Monthly Archives: June 2017

Are you forgetful? That’s just your brain erasing useless memories

22 June 2017

From The Verge:

Most of us think “perfect” memory means never forgetting, but maybe forgetting actually helps us navigate a world that is random and ever-changing.

So say two neuroscientists in a review published today in the journal Neuron. The argument is that memory isn’t supposed to act like a video recorder, but instead like a list of useful rules that help us make better decisions, says study co-author Blake Richards, a University of Toronto professor who studies the theoretical links between artificial intelligence and neuroscience. So it makes sense that our brains would make us forget outdated, irrelevant information that might confuse us, or information that leads us astray.

We have yet to find the limits of what the human brain can store, and there’s more than enough room, so to speak, for us to remember everything. Still, the brain actually spends energy making us forget, by generating new neurons that “overwrite” the old ones, or by weakening the connections between neurons. But why does it do so if our brains aren’t running out of space?

Firstly, forgetting old information can make us more efficient.

. . . .

Forgetting old information can also keep us from generalizing too much from one piece of information. Here, there are many parallels with artificial intelligence and how these systems learn, according to Richards. If you teach a computer to recognize faces by making it memorize thousands of them, all it will do is learn the particulars of all the specific faces. Then, when you expose it to a new face, the model won’t actually know it’s a face because it never learned the general rules. Instead of learning that faces are usually oval and have two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, it learned that some of these pictures have blue eyes and some of them have brown eyes and some have thicker lips and so on.

Human brains could run into this problem, too. Richards compared this to “Funes the Memorious,” a story by Jorge Luis Borges in which a man is cursed with perfect memory. Funes remembers in exquisite detail, but “doesn’t understand because everything he experiences is its own individual snapshot moment.” To fix this program, AI researchers use a technique called “regularization,” where they force the system to forget some of the details until they’re left with the core information they’re interested in: what is a face, what is a dog versus a cat, and so on.

. . . .

Our brains tend to forget memories of things that happened (episodic memories) more quickly than general knowledge (semantic memories). In fact, episodic memories tend to fade fairly quickly anyway — knowing which shirt you wore six weeks ago is rarely helpful. Many different factors go into this: how novel the situation is, how much attention someone is paying, how much adrenaline is in the system. “The brain’s principle is to forget everything except those instances that were highly salient,” says Richards. Traumatic events like assault, for example, stick with us because the brain wants us to remember, and avoid, things that will help us survive.

Link to the rest at The Verge 

PG says this item is related to books and writing, but he’s forgotten exactly how.


Cold Mountain nevertheless soared in his mind as a place where all his scattered forces might gather

22 June 2017

Cold Mountain nevertheless soared in his mind as a place where all his scattered forces might gather. Inman did not consider himself to be a superstitious person, but he did believe that there is a world invisible to us. He no longer thought of that world as heaven, nor did he still think that we get to go there when we die. Those teachings had been burned away. But he could not abide by a universe composed only of what he could see, especially when it was so frequently foul. So he held to the idea of another world, a better place, and he figured he might as well consider Cold Mountain to be the location of it as anywhere.

Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain


Amazon’s New Customer

22 June 2017

From Stratechery:

Back in 2006, when the iPhone was a mere rumor, Palm CEO Ed Colligan was asked if he was worried:

“We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone,” he said. “PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.” What if Steve Jobs’ company did bring an iPod phone to market? Well, it would probably use WiFi technology and could be distributed through the Apple stores and not the carriers like Verizon or Cingular, Colligan theorized.

I was reminded of this quote after Amazon announced an agreement to buy Whole Foods for $13.7 billion; after all, it was only two years ago that Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackey predicted that groceries would be Amazon’s Waterloo. And while Colligan’s prediction was far worse — Apple simply left Palm in the dust, unable to compete — it is Mackey who has to call Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, the Napoleon of this little morality play, boss.

