This clever app lets Amazon Alexa read sign language

17 July 2018

From Fast Company:

The voice assistant speaker revolution of Google Home and Amazon Alexa has left the deaf community behind. It’s a two-fold problem. These devices never learned to decipher the spoken voices of people with an extreme hearing impairment. At the same time, anything Home or Alexa say in response can’t be heard by the user. Adding a screen to display information on a device like the Echo Show might help, but it can only get someone so far if they want to have a natural conversation with a machine.

Now, one creative coder has built a solution. Abhishek Singh–who you may recognize for building Super Mario Bros. in augmented reality–built a web app that reads sign language through a camera, then says those words aloud to an Amazon Echo. When the Echo speaks its response, the app hears that, then types it out. The app allows deaf people to “talk” to a voice interface using nothing but their hands and their eyes.

 

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Link to the rest at Fast Company

Amazon Website Hit With Glitches as Shoppers Seek Prime Day Deals

17 July 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

Amazon.com Inc.’s website and mobile application were plagued by outages Monday afternoon as the online retail giant kicked off its annual sales event, Prime Day.

Users took to social media to report trouble getting access to Amazon’s home page, as they encountered error messages featuring “the dogs of Amazon”—the company’s placeholder messages during outages—for at least an hour into the launch. The sale began at 3 p.m. EDT on Monday and is scheduled to end at the end of the day Tuesday.

An Amazon representative shortly after 5 p.m. EDT said that the company was working to resolve the issue quickly and that only some shoppers are experiencing difficulty. Amazon didn’t disclose the cause of the outage.

“In the first hour of Prime Day in the U.S., customers have ordered more items compared to the first hour last year,” the representative added.

Some users continued reporting glitches hours after Amazon issued its statement.

. . . .

Analysts and investors typically bank on the shopping event—which is usually bigger for Amazon than Black Friday—to generate a revenue bump during the summer, something that helps the company fund its holiday preparations.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

How Finland Rebranded Itself as a Literary Country

17 July 2018

From The Paris Review:

Here’s the thing about us Finns: we haven’t traditionally been very good at branding. In fact, seeing the brand-led global success stories originating from Sweden (IKEA, H&M, Spotify, Skype, Absolut Vodka, ABBA, Stieg Larsson, etc.), we’ve been overcome with jealousy. In Finland, we’ve been known only for Nokia phones. Engaging in excessive promotion doesn’t suit the quiet, self-effacing Finnish spirit; in Finland, you’re expected to do your job well and then let the work do the talking. In some cases, that’s worked for us: you bought a Nokia phone not because it made you cool but because you could drop it in the toilet or throw it across your apartment and somehow, miraculously, it still worked. But then Nokia went down the drain.

Nokia’s undoing dovetails with the rise of the iPhone in 2007. The dwindling of Nokia, our biggest export, left an enormous dent in the Finnish economy. At the turn of the millennium, a staggering 4 percent of the Finnish GDP came from the company, and Nokia represented 21 percent of Finland’s total exports and 14 percent of corporate tax revenues. “It was and still is unprecedented,” Gordon Kelly writes in Wired. Nokia’s downfall left an even bigger dent on Finnish self-confidence. We were getting run over by Americans who were louder than we were.

Around the time of the global recession, the Finns set out as a nation to find the “next Nokia.” It was all we talked about. In a small socially democratic nation like ours, where so much is shared, we felt a common responsibility over our exports. Anything and everything could be the next Nokia, we said, so long as we figure out how to brand it. Tech start-ups were the obvious choice, but cultural products emerged as a strong contender. Could we sell even more great design? Leverage our architecture? Finnish heavy metal started to do well in Germany and the Anglo American world. Then something decisive happened in Finnish literature. 

In 2008, the Finnish Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen published her third book, Purge—a play-turned-novel about two women in Soviet-occupied Estonia who face the atrocities of their pasts—to enormous critical and commercial success. Oksanen became the first person to win both of Finland’s most prestigious literary awards, the Finlandia Prize and the Runeberg Prize. What was even more remarkable was her international reach: Oksanen won numerous foreign literary awards, and translation deals poured in at a rate seldom seen in Finland. Purge was published in thirty-eight languages. To date, it remains the third most translated adult fiction book in the history of Finnish literature and is superseded only by Mika Waltari’s 1945 classic The Egyptian and the Finnish nineteenth-century national epic Kalevala.

