PG’s Thoughts (such as they are)

Murakami Withdraws from The Alternative Nobel Prize in Literature

17 September 2018

From BookRiot:

Japanese author Haruki Murakami has asked to withdraw his nomination as one of the four finalists for The New Academy Prize in Literature, also known as the alternative Nobel Prize in Literature.

According to The New Academy’s press release, Murakami is deeply honored by the nomination; however, he wishes to withdraw to focus on his writing and avoid the distraction that the media attention will bring.

The jury of The New Academy will continue its work to appoint a winner from the remaining three finalists–Maryse Condé, Neil Gaiman, and Kim Thúy, who all have expressed their enthusiasm over being nominated.

. . . .

The New Academy is a Swedish non-profit organization founded in the spring of 2018 in response to the Swedish Academy postponing the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature because of the many scandals that erupted earlier this year. The New Academy is not affiliated with either the Swedish Academy or the Nobel Foundation.

Link to the rest at BookRiot

PG wonders if it was wise for The New Academy Prize in Literature to announce that one of its prize nominees had declined to participate in the prize business.

Had anyone asked PG whether a startup prize company should issue a press release announcing that someone famous had refused in advance to receive a prize, PG would probably have suggested that the PR team find another subject.

Why might Murakami have taken this step?

Answers could include:

  • The flight from Tokyo to Stockholm has to be a killer.
  • On the date of the prize ceremony, December 10, the beaches of Thailand might be more appealing than the shores of the Baltic.
  • Can a literary prize that is funding a “Gala Dinner and Prize Ceremony” with a Kickstarter campaign be all that prestigious?

Or Murakami might have visited the New Academy’s website:

The New Academy is a non-profit organization, politically and financially independent. It consists of a wide range of knowledgeable individuals. The New Academy works within the time frame of the Swedish Academy and in five different committees.

. . . .

The New Academy will be dissolved in December.

While the lure of “five different committees” comprised of “knowledgeable individuals” is powerful, PG hereby respectfully declines to be nominated for a quasi-Nobel Prize for Champerty, Maintenance and Barratry.

You Don’t Own the Music, Movies or Ebooks You ‘Buy’ on Amazon or iTunes

15 September 2018

From Two Cents:

When you purchase music, movies or books from Amazon or Apple’s iTunes store, you might be under the impression that that material is yours to enjoy forever; that’s how CDs and paper books work, after all. Why rent You’ve Got Mail for $3.99 every few months when you can “own” it and watch it whenever, forever, for $9.99?

But you’d be mistaken. Anything digital is temporary, even if you clicked “purchase” rather than “rent.” One unfortunate side effect of that you won’t experience with a physical book or record: Your purchases may just disappear if licensing agreements change.

. . . .

As outlined in the Twitter thread, Apple states the content provider of the movies in question removed them from the store. And that removed them from the user’s library, even though he had paid money to buy them. It’s easy to see why that’s frustrating (especially since Apple wasn’t willing to cough up a refund for the purchases he no longer has).

“This wouldn’t happen in the physical world. No one comes to your door and demands that you give back a book,” Aaron Perzanowski, a Case Western Reserve University law professor, who studied these digital purchases, told the LA Times in 2016. “But in the digital world, they can just go into your Kindle and take it.”

. . . .

For example, Amazon notes in the fine print that “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider. The Content Provider may include additional terms for use within its Kindle Content.” You also can’t sell or redistribute your ebooks, as you might with a physical copy. Apple’s fine printstates that the licensor “reserves the right to change, suspend, remove, disable or impose access restrictions or limits on any External Services at any time without notice or liability to you.”

. . . .

The best option? If you can, buy a physical copy of a movie or TV show that comes with a digital download. At least you’ll have a backup in case your digital copy disappears—assuming you still have a player to watch it on.

Link to the rest at Two Cents

When PG read the OP, one of the first things to pop into his mind was, “born yesterday”.

The author of the OP apparently discovered licensing of intellectual property shortly before writing the article and assumed at least a portion of the Lifehacker audience didn’t know much about the topic either.

“Born Yesterday” was the name of a Broadway play with two revivals plus three different movies.

Here’s a plot summary of the original Broadway play, Born Yesterday, which premiered in 1946, from Wikipedia:

An uncouth, corrupt rich junk dealer, Harry Brock, brings his showgirl mistress Billie Dawn with him to Washington, D.C. When Billie’s ignorance becomes a liability to Brock’s business dealings, he hires a journalist, Paul Verrall, to educate his girlfriend. In the process of learning, Billie Dawn realizes how corrupt Harry is and begins interfering with his plans to bribe a Congressman into passing legislation that would allow Brock’s business to make more money.

As a general proposition, the creator of intellectual property is its owner. Everybody else who wants to observe, read, listen to, etc., etc., that intellectual property is not the owner of the IP, but only has limited rights created by statute or license to do some things with their copy of the IP.

The owner of a physical book can’t make copies of the book and sell them to others because the book’s owner doesn’t own the IP depicted in the book. He/she is only the owner of the paper, ink and binding of that particular copy of the book. The copyright law (statutory and otherwise) which creates and defines the IP in the first place permits the book’s owner to do certain things with the physical book – read it, lend that copy to someone else, sell that copy to someone else, donate it to a library, deface the book, use excerpts or quotes from the book for various purposes, etc., etc.

The same basic rules, adapted to different media by which IP can be duplicated, transmitted, etc., govern copies of the IP in digital form. Just as making a copy of a book to give or sell to someone else is a violation of the creator’s IP rights, generally speaking, making a copy of a CD, a digital file, a photograph, or other protected medium incorporating such IP to give or sell to someone else is, absent permission from the creator or permission granted via copyright law, a violation of the creator’s IP rights.