The similarities go deeper, though: both Colligan and Mackey made the same analytical mistakes: they mis-understood their opponents goals, strategies, and tactics. This is particularly easy to grok in the case of Colligan and the iPhone: Apple’s goal was not to build a phone but to build an even more personal computer; their strategy was not to add on functionality to a phone but to reduce the phone to an app; and their tactics were not to duplicate the carriers but to leverage their connection with customers to gain concessions from them.

. . . .

A few years ago Amazon reduced its stated goal to . . . We seek to be Earth’s most customer-centric company. There are no more bounds, and I don’t think that is an accident. As I put it on a podcast a few months ago, Amazon’s goal is to take a cut of all economic activity.

. . . .

To understand why groceries are such a challenge look at how they differ from books, Amazon’s first product:

  • There are far more books than can ever fit in a physical store, which means an e-commerce site can win on selection; in comparison, there simply aren’t that many grocery items (a typical grocery store will have between 30,000 and 50,000 SKUs)
  • When you order a book, you know exactly what you are getting: a book from Amazon is the same as a book from a local bookstore; groceries, on the other hand, can vary in quality not just store-to-store but, particularly in the case of perishable goods, item-to-item
  • Books can be stored in a centralized warehouse indefinitely; perishable groceries can only be stored for a limited amount of time and degrade in quality during transit

As Mackey surely understood, this meant that AmazonFresh was at a cost disadvantage to physical grocers as well: in order to be competitive AmazonFresh needed to stock a lot of perishable items; however, as long as AmazonFresh was not operating at meaningful scale a huge number of those perishable items would spoil. And, given the inherent local nature of groceries, scale needed to be achieved not on a national basis but a city one.

. . . .


This is the key to understanding the purchase of Whole Foods: to the outside it may seem that Amazon is buying a retailer. The truth, though, is that Amazon is buying a customer — the first-and-best customer that will instantly bring its grocery efforts to scale.

Today, all of the logistics that go into a Whole Foods store are for the purpose of stocking physical shelves: the entire operation is integrated. What I expect Amazon to do over the next few years is transform the Whole Foods supply chain into a service architecture based on primitives: meat, fruit, vegetables, baked goods, non-perishables (Whole Foods’ outsized reliance on store brands is something that I’m sure was very attractive to Amazon). What will make this massive investment worth it, though, is that there will be a guaranteed customer: Whole Foods Markets.

Link to the rest at Stratechery


The Long Walk Home: Cold Mountain at 20

22 June 2017

From The Literary Hub:

Two decades on from its publication, we look back at Charles Frazier’s National Book Award-winning epic of love and war.

. . . .

…for you can grieve your heart out and in the end you are still where you were. All your grief hasn’t changed a thing. What you have lost will not be returned to you. It will always be lost. You’re only left with your scars to mark the void. All you can choose to do is go on or not. But if you go on, it’s knowing you carry your scars with you.

“Charles Frazier’s own feeling for the Southern landscape is reverential and beautifully composed. He has written an astonishing first novel, if that is what it is. All the publisher tells us about Frazier is that he raises horses in North Carolina, and that the story is based on the long walk home of a great-great grandfather. The prose is so silky and arch in capturing the stiff speech of the period that the book must have had much unpublished work behind it. This gift of composition holds up a tale that tries to get past all the guilt and cruelty of the slave republic by directing the only real love in the book to the land itself. Inman, weary of everything about the war and for a brief moment thinking himself out of it, wonders, ‘What would be the cost of not having an enemy? Who could you strike for retribution other than yourself?’

“All this documentary is charming because of Frazier’s feeling for the smallest side of rural life. But it is also clearly drawn out to keep the reader in suspense. When if ever will the separated lovers ever get together, as Inman on the road, Ulysses-like, has to get past one difficulty after another? Ruby, on hearing the story of Homer’s Odyssey, comments that Ulysses was evidently not in a hurry to get back to Ithaca. Inman is hurrying to Ada as best he can. But of course terrible Teague, whose menace continually hangs over the story, catches up with Inman not once but twice. The first time Inman, lined up with others to be shot, is merely grazed by the bullet and gets away. The second time confers tragedy upon the love story—a tragedy imminent throughout the telling of the story. This clearly expresses Frazier’s own sorrow—the noblest feature of the book—over the fate of the South and the devastation of so many Southerners.

