Disruptive Innovation

A Neural Network Wrote the Next ‘Game of Thrones’ Book Because George R.R. Martin Hasn’t

3 September 2017

From Motherboard:

Minutes after the epic finale of the seventh season of Game of Thrones, fans of the show were already dismayed to hear that the final, six-episode season of the series isn’t set to air until spring 2019.

For readers of the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series on which the TV show is based, disappointment stemming from that estimated wait time is laughable. The fifth novel in seven-novel series, A Dance with Dragons, was published in 2011 and author George R.R. Martin has been laboring over the The Winds of Winter since, with no release date in sight. With no new source material, producers of the TV series have been forced to move the story forward themselves since late season 6.

Tired of the wait and armed with technology far beyond the grand maesters of Oldtown, full-stack software engineer Zack Thoutt is training a recurrent neural network (RNN) to predict the events of the unfinished sixth novel. Read the first chapter of the book here.

“I’m a huge fan of Game of Thrones, the books and the show,” said Thoutt, who had just completed a Udacity course on artificial intelligence and deep learning and used what he learned to do the project. “I had worked with RNNs a bit in that class and thought I’d give working with the books a shot.”

. . . .

“It is trying to write a new book. A perfect model would take everything that has happened in the books into account and not write about characters being alive when they died two books ago,” Thoutt said. “The reality, though, is that the model isn’t good enough to do that. If the model were that good authors might be in trouble. The model is striving to be a new book and to take everything into account, but it makes a lot of mistakes because the technology to train a perfect text generator that can remember complex plots over millions of words doesn’t exist yet.”

. . . .

“I start each chapter by giving it a prime word, which I always used as a character name, and tell it how many words after that to generate,” Thoutt said. ” I wanted to do chapters for specific characters like in the books, so I always used one of the character names as the prime word … there is no editing other than supplying the network that first prime word.”

George R.R. Martin isn’t going to be calling for writing tips anytime soon, but Thoutt’s network is able to write mostly readable sentences and is packed with some serious twists.

Link to the rest at Motherboard

PG predicts AI-written books will be common within two years.

He doesn’t know if they will be very good, but it will be interesting to watch the technology develop.

PG also predicts that AI-written books won’t put good human authors out of business.

Never say never’ to Alexa on Kindle

26 August 2017

From iNews:

The Kindle was Amazon’s first standalone product, marking a departure from its online bookstore strategy and into the world of consumer electronics. While the company has never officially announced sales figures, its success paved the way for the release of the Fire tablet, Fire TV Stick, ill-fated Fire Phone, and wildly successful series of smart speakers: the Dot, Echo, Tap and Show, and smart camera Look, all of which Limp watches over as senior vice president of Amazon devices and services.

. . . .

As the Kindle become the go-to term for an e-reader, the Echo, according to Limp, who is in London to visit Amazon’s vast new Shoreditch offices, “kind of invented a new category”. The voice-powered smart speaker, controlled by artificially intelligent digital assistant Alexa, went on sale in the UK last year and is capable of setting timers, browsing the internet and even telling jokes through the cloud, meaning it gets smarter over time. Such is Alexa’s ubiquity, people have started calling Echos ‘Alexas’.

. . . .

What sets Amazon apart from other consumer electronics companies is its desire to “do more than just make a gadget, and by gadget, I mean things you would buy and most likely put in a drawer a few months later,” Limp says, explaining that for people to keep using an Echo, it must constantly evolve to stay relevant and useful.

. . . .

“Our view is that these AIs need to work together. If we get to a world where there’s just one of them, that’s not good for customers,” Limp says. “You want to have the ability for AIs to collaborate, and certain AIs will be good at some things, and others will be better at others. When you use Alexa to order a pizza from Dominos, that’s invoking another AI that [is] an expert in pizza.”

. . . .

AI is “foundational” across all of Amazon’s departments, not just consumer electronics, he says, adding that children born today “will never remember a world when they weren’t able to talk to their house and the things around them – and that’s the way it should be.”

Link to the rest at iNews and thanks to Suzie for the tip.