. . . .

Oksanen is cool. And more than that, she’s a brand. Described by the Finnish press as a feminist goth, Oksanen’s signature long braided hair is streaked with purple. A gifted writer, she is also a tireless promoter of her own work; she tries to go wherever she is asked to speak. Oksanen was one of the first Finnish authors to sign with an international literary agent (at the time, most Finnish writers worked directly with their publishers). It paid off: in France alone, Purge sold more than a hundred seventy thousand copies.

Strandén remembers one London Book Fair right after the publication of Purge, when suddenly international publishers approached the FILI booth asking, Where can we find the next Oksanen? Finland had largely fallen off the trend of Nordic noir and crime writing, but that exclusion provided a new kind of branding opportunity: ambitious literary fiction. It was around this time, in 2009, that Elina Ahlbäck, a former publisher and acquiring editor, decided to set up Finland’s first Finnish international literary agency. Ahlbäck made headlines across Finland for her use of the word branding in regards to selling literature—and to not just ask but to expect self-promotion from her writers. In Finland, where excessive self-promotion or commercializing art has long been frowned upon—partly because literature is so heavily subsidized by the government—Ahlbäck represented an anomaly. She saw the potential in the book industry and wasn’t afraid to refer to it as a fast-growth business. She set the vision, saying, “We can grow our book exports tenfold in the next ten years.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG has a good friend who was born and raised in Finland before coming to the United States on a college athletic scholarship (throwing a javelin a long distance is a huge deal in Finland).

Accordingly, PG has learned a great deal about Finland. Its population is about 5.5 million people. That’s about the population of Colorado. Or the Atlanta or Barcelona metropolitan areas.

If you look at a map of Finland, you will note that it shares a border with Russia and about 25% of Finland’s land area is above the Arctic Circle. The Russian border means that Finland has a long and contentious history with Russia and that the border has been located in many different places over the years.

In November, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland in what would be known as the Winter War. The Soviets had a 3-1 manpower advantage and a 5-1 advantage in artillery. The Soviets were supported by about 2,500 military aircraft. At the beginning of the war, Finland had 114 military aircraft.

Hostilities ceased in March of 1940. Finland ultimately lost 11% of its territory but had stopped the Soviet advance cold (the Winter War was largely fought in snow-covered forests with temperatures as low as -45 fahrenheit) and effectively forced the Soviets to negotiate a peace treaty.

The Soviet Union was ultimately the biggest loser, however, because Adolph Hitler noticed that the Soviet army could not defeat the much smaller Finnish army. This military performance played a large role in Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union 15 months later. The Soviet Union’s war-related deaths, military and civilian, are estimated to total over 25 million.

Prime Down: Amazon’s sale day turns into fail day

16 July 2018

From TechCrunch:

It’s not just you. Amazon  Prime Day started 15 minutes ago, and so far, it’s not going well for Amazon. The landing page for Prime Day does not work. When most links are clicked, readers are sent to an error page or to a landing page that sends readers back to the main landing page.

Direct links to the product pages, either from outside links or the single product placement on the landing page, seem to work fine. I just bought this tent two weeks ago for $120. Some users are reporting errors when completing a purchase, too.

This is a huge blow to Amazon and its faux holiday Prime Day. The retailer has been pushing this event for weeks and there are some great deals to be had. It’s not a good look for the world’s largest retailer even though the retailer saw glitches last year, too.

Link to the rest at TechCrunch

PG says this is a giant embarrassment for Amazon and, in particular, for Amazon Web Services, the world’s largest cloud company.

How Should Children’s Books Deal with the Holocaust?

16 July 2018

From The New Yorker:

As a child, I was obsessed with Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.” Like Anne, I wanted to grow up to be a writer; like her, I kept a diary (though less faithfully), which for a time I addressed, following her model, as Kitty; like her, I agonized over how little my mother understood me and longed to swoon in a boy’s arms. My obsession peaked at the age of eight with a visit to the Secret Annexe, in Amsterdam—the warren of rooms where the Frank family hid from the Nazis. I had imagined it countless times and had the floor plan memorized, but seeing it was a shock: it was so much smaller than I had pictured.