There is a lot of sorrow here. Frazier, for all his love of country, his country, knows this is not enough and cunningly draws on the kind of rough old Southern humor that Mark Twain knew by heart but had to hold back even in Huckleberry Finn.”

–Alfred Kazin, The New York Review of Books, November 20, 1997

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG can still remember the impact that Cold Mountain had on him when he read it a long time ago. It would still be on his list of best books ever.


Is It Possible to Misread Octavia Butler?

22 June 2017

From Book Riot:

“Bloodchild” is one of Octavia Butler’s most haunting, disturbing, and memorable stories, and is also one of the greatest things she ever wrote. And I know that I am not alone in having completely misread the story and entirely missed what Butler had accomplished.

The titular tale in Butler’s one and only short story collection, “Bloodchild” describes a future where humanity has developed a complicated relationship with a race of insect-like creatures known as the Tlic. The Tlic chooses one child from every family to be impregnated and “host” Tlic eggs inside their body. In exchange for this service, the Tlic “allow” the humans to live inside a special compound and ingest sterile Tlic eggs, which work as a kind of opiate, keeping the humans calm and happy. Oh, and the humans are banned from possessing any weapons, for fear of an uprising.

In this world, a boy named Gan has been chosen to host the eggs of T’Gatoi, the Tlic in charge of relations with humans in the compound. T’Gatoi lives with Gan’s family, sedating them with her sterile eggs and repeating how lucky they all are to have her living with them. When an injured and impregnated man is found outside their house, Gan watches in horror as T’Gatoi surgically removes the Tlic eggs from the man’s body to prevent them from eating him alive from the inside out. Gan realizes the danger he will be in if he lets T’Gatoi lay her eggs inside of him, but she declares that if he won’t be her host, then she’ll just use his sister instead. Gan chooses to be a host on the condition that T’Gatoi doesn’t report the illegal firearm Gan has been hiding.

The first time I read this story, I assumed Butler has written “Bloodchild” as an allegory for slavery in North America. It seemed so obvious: the Tlic are the white enslavers and their controlling humans’ bodies for their own benefit, all while insisting the humans are fortunate to be subjugated.

But Butler had heard this interpretation many, many times before, and wrote in her afterward to “Bloodchild” that she was “amazed” people kept viewing her story through this lens. And although the story does includes a group of humans that are, in a literal sense, enslaved, this reading is a vast oversimplification of what Butler was doing with the characters and their motivations.

Link to the rest at Book Riot 

PG has lead a sheltered life and was unfamiliar with Octavia Butler prior to reading several essays about her on Book Riot.




Barnes & Noble Reports Fiscal 2017 Year-End Financial Results

22 June 2017

From a Barnes & Noble press release via Business Wire:

Barnes & Noble, Inc. today reported sales and earnings for its fiscal 2017 fourth quarter and full-year ended April 29, 2017.

Total sales were $821 million for the quarter and $3.9 billion for the full year, decreasing 6.3% and 6.5% over the prior year periods, respectively. Comparable store sales declined 6.3% for both the fourth quarter and full year. Online sales increased 2.9% for the quarter and 3.7% for the full year.

The consolidated fourth quarter net loss improved to $13.4 million, or $0.19 per share, compared to a loss of $30.6 million, or $0.42 per share, in the prior year. For the quarter, Retail generated an operating loss of $15.9 million, while NOOK incurred an operating loss of $7.9 million, for a total operating loss of $23.8 million.

Fiscal 2017 consolidated net earnings from continuing operations were $22.0 million, or $0.30 per share, compared to net earnings from continuing operations of $14.7 million, or $0.05 per share, in the prior year. For the full year, Retail generated operating income of $90.7 million, while NOOK incurred an operating loss of $36.4 million, for a total operating income of $54.3 million.