Enough of this type of blathering.

The OP caused PG to wonder whether an author self-publishing with Amazon via KDP could make digital copies of his/her ebooks disappear from Kindles everywhere by unpublishing the ebook.

The short answer is probably not.

Here are some excerpts from the current Kindle Direct Publishing Terms and Conditions that describe what rights an author grants to Amazon:

Paragraph 3 Term and Termination (excerpt with PG highlights)

Following termination or suspension, we may fulfill any customer orders for your Books pending as of the date of termination or suspension, and we may continue to maintain digital copies of your Digital Books in order to provide continuing access to or re-downloads of your Digital Books, as well as digital copies of your Books to support customers who have purchased a Book prior to termination or suspension. . . . All rights to Digital Books acquired by customers will survive termination.

Paragraph 5.1.4 Book Withdrawal (excerpt with PG highlights)

All withdrawals of Books will apply prospectively only and not with respect to any customers who purchased the Books prior to the date of removal.

Paragraph 5.5 Grant of Rights (excerpt with PG highlights)

You grant to each Amazon party, throughout the term of this Agreement, a nonexclusive, irrevocable, right and license to print (on-demand and in anticipation of customer demand) and distribute Books, directly and through third-party distributors, in all formats you choose to make available through KDP by all distribution means available. This right includes, without limitation, the right to: (a) reproduce, index and store Books on one or more computer facilities, and reformat, convert and encode Books; (b) display, market, transmit, distribute, sell, license and otherwise make available all or any portion of Books through Amazon Properties (as defined below), for customers and prospective customers to download, access, copy and paste, print, annotate and/or view online and offline, including on portable devices; (c) permit customers to “store” Digital Books that they have purchased from us on servers (“Virtual Storage”) and to access and re-download such Digital Books from Virtual Storage from time to time both during and after the term of this Agreement

It appears to PG that Apple’s agreement with the owners of the copyrights to some iTunes movies did not include anything like the language in the KDP T&C’s and that the movie owners could force Apple to terminate rights of its customers who had paid for licenses to those movies.

It appears to PG that an author or publisher operating under the KDP T&C’s or something similar can’t force Amazon to terminate a customer’s rights to access an ebook they bought through Amazon. Amazon can decide to do so, but an author can’t make Amazon pull a digital move like iTunes did.

As usual, PG is a lawyer, but nothing PG posts on TPV is legal advice. If you would like to obtain legal advice, you need to hire an attorney to give you that advice, not read what a lawyer might post on a blog.

PG invites comments that agree or disagree with his half-baked (or fully-baked) blatherings on this topic.

European Parliament Approves Catastrophic Copyright Bill That Threatens the Internet

13 September 2018

From Gizmodo:

Members of the European Parliament voted Wednesday to approve a sweeping overhaul of the EU’s copyright laws that includes two controversial articles that threaten to hand more power to the richest tech companies and generally break the internet.

Overall, MEPs voted in favor of the EU Copyright Directive with a strong majority of 438 to 226. But the process isn’t over. There are still more parliamentary procedures to go through, and individual countries will eventually have to decide how they intend to implement the rules. That’s part of the reason that it’s so difficult to raise public awareness on this issue.

Momentum to oppose the legislation built up earlier this summer, culminating with Parliament deciding to open it up for amendments in July. Many people may have thought the worst was over. It wasn’t—but make no mistake, today’s vote in favor of the directive was extremely consequential.

The biggest issue with this legislation has been Articles 11 and 13. These two provisions have come to be known as the “link tax” and “upload filter” requirements, respectively.

In brief, the link tax is intended to take power back from giant platforms like Google and Facebook by requiring them to pay news outlets for the privilege of linking or quoting articles. But critics say this will mostly harm smaller websites that can’t afford to pay the tax, and the tech giants will easily pay up or just decide not link to news. The latter outcome has already happened when this was tried in Spain. On top of inhibiting the spread of news, the link tax could also make it all but impossible for Wikipedia and other non-profit educational sources to do their work because of their reliance on links, quotes, and citation.

The upload filter section of the legislation demands that all platforms aside from “small/micro enterprises” use a content ID system of some sort to prevent any copyrighted works from being uploaded. Sites will face all copyright liabilities in the event that something makes it past the filter. Because even the best filtering systems, like YouTube’s, are still horrible, critics say that the inevitable outcome is that over-filtering will be the default mode of operation. Remixing, meme-making, sharing of works in the public domain, and other fair use practices would likely all fall victim to platforms that would rather play it safe, just say no to flagged content, and avoid legal battles. Copyright trolls will likely be able to fraudulently claim ownership of intellectual property with little recourse for their victims.

. . . .

Joe McNamee, executive director of digital rights association EDRi, recently told The Verge, “The system is so complicated that last Friday the [European Parliament] legal affairs committee tweeted an incorrect assessment of what’s happening. If they don’t understand the rules, what hope the rest of us?” As we come closer to living parallel lives online and IRL, such sweeping legislation is dangerous to play with.

In a statement sent to Gizmodo, Member of European Parliament Julia Reda said, “Unfortunately, all the concerns by academics, experts and internet users that led to the text being rejected last July still stand.” She said that the EU is relying on “wishful thinking” rather than addressing the clear problems in the directive. Her overall assessment of the vote was blunt: “Today’s decision is a severe blow to the free and open internet. By endorsing new legal and technical limits on what we can post and share online, the European Parliament is putting corporate profits over freedom of speech and abandoning long-standing principles that made the internet what it is today.”

Link to the rest at Gizmodo and thanks to Kat, who points out that this could impact TPV (although it might be a “small/micro enterprise”), for the tip.