That may have been the moment I began to understand how great was the distance between Anne’s world and my own. As a girl from a family of survivors, coming of age in nineteen-eighties America, I felt the Holocaust as a tangible presence, simultaneously inescapable and unknowable. My grandparents, Jews from Lodz who fled east when the Nazis began their advance into Poland, had better luck than many: taken prisoner by the Soviets, they spent much of the war in a Siberian labor camp. Some of their family had already made it to Palestine, but most of those who remained behind were sent first to the Lodz ghetto and then to Auschwitz. My great-grandmother died there, but my great-aunt survived.

The enormity of the losses my relatives had suffered was palpable in the deep lines around their mouths, the tremors in their hands, the sighs they heaved every time the war years came up. Once, my great-aunt, who had Alzheimer’s disease by the time I came to know her, even grabbed my arm in search of the tattoo that she thought she would find there. But they didn’t often talk in detail about their experiences. When they did, the stories they told were confusing and full of gaps, and I’d complain at having to hear them. I was terrified of my relatives’ emotion and of the crushing responsibility it inflicted on me: the paradox of being charged with remembering something I hadn’t experienced.

Reading about the Holocaust was my way of trying to fulfill that obligation. But the gaps remained. I pored over the final pages of my edition of Anne’s diary, where the facts of what happened after the police raided the Secret Annexe were stated tersely: deportation to Westerbork, Auschwitz, and, finally, Bergen-Belsen. Searching for more, I came upon a book in which Hanneli Goslar, a childhood friend of Anne’s who was interned in another section of Bergen-Belsen, recalled having caught a glimpse of her, almost unrecognizable, through a fence. She returned a few days later with a package of food, but when she threw it over the fence another woman caught it and ran away as Anne screamed. The chatty, cheerful girl had become a person I couldn’t identify with at all: skeletal, desperate, scrabbling for food. She had gone to a place I couldn’t follow, not even in my imagination.

Those who died in the camps left no testimonies, and, when I was growing up, the idea of writing imaginative literature for children about the death camps was considered almost sacrilegious.

. . . .

Why, [Eric A.] Kimmel wondered, had no writer for children broached “the ultimate tragedy”? He concluded that it had to do with the irreconcilable tension between the subject and our assumptions about children’s literature. To write about the Holocaust realistically, in all its horror, violates the tacit promise of writing for young readers, he maintained: “not to be too violent, too accusing, too depressing.” At the same time, a story that won’t keep young readers up at night contradicts the historical reality. Kimmel continued, “To put it simply, is mass murder a subject for a children’s novel? Five years ago, we might have said no; ten years ago we certainly would have. Now, however, I think the appearance of a novel set in the center of the lowest circle is only a matter of time.”

. . . .

When the novel opens, Hannah is complaining about having to go to a Seder hosted by her survivor relatives. “I’m tired of remembering,” she says. Her grandfather Will frightens her by yelling at the TV set whenever footage of the camps comes on; once, when she used a ballpoint pen to ink a copy of his tattoo on her arm, thinking it would please him, he screamed at her in Yiddish. At the Seder, a little tipsy from the watered-down wine she has been allowed to drink, Hannah opens the apartment door to welcome the prophet Elijah—a key moment in the Seder ritual—and finds herself transported to Poland in 1942. Suddenly, she’s Chaya, the niece of Gitl and Shmuel, siblings who have taken her in after the death of her parents. At first, Hannah/Chaya thinks she’s stumbled onto a movie set or become the victim of an elaborate joke. There’s even some humor in her interactions with other shtetl girls, who are puzzled by her references to pizza and “General Hospital.” But when the guests arrive for Shmuel’s wedding to Fayge, a rabbi’s daughter from a nearby village, Nazis are waiting at the synagogue to transport them all for “resettlement.” To Hannah’s mounting frustration, no one will listen to her warnings:

“The men down there,” she cried out desperately, “they’re not wedding guests. They’re Nazis. Nazis! Do you understand? They kill people. They killed—kill—will kill Jews. . . . Six million of them! I know. Don’t ask me how I know, I just do. We have to turn the wagons around. We have to run!”