The Village Voice Is Ending Its Weekly Print Edition

24 August 2017

From The Vulture:

After more than 60 years, the Village Voice is shutting down its weekly print edition. Founded in 1955 and converted into a free weekly in 1996, the Voice built its name as one of the country’s first alt-weeklies by covering and critiquing New York politics, culture, and more with its distinctive downtown sensibility. The progressive alt-weekly plans to continue on in digital form, according to an announcement from Peter Barbey, who purchased it in October 2015 amid financial struggles, and will also continue to sponsor events like the Obie Awards and Pride Awards. “[The Voice] has been a beacon for progress and a literal voice for thousands of people whose identities, opinions, and ideas might otherwise have been unheard. I expect it to continue to be that and much, much more,” Barbey said. “The business has moved online — and so has the Voice’s audience, which expects to do what we do not just once a week, but every day.”

. . . .

The no-longer-weekly alt-weekly has a hallowed history of defining and exemplifying New York counterculture, having been founded by Norman Mailer, Ed Fancher, Dan Wolf, and John Wilcock. It launched the careers of numerous authors and journalists.

Link to the rest at The Vulture

A question popped into PG’s mind as he read this item. Because there was not much else popping in his mind, he noticed this question.

Is there any traditional print publication that has transitioned to a pure digital form (and binned the print side) that has prospered?

By prospering, PG doesn’t mean surviving or claiming a zillion website visits. Rather, he means the publication demonstrates at least some of the traditional outward manifestations of prosperity – hiring more people on a consistent basis without laying them off later, moving to larger offices, etc.

Does any such transitioned publication make more money than it did before the digital deluge?

According to Statista, The New York Times had 5,363 employees in 2012 and 3,710 employees in 2016.

In June of this year, hundreds of staff members of the New York Times staged a walkout to protest more firings. The laid-off copy editors wrote a letter:

“We only ask that you not treat us like a diseased population that must be rounded up en masse, inspected and expelled,” they wrote. “After all, we are, as one senior reporter put it, the immune system of this newspaper, the group that protects the institution from profoundly embarrassing errors, not to mention potentially actionable ones.”

Globe and Mail ends print edition in Maritimes

23 August 2017

From CBC News:

The Globe and Mail will stop delivering its print edition to the Maritimes, the newspaper said Monday.

Phillip Crawley, the publisher and CEO, said it followed the decision made in 2013 to stop printing in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“In keeping with the same policy, we have watched print subscriber numbers declining in the Maritimes over the last few years as we’ve seen digital subscriptions increase,” he told CBC News in a phone interview.

“It gets to the point where it makes no sense to keep on subsidizing print delivery to that degree, where it’s costing us $1 million a year to do that, and that’s where it’s now at with the Maritimes.”

. . . .

The newspaper recently hired a new Atlantic Canada correspondent, filling a post that had been vacant for more than a year. Crawley said Halifax-based Jessica Leeder will start reporting in September.

“We’re very much interested in the stories coming out of the Maritime provinces. We have a national audience that would expect us to do that.”

People anywhere can still get the digital version of the newspaper.

Subscribers were informed of the change via email this week. “Our core mission is to invest in journalism that matters, so the money now being spent on subsidizing uneconomic delivery routes will be redirected to creating content for all of our customers across the country,” the email reads in part.

Crawley said the Globe and Mail will still provide national coverage.

“We never said we’d deliver to every town, village, hamlet or whatever. We haven’t done that. We make a decision on where it makes sense based on the number of people who want to read it,” Crawley said.

Link to the rest at CBC News and tip-thanks to Tudor, who says this would be like a major American newspaper cutting off delivery of its print edition to New England.

PG hopes people who live in the Maritime provinces have good internet connections but suspects they may not.

B&N Needs to Get Over Its Fear

21 August 2017

From The Digital Reader:

I live in Vancouver, WA, with Powell’s Bookstore in Portland about 40 miles away. I was thrilled when the B&N stores opened in the area, they were a lot smaller than Powell’s, but were closer, and had the coffee bar.

B&N has since operated like they are run by people with 2 years before retirement, they want to keep everything static to maximize their retirement. They for the most part fight the Internet, not embrace it.