Although he claims no deep knowledge of the language of the legislation and its potential impact on TPV or elsewhere, PG says one possibility springs (or limps) to mind would be that it could create a sort of digital Dark Age for websites originating in the EU.

Who is going to quote or take the risk of linking to a European website that may trigger a “link tax” or otherwise expose the site owners to jurisdiction under a complex EU legal regime?

It is not difficult for PG to imagine a new WordPress plugin that automatically screens the IP addresses of linked articles or online visitors to a blog and blocks access to the linked website in general or for visitors with a European IP address. This type of digital censorship system will almost certainly be over-inclusive if the penalties involve exposing a US, Brazilian or Japanese blog to some sort of EU regulatory framework.

If the impact of such an initiative creates one or more digital “no-go” zones, the individuals and organizations in those zones could suffer a much greater harm than any offsetting benefit to the relatively small number of IP rights holders in any nation.

But, as usual, PG could be wrong. As mentioned, he only knows what he reads online about a wide variety of subjects these days.

While he believes himself to be a staunch advocate for the rights of authors and other creators to reasonable legal protections for their works, PG thinks a couple of items about the potential harms of rent-seeking are relevant.

From Wikipedia:

In public choice theory and in economics, rent-seeking involves seeking to increase one’s share of existing wealth without creating new wealth. Rent-seeking results in reduced economic efficiency through poor allocation of resources, reduced actual wealth-creation, lost government revenue, increased income inequality, and (potentially) national decline.

Attempts at capture of regulatory agencies to gain a coercive monopoly can result in advantages for the rent seeker in a market while imposing disadvantages on (incorrupt) competitors. This constitutes one of many possible forms of rent-seeking behavior.

. . . .

Rent-seeking is an attempt to obtain economic rent (i.e., the portion of income paid to a factor of production in excess of what is needed to keep it employed in its current use) by manipulating the social or political environment in which economic activities occur, rather than by creating new wealth. Rent-seeking implies extraction of uncompensated value from others without making any contribution to productivity. The classic example of rent-seeking, according to Robert Shiller, is that of a feudal lord who installs a chain across a river that flows through his land and then hires a collector to charge passing boats a fee (or rent of the section of the river for a few minutes) to lower the chain. There is nothing productive about the chain or the collector. The lord has made no improvements to the river and is not adding value in any way, directly or indirectly, except for himself. All he is doing is finding a way to make money from something that used to be free.

. . . .

Rent-seeking is distinguished in theory from profit-seeking, in which entities seek to extract value by engaging in mutually beneficial transactions. Profit-seeking in this sense is the creation of wealth, while rent-seeking is “profiteering” by using social institutions, such as the power of the state, to redistribute wealth among different groups without creating new wealth.

And some relevant quotes:

I readily acknowledge that it may be difficult to know where to draw the line between ‘corruption’ and ‘rent-seeking behaviour’…. The latter term is generally used to refer to the process by which interest groups adopt (lawful) means to secure competitive advantages from the political process and is a phenomenon widely recognised as influencing law and legal institutions in industrialised societies and is the subject of a huge literature . . . . Rent-seeking may, indeed, impose costs to the economy as high, if not higher, than those arising from corruption (narrowly defined).

~ Anthony Ogus

Time, talent, money, knowledge, and resources that could be used to protect people and cure deadly diseases are instead being wasted, siphoned off by rent-seeking because the government needs to…protect us.

~ Lisa Casanova

As soon as the state takes upon itself the task of planning the whole economic life, the problem of the due station of the different individuals and groups must indeed inevitably become the central political problem. As the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of this directing power. There will be no economic or social questions that would not be political questions in the sense that their solution will depend exclusively on who wields the coercive power, on whose are the views that will prevail on all occasions.

~ Friedrich August Hayek

Germany’s Bertelsmann Reports a Half-Year Decline at PRH

30 August 2018

From Publishing Perspectives:

In its report arriving overnight from Gütersloh, Bertelsmann—parent of Penguin Random House—is reporting that its overall 2018 first-half revenues rose to €8.2 billion (US$9.6 billion), its highest result, the company says, in 11 years, with a group profit of €501 million (US$584.4 million).

The news on Penguin Random House, however, is different, recording “declines in sales and earnings” in the same period, the first half of 2018.

And in a letter to staff dated today (August 30), Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle writes, “I’d like to give you some context and perspective on those numbers, highlight some of our key global achievements so far this year, and, especially, thank you for all you are doing on behalf of our books.”

. . . .

To Penguin Random House staffers, Dohle writes, “Even though the reported Bertelsmann headline numbers were down for its book division in euros, the underlying operating revenue and profit numbers for Penguin Random House in US dollars have been stable year-over-year.

“This means that the quality of our business and our earnings have been on the same—high—level as in the prior year. Our core business remains very strong globally.”

. . . .

Dohle’s message is, in essence, better things are ahead. “We have a terrific publishing lineup worldwide to carry us to this year’s finish line,” he writes, ” with new potential national and local bestsellers on the schedule from now through December.

. . . .

Overall, Dohle’s messaging asserts, all is well and getting better, despite disappointing financial reportage from Germany. “In this year of ongoing unrest and anxiety worldwide, our authors’ books across categories are needed more than ever,” writes Markus Dohle.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG says the Bertelsmann report that prompted Dohle’s pep talk letter to PRH employees said the first-half revenues of PRH were down 3.3% from last year. Operating EBITDA fell by 17.0 percent.

What interested PG even more was another section of the Bertlesmann report was the following:

“In the United States, Penguin Random House had 178 titles on The New York Times bestseller lists in the first half of the year, 25 of them at No. 1. The biggest bestsellers of the reporting period [included] … Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, which served as the basis for the eponymous Steven Spielberg movie, and was also very successful as an audiobook.