Reb Boruch shook his head. “There are not six million Jews in all of Poland, my child.”

“No, Rabbi, six million in Poland and Germany and Holland and France and . . .”

“My child, such a number.” He shook his head and smiled, but the corners of his mouth turned down instead of up. “And as for running—where would we run to? God is everywhere. There will always be Nazis among us.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Talk to the All-Wise Dot

16 July 2018

Amazon always seems to offer great Prime Day deals on its various Echo products (the ones that permit you to talk to Alexa).

This Prime Day the A has dropped its price for the Echo Dot (the smallest and best-selling Echo) to $29.99.

PG already has several Dots scattered around Casa PG, but is going to buy one or two more so Alexa never has to suffer from any dead spots.

Perhaps due to incipient senility, one of the things PG uses Alexa for is to remind him of something (“Alexa, tomorrow at 10:00 am, remind me to put on my pants before I go out.”) At the appropriate time, she will cheerfully remind PG to put on his pants. You can also review or manage reminders on your smartphone, tablet or computer via the Alexa App.

You can hook all your Alexa devices together and play music through them (Still not the best sound quality. They are tiny, great for listening to Munchkins singing.) or use Alexa to control connected speakers like those from Sonos.

There are two kinds of companies

16 July 2018

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

Jeff Bezos

To cash in on Kindle Unlimited, a cabal of authors gamed Amazon’s algorithm

16 July 2018

From The Verge:

On June 4th, a group of lawyers shuffled into a federal court in Manhattan to argue over two trademark registrations. The day’s hearing was the culmination of months of internet drama — furious blog posts, Twitter hashtags, YouTube videos, claims of doxxing, and death threats.

The lawyers carried with them full-color exhibits of the trademarks in context. First up, two shirtless men with stethoscopes, embracing a woman, with the words Her Cocky Doctorsboldly printed below. Next: two shirtless men flanking a woman in a too-big firefighter’s jacket, with the words Her Cocky Firefighters emblazoned in the same font.

“What is in the content of Her Cocky Firefighters?” asked the judge, surveying the exhibits.

“It appears to be a male-female-male romance,” said a lawyer for one of the defendants. “Beyond that, I imagine it involves one or two of the male characters is a firefighter.”

The judge looked over Her Cocky Doctors. “Two male figures. One seems to be wearing a stethoscope, indicating he is a doctor, but he is stripped to the waist.”

“Doesn’t look like my doctor, your Honor,” said the lawyer drily.

They were gathered there that day because one self-published romance author was suing another for using the word “cocky” in her titles. And as absurd as this courtroom scene was — with a federal judge soberly examining the shirtless doctors on the cover of an “MFM Menage Romance” — it didn’t even begin to scratch the surface.

The fight over #Cockygate, as it was branded online, emerged from the strange universe of Amazon Kindle Unlimited, where authors collaborate and compete to game Amazon’s algorithm. Trademark trolling is just the beginning: There are private chat groups, ebook exploits, conspiracies to seed hyperspecific trends like “Navy SEALs” and “mountain men,” and even a controversial sweepstakes in which a popular self-published author offered his readers a chance to win diamonds from Tiffany’s if they reviewed his new book.

Much of what’s alleged is perfectly legal, and even technically within Amazon’s terms of service. But for authors and fans, the genre is also a community, and the idea that unethical marketing and algorithmic tricks are running rampant has embroiled their world in controversy. Some authors even believe that the financial incentives set up by Kindle Unlimited are reshaping the romance genre — possibly even making it more misogynistic.

A genre that mostly features shiny, shirtless men on its covers and sells ebooks for 99 cents a pop might seem unserious. But at stake are revenues sometimes amounting to a million dollars a year, with some authors easily netting six figures a month. The top authors can drop $50,000 on a single ad campaign that will keep them in the charts — and see a worthwhile return on that investment.

In other words, self-published romance is no joke.

. . . .

Qhen author Dakota Willink attended the Romance Writers of America conference last year, she didn’t know anything about the “cocky” trademark. She hadn’t heard of Faleena Hopkins, the self-published author who registered the mark, or of Tara Crescent, the other author whom Hopkins is now suing.