. . . .

My memory says that B&N had the first cheap Android tablet, but it was locked down to work only as a book reader, until hackers made it useful. Then, as a hacked, useable tablet, its sales exploded. Then, instead of giving away the razor and making money on the blades (this is exactly what Amazon does with tablets), B&N made it a profit center and failed to compete with Amazon.

B&N has operated from fear, where Amazon grabs the bull by the horns and goes, understanding that they will make errors.

For example, Amazon works with Overdrive to provide ebooks for libraries. A lot of people don’t like library ebooks because they expire in 1-3 weeks, and people like me will read library ebooks all the time. I don’t think Amazon loses much if any sales servicing library customers, but they do get them to their web site.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

PG says Barnes & Noble was perfectly situated to dominate the ebook market, but management didn’t understand digital and wanted to protect its legacy business instead of following its customers.

‘Raining clicks’: why we need better thinking on technology, data and journalism

11 August 2017

From Medium:

I’ve spent the last eight years building the case for using audience data in newsrooms and the tools and culture required to make it a force for good. So reading Franklin Foer’s piece When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism was a deeply bizarre experience. Over the first four years of my work at the Guardian, I encountered almost every possible objection to what I was doing and I thought long and hard about each one. At that point a great deal of my job was about making sure that my instincts, processes and arguments were genuinely robust. Foer’s piece is a collection of the most ill-considered objections I saw, blended into one long, unappealing cocktail.

To be clear, there’s the odd thing here that I agree with. It’s obviously true, for example, that publishers need to be more robust in dealing with technology companies (although ironically one of the things we should be asking of them is more data). It’s also true that homogeneity can be dangerous. But the intelligent application of data can also help us spot where this is doing damage.

But most of these arguments, prejudices masquerading as arguments, childish hopes that everything can just go back to ‘normal’ and windy emotional appeals are zombies. They’re dangerous, stupid and they have no business climbing out of their grave and causing damage in 2017.

Technology isn’t an amorphous lump of stuff

The single biggest problem with the piece is the tendency to take anything that went wrong around the New Republic and the wider industry, gather it up and shove it in a big bucket labelled Silicon Valley or Technology. At various points Foer covers the use of data, data itself, platforms, algorithms, selling advertising, advertising itself, revenue, virality and search engine optimisation. Considering the experience he went through, the absolute conviction dripping from each line and his expressed commitment to good journalism, it’s surprising that he seems to have given so little thought to any of these specific issues.

. . . .

Audience data isn’t just page views…

We would resist the impulse to chase traffic, to clutter our home page with an endless stream of clicky content. Our digital pages would prize beauty and finitude; they would brashly announce the import of our project — which he described as nothing less than the preservation of long-form journalism and cultural seriousness.

Considering this stated aim, why the hell is the only metric mentioned in this epic piece page views?

. . . .

Growing audience doesn’t have to be a con trick

People clicked so quickly, they didn’t always fully understand why. These decisions were made in a semiconscious state, influenced by cognitive biases. Enticing a reader entailed a little manipulation, a little hidden persuasion.

Here’s another failure of imagination and thought (not to mention a pretty contemptuous view of the capabilities of readers in the 21st century). Buzzfeed’s viral strategy is basically inapplicable to serious journalism, as partly evidenced by Buzzfeed News’s difficulties in replicating the audience of the broader company despite great journalism. Equally, Upworthy’s aggregation and headline testing approach just doesn’t relate. In both cases the nature of the content is as important as the method of delivery. But using audience data to spot when a story you care about isn’t connecting with readers is a hugely positive thing. There’s a world of difference between writing misleading headlines and making a headline work well in a digital environment. Part of resisting that first impulse is to do with monitoring time spent on page, a metric Foer never mentions.

Link to the rest at Medium 

When PG read the initial piece referenced in The Atlantic, he dismissed it as a rant written by someone who didn’t understand modern communications technology (who was also the former editor of The New Republic who was fired from his job because he didn’t adapt well to new technology).

This Medium article does a good job (in PG’s disruptive opinion) of disassembling the original Atlantic essay to more fully demonstrate that author’s lack of understanding of modern communications technology.