“In the United Kingdom, 41 percent of all books on the The Sunday Times bestseller lists were Penguin Random House titles. In addition to the above-mentioned works that were successful in the United States, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and Still Me by Jojo Moyes sold particularly well in the United Kingdom.

. . . .

“In Germany, Verlagsgruppe Random House had 251 titles on Der Spiegel bestseller lists, 11 of them at number one.”

Unless PG has missed something in recent months, Amazon doesn’t share its book sales data with The New York Times, The Sunday Times, etc., for purposes of those publications’ bestseller lists.

A few months back, Mike Shatzkin said that 69% of book sales (print, ebooks and audio) are happening online and only 31% in physical bookstores. The online number for adult fiction and non-fiction is now about 75%.

Let’s put things together:

  1. PRH is killing it on the traditional bestsller lists.
  2. PRH revenues are down.
  3. Amazon sales aren’t reflected in the bestseller lists.

PG admits other factors come into play, but if he combines these reported facts, he suspects that PRH is underperforming on Amazon. PRH books compete quite successfully in the traditional bookstore world, but they can’t compete on Amazon.

Bertelsmann says PRH’s declining sales and earnings are “due to exchange rate effects, among other factors.” PG suggests that among the “other factors,” not being able to sell very effectively on Amazon might be significant.

Of course, whether Barnes & Noble continues to circle the drain or actually goes down the drain, sales on Amazon will become even more important to Big Publishing’s financial performance.

Is Quality, Like Beauty, in the Eye of the Beholder? The Elusive Art of Book Reviewing and Its Influence

24 August 2018

From No Shelf Required:

What is a book review? Many have attempted to answer this question over the last few decades in a multitude of ways—from informed scholars, librarians, and booksellers to publishers, authors and readers. While their views differ widely on how successful book reviews are in bringing us closer to a book’s quality—and whether this is even possible—their definitions of book reviews and their core purpose seem to be in sync. To start, book reviews are a ‘genre’ in their own right, as they have features specific to them, and they can be as entertaining to read as the books they put under the microscope. These features, of course, depend on the context in which the books are reviewed (e.g., reviews found in academic journals are more in-depth and lengthier than those found in mainstream newspapers and magazines), but the general purpose of book reviews is always to serve as kind of an economic model, helping readers—whoever they may be—to decide if they should spend their money on a book, be it for entertainment, enlightenment, or scholarly pursuit. In other words, the main purpose of book reviews is to reduce search costs and uncertainty (Clement & others 78).  In this sense, then, readers hope that book reviews will guide them in the direction of the books they both want and need.

If we examine how information professionals and scholars have perceived book reviews over time and in varied settings, we can conclude that despite their imperfections and sometimes contradictory performance and impact, the presence of book reviews in scholarly and mass communication is understood to be both necessary and helpful, not only to guide readers through the maze of published literature—which today exceeds 2.2 million new titles in any given year, according to UNESCO estimates published in 2017—but also to point to the cultural conditions of our time and to give us alternate views on particular subjects. Indeed, the world needs different opinions. As Peyre put it, “unanimity in any acclaim for a book (whether or not by a Nobel Prize winner), a play, a concert performer, or an artist, even if he has become as venerable as Picasso or Chagall, should arouse suspicion. It can only be a sign of conventionality, of intellectual laziness, or timidity” (Peyre 130).

Yet despite such explanations for the necessity of diverse opinions, there has been no shortage of views pointing, sometimes harshly, to the inherently self-defeating nature of book reviews.

. . . .

Book reviews are studied usually in terms of several criteria: review length, lag-time, orientation, evaluative slant, and reviewer identity (Rehman 127). They are also studied in terms of their influence on author reputation and career advancement, as well as in terms of their power to predict a book’s critical reception and, ultimately, its financial success. Questions that appear frequently in such studies include, for example: How have book reviews and our perception of them changed over time? How often are critics truly objective in their analysis? Should they strive to be more descriptive and less prescriptive in their analysis? Are book reviews only about the book or do they also reveal details about the critic? What is the impact of negative reviews on a book’s sales and on an author’s public image? What is the role of professional editors in the process of preserving ethical standards behind book reviewing? How much influence do editors have in deciding what books are reviewed in professional publications and by whom? How often and in what ways are book reviews used as marketing tools by publishers, authors, and such middlemen as PR agents? And, perhaps most relevant, just how many books can possibly be reviewed in a world that sees 2.2 million titles published annually?

. . . .

Upon closer examination of available literature (and based on my own experience as a professional book review editor at Library Journal), I have come to identify four major types of book reviews: academic reviews; trade reviews; mainstream media reviews; and, since the advent of modern technologies and social media platforms, user reviews. The first three types refer to the book reviews written, edited, and published by professionals, while the fourth refers to the reviews we encounter online and all over the Internet; they are usually written by amateurs who voluntarily share their thoughts about a book (often anonymously).

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required

PG suggests that, as a means of informing a purchase decision for a particular book, user reviews are likely, on a collective basis, to be far more influential for a given individual reader (especially a reader of ebooks) than any of the other categories of reviews written by “professionals”.

While an individual user review may be useless for deciding about a prospective ebook purchase, collectively, a group of user reviews is often quite valuable for PG.

The consequences of an unwise ebook purchase are also smaller than an unwise printed book purchase for several reasons:

  1. Generally speaking, ebook prices are lower than printed book prices, so less of the reader’s money is at risk.
  2. If an ebook proves unsatisfying, it can usually be returned for a refund with a mouse click, a much simpler process than trudging back to a physical bookstore with printed receipt in hand. (PG is likely not the only person whose physical bookshelves include poor purchase decisions for which the return process wasn’t worth his time. They sit there, like awkward distant relatives one prefers not to speak with, but still have some embarrassing connection with the observer.)

