growing as quickly. Its roughly $180 billion in annual sales remains dwarfed by Walmart’s $500 billion, but sales at the big-box retailer inched up 3 percent in the year ended on Jan. 31. Amazon’s revenue rose at least 25 percent in 2017, excluding sales from Whole Foods. That also means Amazon is growing faster than it did three years ago, when it was half its present size.

Link to the rest at Bloomberg

The 10 Most Famous Bookstores in the World

15 March 2018

From The Literary Hub:

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Sylvia Beach—probably the most notorious bookstore owner in modern history, and the founder of what is still arguably the most famous bookstore in the world: Paris’s Shakespeare and Company. On the occasion of this, her 131st birthday, I was inspired to look into the history of Beach and the bookstore—as well as the stories behind some of the other best, most visited, and most talked-out bookstores around the world. NB that fame, literary and otherwise, necessarily depends on your viewpoint, and because of where I’m standing, this list has something of an American bias. Which is only to say that I’d love to hear about which international bookstores are most famous in the minds of readers in other countries—whether the list is very similar or very different.

. . . .

Shakespeare and Company, Paris

Shakespeare and Company is often described as the most famous bookstore in the world—but which one is the most famous? There have actually been three versions of what is often described as the most famous bookstore in the world: the first was opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919 on the rue Dupuytren. When the store outgrew its walls a few years later, she moved it to the rue de l’Odéon. It was from this location that Beach published Joyce’s Ulysses, and where Joyce, along with Ernest Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, Ezra Pound, Anaïs Nin, Julio Cortázar,James Baldwin, etc etc etc, hung out. But the bookstore was forced to close during the occupation of Paris in WWII. According to the store’s website, it was because Beach didn’t want to sell book to Nazis:

One day that December, a Nazi officer entered her store and demanded Beach’s last copy of Finnegans Wake. Beach declined to sell him the book. The officer said he would return in the afternoon to confiscate all of Beach’s goods and to close her bookstore. After he left, Beach immediately moved all the shop’s books and belongings to an upstairs apartment. In the end, she would spend six months in an internment camp in Vittel, and her bookshop would never reopen.

But in 1951, a man named George Whitman opened a bookstore, called “Le Mistral,” on the rue de la Bûcherie, and in the late ’50s, Beach offered Whitman the name. “I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter,” he told The Washington Post. “I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.” Shakespeare & Company was reborn, and readers and writers have been flocking to it ever since, even sleeping there. In fact, some 30,000 “Tumbleweeds” have spent some amount of time living in the store, “sleeping on intermittently bedbug-infested cots and benches scattered throughout the store in exchange for a couple of hours of work a day and a promise to spend at least some of their downtime reading and writing; a one-page autobiography is mandatory.” Whitman died in 2011; the bookshop is now run by his daughter, whom he named Sylvia Beach Whitman.

. . . .

Selexyz Dominicanen, Maastricht, The Netherlands

If you worship books, look no further. This 13th-century church served as a grand place of worship until Napoleon Bonaparte turned it into a storage space in 1794; and after he abandoned it, it was used as a warehouse. By 2005, when it was turned into a bookstore designed by architecture firm Merkx + Girod, the church was being used to stash bikes. These days, according to the Guardian, the space “could hardly be more popular.  The beautifully restored building is an attraction in its own right, and yet the installation of a towering, three-storey black steel bookstack in the long, high nave, together with a fashionable if somewhat noisy cafe in the choir, works extraordinarily well. Church and bookshop look as if they might have been made for one another.”  Merkx + Girod won the Lensvelt de Architect Interior Prize in 2007 for their work on the site.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Retail Sales at Bookstores Down in January

15 March 2018

From The American Booksellers Association:

Retail sales at U.S. bookstores were down by 8.4 percent in January 2018 compared to January 2017, according to preliminary figures recently released by the Bureau of the Census. Estimates reflect sales of all types of participating bookstores, including trade, college, religious, chain stores (including superstores), and others.

The independent bookstore channel ended 2017 with a 2.6 percent increase over 2016. As of March 6, the year-to-date sales for independent bookstores, as reported to the weekly Indie Bestseller Lists, were up more than 4 percent over 2017.

Link to the rest at The American Booksellers Association

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