PG also suggests that Big Publishing is dominated by people who don’t understand modern communications technology.

When PG wrote the preceding paragraph, he had a sudden vision of the executive offices of a major New York publisher with little orange Amazon warehouse robots scooting around the hallways.

On eBooks Being a Dead Format

2 August 2017

From The Digital Reader:

Have you ever had one of those moments where you kinda sorta agree with someone’s conclusion and yet still disagree with many of the assumptions that lead to the conclusion?

That’s how I feel towards a piece published in The Bookseller earlier today.

Simon Rowberry argues that ebooks aren’t dead, but his arguments betray legacy industry biases. For example, he cavalierly tosses off the assumption that $10 ebook prices are unsustainable.

The fall in revenue from ebooks is a direct consequence of legacy publishers’ prioritization of print sales at the expense of digital books. The Kindle’s North American launch in 2007 marketed new ebook titles at $9.99, a discount of at least $10 on the hardback equivalent. This approach was unsustainable, but it set readers’ expectations for the cost of ebooks.

What’s funny about this assumption are the many indie authors who would disagree, or the publishers like Baen Books that price all of their ebooks under $10.

Baen Books has been selling its ebooks at what Rowberry would describe as an unsustainable price for close to twenty years, and yet they have somehow managed to pull it off.

And that’s not the only data that Rowberry  didn’t include. A little earlier in the piece he cites stats from the UK PA and then vaguely hand waves at reasons why the data is incomplete:

But despite the early promise of the ebook, many are questioning whether it has lived up to these expectations. In recent years, the ebook has faced significant backlash amid reports of declining sales in trade publishing. The Publishing Association Yearbook 2016 noted a 17% slump in the sale of consumer ebooks while physical book revenue increased by 8%. Over the last couple of years, audiobooks have replaced ebooks as digital publishing’s critical darling on the back of a rapid increase in revenue. In this climate, several commentators have asked “how ebooks lost their shine.”

The ‘ebook plateau’ argument also ignores emergent sectors of digital-only sales, including self-publishing, where new genres drive a vibrant and divergent market. Amazon facilitates most self-publishing sales, and the company steadfastly refuses to provide sales data for books published exclusively on the Kindle. So a potential increase in sales for emergent digital-only genres is hidden by the headlines about traditional publishers.

Yeah, the data is only obscured if you refuse to go looking for it.

I am referring of course the Author Earnings Report and the pseudonymous Data Guy (who does answer press queries about the latest data).

We know exactly the limits of the stats from the PA (it misses 38% of the UK ebook market), and that is the point that Rowberry should have made.

. . . .

He actually think the legacy industry could kill off ebooks:

For the moment, reports of the ebook’s death are exaggerated. If the disinterest of Amazon and resistance from the book trade continue, however, there is a chance that the ebook is killed off – in my view, prematurely.

While an industry can refuse to supply the market with what the market wants, that industry cannot kill that want.

And in the case of digital goods, it cannot prevent consumers from adopting the digital goods – they’ll just turn to someone else to supply the content.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader 

For a thought experiment, consider an alternative history in which printed books did not exist and ebooks are the only way books have been distributed/sold/read. As with today’s conditions, tablets, ereaders and computers are in wide use.

In that history, if someone invented the printed book and was promoting it as an alternative to ebooks, what would the reaction of the publishing industry be?

Printed books are far too expensive to produce, distribute and sell. Readers will never accept the size and weight of a printed book compared to their ereading devices.

Where will printed books be stored? Thousands of ebooks take up a bit of disk space while the same number of printed books will consume vast physical spaces that could otherwise be used for far more productive purposes.

And the forests! Think of the devastating impact on thousands of acres of beautiful trees!

How Much Internet Data is Generated Every Minute?

27 July 2017

From Domo:

Link to the rest at Domo and here’s a link to a .png file that you can click to enlarge the infographic to a larger size.

PG was impressed by this in that many of the activities shown describe communications that individuals create themselves, at least in part.

On the other hand, 103,447,520 spam emails sent every minute.