The other problem with “professional reviews” is that a great many of the publications in which they were formerly published have gone out of business or are otherwise unable or unwilling to pay a “professional” for a review. How many people actually read online publications that include “professional” reviews. Does a book reviewer who writes “professional” reviews still qualify as a professional if he/she isn’t paid at all or is paid so little that a day job is required for sustenance?

The New York Times book reviews were very influential in days now past because of the large number of the paper’s subscribers and their attractive demographics (nice income, good education). Today, the Times’ overall audience is far smaller (particularly in comparison with other online destinations) and who knows how many people actually read the book reviews as opposed to seeing a link to a book review or opening a page that includes a book review, then heading elsewhere? (PG will note in passing that online web traffic analytics for this sort of thing are notably inaccurate. Here’s a link to a short article that describes a variety of estimation methods and points out their shortcomings.)

As times change, some people change and others do not. Yesterday’s profession, regardless of how valuable it might have been back in the day, may not have the same value today. While not wishing bad fortune on anyone, PG notes that today’s “professional” can be tomorrow’s barista.


Publishers Are Tiring of Revolving Door in Barnes & Noble’s C-Suite

11 August 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

Book-publishing executives expressed concerns to Barnes & Noble Inc. BKS 0.83% about continuing management instability at the retail giant and the direction of the business, in the wake of the sudden firing last month of Demos Parneros as chief executive.

Mr. Parneros was terminated without severance in July for violating company policies. The company said at the time that his dismissal was unrelated to issues of financial reporting or fraud, but offered no further guidance.

The next CEO will be Barnes & Noble’s sixth since 2013. During that stretch, the company’s sales have eroded significantly despite various turnaround strategies under multiple management teams, from store closures to stepped-up marketing of toys and gifts, to opening stores with restaurants.

Publishers relayed their concerns in meetings with Barnes & Noble in the weeks following Mr. Parneros’s exit, people familiar with the matter said. They indicated that they have a strong interest in Barnes & Noble running a healthy and stable business, to counteract the clout of Inc. in book retailing.

The invitations to the private meetings were extended by Leonard Riggio, the bookseller’s 77-year-old executive chairman and largest shareholder. He was joined by Timothy Mantel, the chief merchandising officer who is on the rise at the company, the people said. He is one of three executives who report directly to Mr. Riggio and are running the company until a new CEO is hired.

. . . .

According to one publishing executive who met with Barnes & Noble, Mr. Riggio said he was fully committed to the business and that there was a plan to turn things around. “I expressed frustration that if they had a plan, we didn’t know it,” the executive said. “We all want them to survive.”

Another publishing executive indicated frustration with the direction of the business. “You’re trying to focus their attention on what they can do to effect change,” the executive said. “They’re defensive about the CEOs.”

A third publishing executive, who voiced concern about the physical state of the stores, said Mr. Riggio promised new stores with a smaller footprint but didn’t indicate any plans to update existing stores. “I get the logic of that if they can move forward at an aggressive pace,” the executive said.

Mr. Riggio said in an interview that he wanted the publishers to know that he was “up to the job” and that he still “loves the business and its mission.” He disputed the suggestion that publishers had expressed unhappiness with the most recent management change or the direction of the business.

. . . .

“My top priority is building sales,” said Mr. Riggio, adding that the continuing declines in store traffic affecting many retailers can be reversed through better promotions and advertising. Mr. Riggio said, “What brought us here is books. We have to stay book-centered and we have to have a super large title selection.”

. . . .

One industry expert said turnover in the C-suite made it more difficult for Barnes & Noble to maintain a consistent strategy. “Anybody who comes in at the top thinks they are being asked to solve a problem that needs solving,” said Amy Rhodes, a principal at publishing-industry consulting firm Market Partners International. “Presumably if they make a quick exit, the next person comes in with a new idea.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal and thanks to Nate for the tip.

PG says the US economy is growing at a rapid pace, the best in years. Many companies are working hard to meet increasing customer demand, expand their businesses and overcome the many other challenges of handling explosive growth. They’re having problems finding quality executives because everybody is looking for quality managers.

In a market for top executives that looks like this, what competent executive would even consider interviewing with Barnes & Noble?

The smell of death is strong in the largest shrinking bookseller in the US. The guy who really runs the business, Riggio, is more and more out of touch with current market realities. Barnes & Noble was in an excellent position to gain a large share of the ebook market several years ago, but completely blew the technical and design side of online sales and marketing. Incompetent executives managing incompetent tech people couldn’t do anything right.

Back then, the question was the same as it is today – what talented executive or technologist would go to work for Barnes & Noble when there are so many really good companies with bright futures who are hiring?

BN is going to be choosing its next CEO from among those people who can’t get another job during the best job market in decades.

PG says you should expect another Joe-Bag-O-Donuts manager to come stumbling into BN in a few months and go stumbling out a few months later. The march of the stumblebums will continue until BN finally stumbles into bankruptcy, paying out dividends to Riggio until the last possible moment.

And Barnes & Noble’s competition is Amazon.

Leisure sickness: why you should not relax on holiday

7 August 2018

From The Times of London

My suitcase is on the bed, I’ve printed the boarding passes and even remembered the travel plug. I may be burdened by a year’s aggregate of fatigue and stress, but that’s OK, I am finally heading off on my summer holiday. It’s really not the moment to spot a report that says, badly handled, my two weeks in Greece might be the death of me.