. . . .

“While fiscal 2017 proved to be a challenging year for the company, we reduced costs by $137 million, enabling us to sustain our profitability level,” said Demos Parneros, Chief Executive Officer of Barnes & Noble, Inc. “In fiscal 2018, we are focusing on ways to improve the business and reignite sales through an aggressive test and learn process and companywide simplification process that will take out costs.”

. . . .

For fiscal year 2018, the Company expects comparable bookstore sales to decline in the low single digits and full year consolidated EBITDA to be approximately $180 million.

Link to the rest at Business Wire

Demos Parneros was named CEO in April of this year. At the time he was named, he had been BN’s chief operating officer for five months. Paneros had no experience in the book business at the time he was hired, having spent his prior business career with Staples.


Anthologies: Joining With Others In Marketing To The Masses

21 June 2017

From Digital Book World:

A lot of people that ask me how I got started marketing my books. There are so many options out there for marketing your books, and as you probably know, some are effective, and some… not so much. I’ll tell you about the number one way I marketed my books early on when I didn’t have a list or a fan base. It’s a way of sharing the marketing effort: joining with other authors in anthologies.

. . . .

One type of anthology is a collection of stories written by various author and complied into one large omnibus. The authors usually come together and create the topic/genre and set up a few standard rules, including due dates for story submission, formatting specifics and the like. They work together to choose the cover, the title, and the blurb.

Everyone pulls a bit of the load, and when you release the book, you PUSH like crazy together. It’s hard work selling a book, as I’m sure you’re aware of, but when you do it in arms with other authors, it makes the load a little lighter.

. . . .

After being a participant in 5-6 of these efforts, I finally stepped up and decided to run several of my own. I pulled together some writer friends who had similar genres as myself, and we did novella short stories for Halloween and then again for Christmas.

There’s some time involved in these projects, but the monetary investment was $25, and we hit number 1 in the holiday section on Amazon and broke through the top 100 for Free with very little effort. It was a fantastic way to share my readers, and have my friends do the same.

Link to the rest at Digital Book World and thanks to Nate for the tip.


You may hate

21 June 2017

You may hate gravity, but gravity doesn’t care.

Clayton Christensen


Librarians in the 21st Century: We Need to Talk About Library Security

21 June 2017

From The Literary Hub:

If I am writing about security in libraries, something is very wrong. I would much rather write about the importance of funding for teen services, why funding based on program attendance decreases the quality of programs offered, and the various ways public libraries, well, make America great. But instead I’m going to write about security.

The public library is both fragile and resilient—it’s funding is perpetually on the chopping block and yet it persists, making every penny stretch as far as possible. That thriftiness, combined with steady or increasing library use, has allowed libraries to thrive in trying times. If, however, we do not take proactive steps to make libraries safe in increasingly trying times, the future of the public library is less clear.

Public librarians are not naturally concerned with security issues. Our philosophy centers more around granting access to resources and information than preventing it. We take seriously the phrase “free and equal access to information.” All librarians are like this to some degree—providing access to needed information is more or less why we exist—but few institutions provide more access than the public library. It’s what makes the public library such an essential, dynamic, institution: knowledge and resources available to all.

Any person can walk into the public library and spend as much time as they’d like there. Most public libraries have guest logins for computer use and while folks without a card can’t check out materials, anyone is free to browse and use materials in the library. The things that look like metal detectors near the entrances and exits really just monitor whether a book had been checked out or not. There are often multiple entrances and exits and, consistent with  librarians’ dedication to privacy, surveillance is usually minimal to nonexistent. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Public libraries should be welcoming, they shouldn’t feel strict or intimidating—the space is a reflection of the public library philosophy of access. But it is impossible to deny the security risks associated with this space.

. . . .

Public librarians encounter everything. We must interact with patrons who are using public computers to view pornography, mediate domestic disputes and feuds between patrons, all while remaining neutral and professional. We are responsible for Toddler Storytime and Computer Basics for Seniors existing harmoniously in the same public space. The fact that libraries are chronically underfunded and understaffed makes these challenges increasingly difficult to navigate.