The RWA conference is the beating heart of the romance industry, a business-first trade conference with editorial pitch meetings and marketing workshops. It’s also the center of the warm, accepting, and woman-focused culture that the romance community is so proud of. In an episode of This American Life in 2003, reporter Robin Epstein expresses surprise at the environment she encounters at RWA. “What the hell is going on here?” she asks herself rhetorically. “The famous writers are nice, the editors are nice, and this is the publishing business.”

This was Willink’s first time at RWA, and she was spending much of her time with her new personal assistant, Lauren Valderrama.

Valderrama is also the personal assistant for several other successful romance authors — names that frequently dominate the romance charts on Amazon. In the world of self-published romance, a personal assistant does anything from formatting books to handling social media and publicity to sending out advance review copies. It’s enough work that it was a little unusual for Valderrama to be handling so many top-ranking, prolific clients. But that track record was appealing when Valderrama had originally reached out to Willink, professing to be a fan and suggesting that they work together.

According to Willink, over the course of RWA, Valderrama told her about certain marketing and sales strategies, which she claimed to handle for other authors. Valderrama allegedly said that she organized newsletter swaps, in which authors would promote each other’s books to their respective mailing lists. She also claimed to manage review teams — groups of assigned readers who were expected to leave reviews for books online. According to Willink, Valderrama’s authors often bought each other’s books to improve their ranking on the charts — something that she arranged, coordinating payments through her own PayPal account. Valderrama also told her that she used multiple email addresses to buy authors’ books on iBooks when they were trying to hit the USA Today list.

The Bookclicker chat group exists on Ryver, a clone of Slack (internal chat software for businesses). It was founded by a USA Today best-selling author named Chance Carter, known to some as a “notorious Kindle Unlimited abuser.” Carter’s name came up in half a dozen interviews as a pioneer of questionable and highly lucrative marketing practices. In the middle of reporting this story, almost of all of Carter’s very popular books were removed from Amazon, for reasons that remain unclear. A spokesperson for Amazon said that as a matter of policy, the company did not comment on individual cases.

. . . .

It’s not clear if these early book-stuffers moved onto the self-publishing romance scene, or if some of the self-publishing romance authors began to pick up on these tricks. Either way, book stuffing plagues the romance genre on Kindle Unlimited, with titles that come in at 2000 or even 3000 pages (the maximum page length for a Kindle Unlimited book). That’s approximately the length of Atlas Shrugged or War and Peace.

Book stuffing is particularly controversial because Amazon pays authors from a single communal pot. In other words, Kindle Unlimited is a zero-sum game. The more one author gets from Kindle Unlimited, the less the other authors get.

The romance authors Willink was discovering didn’t go in for clumsy stuffings of automatic translations or HTML cruft; rather, they stuffed their books with ghostwritten content or repackaged, previously published material. In the latter case, the author will bait readers with promises of fresh content, like a new novella, at the end of the book.

. . . .

Of course, you might be wondering if any readers actually read through all 3000 pages. But authors deploy a host of tricks in service of gathering page reads — from big fonts and wide spacing to a “link back.” Some authors would place a link at the very front of the book, to sign up to a mailing list. The link would take them to the back of the book, thus counting all pages read. It’s not clear whether any of this actually works. A spokesperson for Amazon told The Verge that Amazon uses a standardized page count that won’t take big fonts or wide spacing into account. A June blog post by the Kindle Direct Publishing Team assured authors that the KENPC system (Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count) recorded pages read with “high precision” and that the company was constantly working to improve its “fidelity.”

. . . .

The stereotype of a Kindle Unlimited author is someone who is “pumping out short, pulpy reads,” in the words of best-selling romance writer Zoe York. But even if you write well, write prolifically, and cater to the market, it still doesn’t mean you’ll find success. “That skill set of finding a cold audience, getting them to hook into your product, and then consume through your product backlist, that’s harder than it sounds,” says York. The people who do succeed have that skill set. “They’re not good writers, but they’re great marketers.”

Link to the rest at The Verge and thanks to Kathlena for the tip.

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