According to a study by Liverpool University, if you’re middle-aged, and even if you’re reasonably active day to day, a “holiday” doing nothing may be ill-advised. The study conducted by Dan Cuthbertson, an honorary consultant at the university’s Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease, examined the effects of two weeks’ relaxation on 45 healthy men and women with previously good metabolic health. They had all been used to walking an average 10,000 steps a day or more, but for the study were asked to limit their steps to less than 2,000 a day and to sit for up to three and a half hours a day longer than usual.

Overall, while younger participants recovered reasonably quickly, the inactivity in older people led to a slowing of their metabolism. Also, blood sugar and “bad” cholesterol levels increased while insulin sensitivity decreased. These are contributory factors to type 2 diabetes. What’s more, muscle mass diminished and fat deposits increased, especially around the abdomen, a contributory factor to heart disease.

“The public health message is certainly not ‘don’t go on holiday’,” says Cuthbertson. “But it’s that, especially for the older demographic, as you get older there is a constellation of physiological reasons that make it harder to win your health and fitness back.”

. . . .

“No one’s saying holiday has to become a boot camp,” says Cuthbertson. “In fact exercise should feel good physically and mentally. Go for a daily swim and see if you can add a couple of lengths each day.” The doctor, who is no slouch himself — he has run 20 marathons and 200 half-marathons — follows his own orders. “On holiday in Scotland recently I did a park run, which is a really good public health initiative.”

Inactivity on holiday is not the only holiday health pitfall. Scientists and researchers now believe that the sudden decompression that holidaymakers go through when they switch from work to holiday mode can play havoc with their wellbeing. Ever got your keys to the villa, opened the shutters and admired the pool only to retire to bed feeling ill? You may have succumbed to a phenomenon that Ad Vingerhoets, a professor of clinical psychology from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, has called “leisure sickness”. Its symptoms include headache, insomnia, depression and anxiety, or flu-like symptoms.

. . . .

“The statistics suggest it’s growing,” she says. “Highly stressed people or workaholics tend to suffer holiday burn-out most. They’re at optimum stress completing tasks before the holiday and then they may suffer an immune-system crash. But the surprising thing is the group we call ‘inactives’ who enjoy a lot of unconditional leisure time on a day-to-day basis, they suffer leisure sickness too. Too much freedom is not good.”

Link to the rest at The Times of London

At this point in his life, PG has a number of grandchildren who are often involved in the vacations he and Mrs. PG take from time to time. The grandchildren are the perfect antidote to the problems of too much inactivity and relaxation during vacation. Casa PG and its many keyboards are sometimes a welcome respite from vacations.

Here is approximately 3 seconds from a recent visit from PG offspring.

You might not be too impressed by this young man’s diving skills, but it does qualify as a new yardstick for activity. PG will call it an Offspring Activity Event (OAE).

Onlookers are anything but relaxed. For one thing, it is desirable for this type of OAE to end with the offspring coming back to the surface of the water. Generally, one or more adult vacationers are observing to make certain this happens within a reasonable period of time.

PG purposely chose a record of one of the simpler OAE’s during a vacation. If you modify this OAE slightly to have it end with Offspring 1 landing on Offspring 2 who is already in the pool, you’ll be looking at a multi-OAE situation which will helpfully prevent adults from remaining completely relaxed to the detriment of their health per the OP.

A bit of simple math demonstrates why visits with Offspring are not appropriately grouped with problems triggered by too much inactivity and relaxation. We will set aside multi-OAE to simplify calculations.

If you start with your basic 3-second OAE, you’ll see this turns into 1,200 OAE’s per hour. Now, each OAE is not a disaster, but nearby adults tend to subconsciously monitor nearby OAE’s as a fundamental part of their disaster preparedness regime. You don’t want an OAE involving a screwdriver and a younger sibling’s eye to catch you napping.

Taking the 1,200 OAE’s per hour further, indisputable mathematics says there will be 28,800 OAE’s per day and 201,600 events per week.

Now, persnickety doubters might claim that sleeping children do not generate 1,200 OAE’s per hour. This may be true in a strict sense, but that takes us into the realm of OAE severity ratings.

Without getting into complex equations, we will simply observe that Offspring Activity Events that occur in the middle of the night tend to be more severe than daylight OAE’s. Offspring Vomiting in bed at 1:00 AM will certainly protect adults from experiencing too much vacation relaxation more than subconscious observation of Offspring Activity during the day at a swimming pool.

The mathematics underlying the science of Offspring Activity Events becomes exponentially more complex if you assume there is more than one Offspring engaging in activities simultaneously. Five Offspring will generate over one million OAE’s during a week with a huge increase in multi-intersectional OAE events.

And, of course, for a small number of adults, conscientious OAE monitoring of more than one Offspring at a time is the best protection because it reduces any possibility of relaxation during a vacation to a bare minimum.

This discussion will not delve into the increased burden of Offspring Justice Determinations layered on top of basic OAE observational and management tasks when one Offspring’s OAE improperly interferes with another Offspring’s peaceful exercise of OAE autonomy resulting in a multi-OAE morass. Simply identifying each individual OAE in such a situation is difficult enough without tossing severity calculations into the mix.

Suffice to say, multi-OAE situations are probably the best defense against leisure sickness while on vacation.


Outnumbered: From Facebook and Google to Fake News and Filter-bubbles

1 August 2018

From The Guardian:

 Space is big,” wrote Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Adams’s assertion comes repeatedly to mind when reading David Sumpter’s Outnumbered, which attempts to reckon with the sheer scale of the systems that manage much of our digital lives. It’s easy, when faced with the numbers at hand, to succumb to a kind of vertigo: Facebook has two billion users, who make tens of millions of posts every hour. From this data, along with millions more photos, likes and relationships, Facebook builds models of all of us that extend in hundreds of dimensions – the puny human mind, at best, is capable of visualising four.