Paranoia is something I frequently encountered when I worked in the public library—the combination of publicly used technology (like public computers) and a space bustling with strangers can trigger a variety of reactions in people who have trouble in these situations. These issues are usually resolved by taking the time to explain how the public computers wipe personal data or relocating the patron to a less busy area. But resolving these situations takes time and diplomacy and that’s challenging on a busy Saturday, when you’re the only reference librarian. Furthermore, librarians aren’t trained to deal with complex mental health issues. One of the best solutions for this I’ve encountered is the inclusion of social workers at the San Francisco Public Library. But very few libraries have the resources to do so and we’re pressured to play de-facto social workers while we juggle reference questions.

All public librarians have encountered complicated patron issues, but in a profession where librarians often identify as women, it’s impossible to discuss public library security without acknowledging the sexism and sexual harassment that often saturates patron encounters. These experiences can simply be uncomfortable: a patron once told me I looked like an actress he found attractive and then needed my help to print out several color pictures of the actress so he could take them home. They can also be outright dangerous: a male patron began calling the Reference Desk repeatedly and asking for my schedule. When he was denied it, he tried waiting in the library until my shift was over and then physically chased me into a staff-only area. There, a fellow librarian blocked him from following me any further.

. . . .

Jane, a public librarian friend of mine recounted an incident that highlights the many roles librarians need to play when dealing with complicated patron scenarios as well as the benefits and limitations of having a security guard. She was at the Reference Desk when a patron approached her. “You need to call an ambulance,” he said. Jane picked up the phone. “What should I tell them?” she asked, because the patron did not appear injured in any way). “Tell them I’ve been off my meds for five days and I need help.”

The ambulance arrived and transported the patron to the hospital without incident. A short time later, the hospital called to inform Jane that the man claimed he had left a loaded gun in the men’s bathroom. The library was still open, and there was a steady stream of patrons in and out of the restroom where the patron claimed he’d left the gun.

The security guard at Jane’s library cleared the bathroom and began looking for the gun. As he was searching under paper towels in the trash can for the gun, Jane said to him, “I don’t know if you should be doing that.” The security guard wasn’t sure either. Neither of them knew what to do about the possibility of a loaded gun in the library. The bathroom-search the security guard conducted didn’t yield any results, so he and Jane improvised. The guard stood in front of the door of the bathroom and prevented people from entering until the library closed. When Jane asked her boss about what to do if a similar situation occurred again? According to Jane, her supervisor didn’t know either. “Call the police, I guess.”

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub


Amazon Bites Off Even More Monopoly Power

21 June 2017

From The New York Times:

Amazon on Friday announced plans to acquire Whole Foods, the high-end grocer. If approved by antitrust enforcers, the $13.7 billion deal would give Amazon control of more than 400 stores, an extensive supply chain and a new source of consumer data.

Amazon will argue to federal authorities, most likely the Federal Trade Commission, that the deal should be blessed because the combined entity’s share of the American grocery market will be less than 5 percent.

But antitrust officials would be naïve to view this deal as simply about groceries. Buying Whole Foods will enable Amazon to leverage and amplify the extraordinary power it enjoys in online markets and delivery, making an even greater share of commerce part of its fief.

The company has established its level of dominance because of the failings of our current antitrust laws. To understand why, you first need to understand the scope of Amazon’s power. It has captured 43 percent of all internet retail sales in the United States, with half of all online shopping searches starting on Amazon. In 2016, it had over $63 billion in revenue from online sales in the United States — or more than the next 10 top online retailers combined. It controls 74 percent of e-book sales, is the largest seller of clothes online and is set to soon become the biggest apparel retailer in the country.

. . . .

 Think of Amazon as a 21st-century version of the 19th-century railroads that connected consumers and producers. Because of their gatekeeper role, railroads had power to discriminate, both among users and in favor of their own wares. These middlemen could tax the farmers and oil producers who depended on their rails — or deny them a ride and sink their livelihoods.