Next Leap for Robots: Picking Out and Boxing Your Online Order

25 July 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

Robot developers say they are close to a breakthrough—getting a machine to pick up a toy and put it in a box.

It is a simple task for a child, but for retailers it has been a big hurdle to automating one of the most labor-intensive aspects of e-commerce: grabbing items off shelves and packing them for shipping.

Several companies, including Saks Fifth Avenue owner Hudson’s BayCo. and Chinese online-retail giant JD.com Inc. have recently begun testing robotic “pickers” in their distribution centers. Some robotics companies say their machines can move gadgets, toys and consumer products 50% faster than human workers.

Retailers and logistics companies are counting on the new advances to help them keep pace with explosive growth in online sales and pressure to ship faster. U.S. e-commerce revenues hit $390 billion last year, nearly twice as much as in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Sales are rising even faster in China, India and other developing countries.

That is propelling a global hiring spree to find people to process those orders. U.S. warehouses added 262,000 jobs over the past five years, with nearly 950,000 people working in the sector, according to the Labor Department. Labor shortages are becoming more common, particularly during the holiday rush, and wages are climbing.

. . . .

Picking is the biggest labor cost in most e-commerce distribution centers, and among the least automated. Swapping in robots could cut the labor cost of fulfilling online orders by a fifth, said Marc Wulfraat, president of consulting firm MWPVL International Inc.

“When you’re talking about hundreds of millions of units, those numbers can be very significant,” he said. “It’s going to be a significant edge for whoever gets there first.”

. . . .

In RightHand Robotics’ Somerville, Mass., test facility, mechanical arms hunt around the clock through bins containing packages of baby wipes, jars of peanut butter and other products. Each attempt—successful or not—feeds into a database. The bigger that data set, the faster and more reliably the machines can pick, said Yaro Tenzer, the startup’s co-founder.

Hudson’s Bay is testing RightHand’s robots in a distribution center in Scarborough, Ontario.

“This thing could run 24 hours a day,” said Erik Caldwell, the retailer’s senior vice president of supply chain and digital operations, at a conference in May. “They don’t get sick; they don’t smoke.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

In a world of peak attention, how can books survive?

20 July 2017

From the Bookseller:

What happens when we run out of time?

This might sound like a philosophical question, but with the explosion in content and entertainment offerings such as social media and freemium games, we are rapidly approaching a state of peak attention. I define peak attention as the moment where the competition for our attention reaches a saturated point – when there is no more time to spare and something else must miss out.

As the old saying goes; time is the ultimate finite resource. Increasingly, ours is being spent online.

Herbert Simon first coined the term ‘attention economy’ way back in 1971. His simple conclusion was that an explosion of information must lead to a scarcity of what it consumes, our attention. From his office, it’s like he foresaw the entire rise of social media with its endless content feeds. We now collectively spend more than 10bn hours a week on the main social platforms, and it is rising fast. The total attention equation is different still. Between online and offline media platforms, the average American spends one more hour per day than they did just two years ago – almost 11 hours a day in total.

Simultaneously, from 2005 to 2015, the average amount of time Americans spent reading for personal interest on weekend days and holidays fell by six minutes to 21 minutes per day and 17 minutes on normal work days – a 22% decrease in a decade.

. . . .

I believe the advent of the data feedback loop from users, now a reality with all digital media, will prove the game changer. Software can now learn on its own, powered by unprecedented computational power and vast data sets of real human behaviour. Imagine a book that gets better and better suited to its audience every time it is read, gradually personalising to fit each person’s preferred narrative direction.

These new self-learning systems will inevitably get very good at hooking us in – and keeping us there.

. . . .

Rather than simply living side by side in harmony, there is a compounding effect on the competition for attention across all the media we consume. Every new entertainment offering and attention-consuming activity essentially raises the bar for all the incumbent things people used to spend time on. We have entered a state of hyper-competition. If everyone increasingly fights for the same attention pool, something must inevitably lose out. And that’s going to be books, if Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Netflix keep winning.

The true structural issue here is that all services and products compete for the same 24 hours.

Link to the rest at the Bookseller

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