Google’s translation systems likewise collapse hundreds of languages into multidimensional matrices of meaning, which generate their own metalanguages unknowable to us – and which contain their own implicit biases. Plugging the UK’s most popular baby names into one such system, designed to understand how words and concepts relate to each other, gives the response: “Oliver is to clever what Olivia is to flirtatious”. “Our future generations’ gender roles,” the author worries, “have already been assigned by the algorithm.”

Sumpter is a professor of applied mathematics; his natural response to such problems is to recreate them and then unpack them – and perhaps deflate some of our wilder fears along the way. Step by step, using the same data as many of the papers he quotes from, he details the maths that underpins each of these systems, laying out the straightforward, if advanced, calculations that govern their outcomes – and their limitations. It’s all very well to apply sophisticated regression models to billions of Facebook likes, but the results are mostly underwhelming: yes, “Democrats are more likely to like Harry Potter” than Republicans, but “it doesn’t necessarily tell us that other Harry Potter fans like the Democrats”. The same no-nonsense approach is deployed to debunk lazy assertions that we are all fooled by fake news stories, or trapped within filter bubbles that mindlessly reassert our prejudices. We are, apparently, both smarter and more aware than that.

. . . .

In example after example, the toxic combination of filter bubbles, simplistic ranking mechanisms and algorithmic recommendation is seen as clearly in elite networks as in more accessible but supposedly less self-aware groups – but, we are told, the effects really aren’t as bad as we’re being told they are: “When we get time for research, we scientists still do it well. Most scientists I meet are motivated by the eternal search for truth and the desire to know the right answer.” Phew.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

From The Jakarta Post:

At a time when society is becoming more and more reliant on technology and the internet, there is widespread concern they are exerting too much influence over our lives.

Behind it all are algorithms that have the capability to predict our everyday lives, and to be frank, we’re not entirely sure what they are up to.

In Outnumbered: From Facebook and Google to fake news and filter-bubbles – the algorithms that control our lives (featuring Cambridge Analytica), author David Sumpter writes about society’s ever growing concerns about technology, as well as how algorithms work and their capability to run our lives. It is a fascinating read, drawing on real life phenomenon and stories, such as the likes of Cambridge Analytica.

Simply put, Sumpter tells readers that artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms are more than what meets the eye.

When it comes to technology and the internet, many see it as an open field, accessible to many and a place where we can freely move around. We easily surf the web, clicking on websites, constantly using search engines to keep up with our daily lives. We don’t really put much thought into what happens after we make a single click, but we are now more aware and sensitive of what happens to our data.

That being said, the internet holds a massive digital archive of our opinions, gathered from the algorithms that lie beneath it. These opinions are then analyzed to become a mold of our preference and interests and manipulated to influence us. So we ask each other why. Why are these data researchers and tech giants collecting our data? And how are they using it? What is it about our data that interests them so much?

In this book, Sumpter investigates and explains it all. A professor of applied mathematics at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, Sumpter pitches to his readers a model that illustrates how these algorithms work, from how they analyze us, influence us and become us, and what we should and should not worry about.

. . . .

Sumpter explains all his findings through fascinating examples and case studies, such as how mathematicians applied mathematics in an effort to locate Banksy, an anonymous street artist, or how Google’s neural network had the capability to play Space Invaders against a human being, as well as how companies secretly used our data for political use and that one algorithm that analyzes how the number of “likes” and “dislikes” on platforms such as YouTube correlate with popularity. The list goes on and it is mind blowing.

Link to the rest at The Jakarta Post

From Publishers Weekly:

At a time of widespread concern about technology exerting too much influence over people’s lives, mathematics professor Sumpter (Soccermatics) devotes this enlightening book to investigating these fears and explaining clearly what algorithms do. He tackles different examples of their appearance in daily life, starting with in-the-news attempts to use the internet to study and influence voters. He discusses data harvested from Facebook users regarding their preferences in politics and other areas (theoretically, Democrats “could focus on getting the vote out among Harry Potter fans”), observing that, thankfully, the data’s accuracy is limited by the algorithim designers’ own inherent biases. As to the fake news disseminated on Facebook and other content aggregators, Sumpter believes that, for most people, it has little real impact.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

From Kirkus Review:

Further frighteningly convincing research about the data infiltrating our lives.

Experts regularly warn us that today’s digital technology can extract our innermost secrets. In this ingenious addition to the genre, Sumpter (Applied Mathematics/Univ. of Uppsala, Sweden; Soccermatics: Mathematical Adventures in the Beautiful Game, 2016, etc.) agrees that there is some truth in this assessment but also serious limitations. The book, less a polemic than a combination of investigative journalism and (mostly) painless mathematical lessons, explains how social media, search engines, and merchants extract our opinions and manipulate them with a set of rules called an algorithm, which can often reveal our tastes, personality, and politics. Readers comfortable with ads tailored to previous purchases may flinch to learn that every mouse click such as a “like” under a photo, joke, or film clip enters a massive digital archive that reveals an unnervingly accurate portrait of the clicker. “Unlike our friends—who tend to forget the details and are forgiving in the conclusions they draw about us—Facebook is systematically collecting, processing and analyzing our emotional state,” writes the author. “It is rotating our personalities in hundreds of dimensions, so it can find the most cold, rational direction to view us from.” Persuading us to buy stuff seems benign, but the internet also teems with fake news scientifically designed to influence our votes. Sumpter returns repeatedly to the surprise victories of Donald Trump and Brexit. Wielding his mathematical tools, the author explains how algorithms deal with big data, and it turns out there is less there than meets the eye. Polls only calculate the odds of an event; they can’t “predict” anything. True believers lap up fake news, but it has a barely detectable effect on changing the average reader’s mind.