. . . .

In several key ways, Amazon uses its power as the railroads did. By integrating across business lines, Amazon now competes with the companies that rely on its platform. This decision to not only host and transport goods but to also directly make and sell them gives rise to a conflict of interest, positioning Amazon to give preferential treatment to itself.

The vast troves of information it collects enable it to self-deal with great finesse. News accounts tell how Amazon exploits data collected on the businesses using its platform to go head-to-head with them.

And like the railroads of yore, Amazon dictates terms and prices to those dependent on its rails. During negotiations with the publisher Hachette over e-book pricing, Amazon showed its might by effectively disabling sales of thousands of Hachette’s books overnight.

. . . .

Antitrust laws, which were passed by Congress to prevent these kinds of concentrations of private power, have been largely reduced to a technical tool to keep prices low. The change in thinking traces back to the Chicago School revolution of the 1970s, which ushered in decades of mergers and consolidation.

Embodying this “consumer welfare” regime, Amazon has largely avoided government scrutiny by devoting its business strategy and rhetoric to reducing prices. The company has marched toward monopoly by exploiting the defects of contemporary antitrust law.

Preventing Amazon from concentrating even more control will require that antitrust enforcers block the company’s bid for Whole Foods. But lawmakers and officials should go even further, embracing the original goals of antitrust law and adopting a competition policy fit for the digital age. Unless we recover our antimonopoly tradition, Amazon will centralize exceptional control.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Somehow, PG has problems with the logistics of “embracing the original goals of antitrust law” while “adopting a competition policy fit for the digital age.”

Consider the dates the principal antitrust statutes came into being: the Interstate Commerce Act – 1887, the Sherman Act – 1890, the Clayton Act – 1914, the Federal Trade Commission Act – 1914, and a newcomer, the Robinson–Patman Act – 1936.

These laws were passed primarily to deal with market abuses by railroads and oil companies. The classic problem this legislation was designed to solve was a farmer in Iowa who, in the absence of any network of reasonable roads, had only one railroad available to ship corn to market. If the railroad raised shipping rates, the farmer had to pay those prices or not sell the corn.

So, Amazon is exactly like a railroad because, when you open your web browser, the only place where you can buy anything online is Amazon. Walmart is completely inaccessible. So is Google Shopping. And Apple? Forget about it. It’s absolutely impossible to buy anything from them. Ebay, Rakuten, Not a chance. The internet train tracks don’t run there. How about Alibaba, whose 2016 profits were 55% greater than the combined profits of  Wal-Mart, Amazon and eBay. They can’t sell anything because Amazon.

The author of the OP is a “legal fellow” (is that sexist?) at “the Open Markets Program at New America.” From a quick visit to their website, the fellows appear to dedicate themselves to Amazon bashing.

And this “New America” organization?

New America was founded in 1999 to nurture a new generation of public intellectuals—scholars, policy experts, and journalists who could address major social, economic, and political challenges in ways that would engage the public at large—and to provide a set of blueprints for American renewal in an era of globalization and digitization. The initial challenge, which continues today, was to find the minds and foster the debates needed to guide American renewal in an era of profound, exhilarating, but often threatening change.

Further, “New America is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and all donations are tax deductible”, which means that, unlike Amazon, New American pays no income taxes and is excused from paying lots of other taxes as well.

But nurturing a new generation of public intellectuals doesn’t come cheap.

New American receives most of its funding from other organizations that also don’t pay any taxes. The minority of listed donors who do pay taxes includes Google, Walmart (plus the Walton Family Foundation), Netflix, Comcast, DISH Network Microsoft (plus the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and Facebook.

If you identified any competitors of Amazon among New America’s donors, you would be correct.

By mere coincidence, neither Amazon nor Jeff Bezos are listed as donors. Perhaps if Jeff wrote a check, New America would discover that Amazon’s business practices fit perfectly into “a competition policy fit for the digital age.”

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