Link to the rest at Kirkus Review

From Psychologist World:

A subliminal message is a signal or message designed to pass below (sub) the normal limits of perception. For example it might be inaudible to the conscious mind (but audible to the unconscious or deeper mind) or might be an image transmitted briefly and unperceived consciously and yet perceived unconsciously. This definition assumes a division between conscious and unconscious which may be misleading; it may be more true to suggest that the subliminal message (sound or image) is perceived by deeper parts of what is a single integrated mind.

In the everyday world, it has often been suggested that subliminal techniques are used in advertising and for propaganda purposes (e.g. party political broadcasts).

The term subliminal message was popularized in a 1957 book entitled The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard. This book detailed a study of movie theaters that supposedly used subliminal commands to increase the sales of popcorn and Coca-Cola at their concession stands. However, the study was fabricated, as the author of the study James Vicary later admitted.

In 1973 the book Subliminal Seduction claimed that subliminal techiques were in wide use in advertising. The book contributed to a general climate of fear with regard to Orwellian dangers (of subliminal messaging). Public concern was enough to lead the Federal Communications Commission to hold hearings and to declare subliminal advertising “contrary to the public interest” because it involved “intentional deception” of the public.

Subliminal perception or cognition is a subset of unconscious cognition where the forms of unconscious cognition also include attending to one signal in a noisy environment while unconsciously keeping track of other signals (e.g one voice out of many in a crowded room) and tasks done automatically (e.g. driving a car).

In all such cases there has been research into how much of the unattended or unconscious signal or message is perceived (unconsciously), i.e is the whole message sensed and fully digested or perhaps only its main and simpler features? There are at least two schools of thought about this. One of them argues that only the simpler features of unconscious signals are perceived; however please note that the majority of the research done has tended to test only for simpler features of cognition (rather than testing for complete comprehension). The second school of thought argues that the unconscious cognition is comprehensive and that much more is perceived than can be verbalized.

. . . .

Subliminal messages might gain their potential influence/power from the fact that they may be able to cirumvent the critical functions of the conscious mind, and it has often been argued that subliminal suggestions are therefore potentially more powerful than ordinary suggestions. This route to influence or persuasion would be akin to auto-suggestion or hypnosis wherein the subject is encouraged to be (or somehow induced to be) relaxed so that suggestions are directed to deeper (more gullible) parts of the mind; some observers have argued that the unconscious mind is incapable of critical refusal of hypnotic or subliminal suggestions. Research findings do not support the conclusion that subliminal suggestions are peculiarly powerful.

. . . .

A form of subliminal messaging commonly believed to exist involves the insertion of “hidden” messages into movies and TV programs. The concept of “moving pictures” relies on persistence of vision to create the illusion of movement in a series of images projected at 23 to 30 frames per second; the popular theory of subliminal messages usually suggests that subliminal commands can be inserted into this sequence at the rate of perhaps 1 frame in 25 (or roughly 1 frame per second). The hidden command in a single frame will flash across the screen so quickly that it is not consciously perceived, but the command will supposedly appeal to the subconscious mind of the viewer, and thus have some measurable effect in terms of behavior.

As to the question of whether subliminal messages are widely used to influence groups of people e.g. audiences, there is no evidence to suggest that any serious or sustained attempt has been made to use the technology on a mass audience. The widely-reported reports that arose in 1957 to the effect that customers in a movie theatre in New Jersey had been induced by subliminal messages to consume more popcorn and more Coca-Cola were almost certainly false. The current consensus among marketing professionals is that subliminal advertising is counter-productive. To some this is because they believe it to be ineffective, but to most it is because they realise it would be a public relations disaster if its use was discovered. Many have misgivings about using it in marketing campaigns due to ethical considerations.

Link to the rest at Psychologist World

PG has linked to several reviews of a new book, Outnumbered: From Facebook and Google to Fake News and Filter-bubbles – The Algorithms That Control Our Lives (featuring Cambridge Analytica) and one short item discussing subliminal messaging because each of the reviews reflects, to varying extents, the idea that masses citizens in free and open societies can be manipulated like pawns on a chessboard by some surreptitious, super-intelligent and powerful group of people for nefarious ends.

Vance Packard’s bestselling book, The Hidden Persuaders, had a huge impact on advertisers and advertising agencies (and politicians as well) in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. For obvious reasons, the idea that a properly-constructed subliminal message could have a substantial effect on consumer behavior was very attractive.

The problem with Packard’s theories is that they didn’t seem to work with consumers. The traditional marketing approach of understanding what consumers wanted and needed (not necessarily the same thing) and creating products and messages that addressed those wants and needs wasn’t enhanced in any measurable way by hidden messages that were not clear and obvious. Handsome men and attractive women were depicted enjoying a product in commercials to catch a viewer’s attention and encourage them to buy a product. Pitching the psychic benefits of a product was not particularly subtle and certainly didn’t pass a secret and influential message below the level of consciousness.

In PG’s observation, large groups of people tend to denigrate those who disagree with them on a subject of some importance as uninformed or stupid. The belief that people make choices or cast votes against their own logical self-interest is widespread among those who believe themselves to be more intelligent or better-informed than those who disagree with them.

PG suggests that the belief that large groups of people are too ignorant or ill-informed to make proper decisions for themselves is a step towards political disaster. One feature of dictatorships is a constant stream of advertising messages about how intelligent, insightful and beneficent the great leader and those who surround him are and how important it is for everyone else to leave important decisions in the leader’s hands.


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