Amazon: Just Keep Buying

16 January 2018

From Seeking Alpha:

[Y]ou have to like the situation Amazon is in thanks to the recently passed tax reform bill. Consumers are going to spend more and Prime memberships are going to keep surging. On the business front, companies are likely to plow some of their higher income back into technology, and that will certainly help AWS as it remains the cloud leader. A full year of Whole Foods revenue will keep Amazon’s top line growth rate at a decent clip.

For those that complain about the bottom line, something I used to do, the lower corporate tax rate is definitely welcome for Amazon. According to the company’s 10-K filing in early 2017, the company’s effective tax rate the past three years was 36.6%, 60.6%, and 150.4% (in 2014). Through the first nine months of 2017, the tax rate was over 37%. Likewise, Whole Foods had a high effective rate, so even an improvement of just a few percentage points could have a massive impact on earnings per share.

The second item I’m watching will be a series of positive analyst notes coming in the next few months as the street adjusts to the recent surge in shares. As you can see in the graphic below, 43 of 47 analysts currently have a buy or strong buy rating on the stock.

. . . .

The US tax reform bill will help fuel a mix of consumer and business spending, helping the retail business as well as AWS.

Link to the rest at Seeking Alpha

The butler

16 January 2018

The butler loomed in the doorway like a dignified cloudbank.

PG Wodehouse

Why Amazon is the new Microsoft

16 January 2018

From TechConnect:

A few years ago, chatbots were supposed to take over as a leading way to interact with the internet. They would live on our phones and in our messaging apps. Whenever we needed anything, all we had to do was type out a question.

Things are turning out … differently.

Chatbots, bots, virtual assistants and agents are all about the conversational UI — about interacting with a computer through natural-language words and sentences.

The conventional wisdom used to be that the chatbot revolution would be driven by pre-emption, interjection and agency, as exemplified by Facebook M and Google Now.

Instead, the killer features are hands-free voice interaction and ubiquity — the main strengths of the Amazon Alexa platform.

. . . .

Facebook M is dead.

Facebook plans to close it’s M chatbot service on Jan. 19.

Facebook M, which launched in August 2015, was experimental, available to only 10,000 people in Silicon Valley.

When M first emerged, it was widely assumed to represent the future of how chatbots should and would work.

. . . .

Google Now is dead, too — sort of.

A few years ago, the conventional wisdom in tech circles was that Google Now was the most sophisticated virtual assistant.

Google Now was introduced in Android in the summer of 2012.

The best thing about Google Now was pre-emption: Display cards would pop up to alert you to things (rather than waiting for you to ask). Google Now used your location, calendar and, above all, Gmail messages to figure out what kind of help you needed, and it would try to give you that help with suggestion cards. One of its best tricks was to see on your calendar where you were going, check your current location, check the traffic between those locations, and give you advice about when to leave.

Meanwhile, the coolest feature of Google Assistant is interjection, which means it will pay attention to conversations in Allo and make suggestions based on the conversation.

Unfortunately, hardly anyone uses Allo, and so the amazing interjection powers of the Google Assistant are largely unknown and generally unused by the larger public.

. . . .

A couple of years ago, Amazon Alexa was considered to be the weakest and least sophisticated chatbot or virtual assistant on the market. (Oddly, MS-DOS and, later, Microsoft Windows initially had similar reputations.)

While agency, including the ability to buy things, was once assumed to be an important feature of a virtual assistant, it’s clear even for Alexa that buying things is secondary.

According to an Experian study last year, fewer than one-third of surveyed Echo owners have ever bought something through Alexa.

The vast majority of tasks involve setting a timer, playing a song, reading the news, checking the time — really, the most basic functions of a smartphone made convenient by voice interaction.

And yet Amazon is clearly dominating the space. This week’s CES showed that the industry is following Amazon’s lead.

Alexa appeared at the show inside projectors, ceiling lights, cars, glasses, showers, washing machines, earbuds, speakers — and even Windows 10 PCs.

. . . .

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos this week became the world’s richest person, according to the Forbes list. Over the past few decades, that spot was normally occupied by former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates.

The symbolism is timely; it was at CES this week that Amazon became the new Microsoft.

Microsoft rose to dominance by controlling the operating system that the majority of people and businesses used.

Amazon is now doing something similar with Alexa. While Alexa isn’t even close to becoming as important as Windows, it is becoming the operating system of the post-PC, post-smartphone future.

The reason is very simple, and perfectly described by Sam Dolnick, who oversees digital initiatives at The New York Times. He said: “We are living in a world where the mobile phone is dominant, and audio, which doesn’t require your eyes or your hands, is the ultimate mobile medium.”

Link to the rest at TechConnect

Our Rightful Place

15 January 2018

Today is a national holiday in the United States honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.

.

In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories

15 January 2018

From The New York Times:

A pencil is a little wonder-wand: a stick of wood that traces the tiniest motions of your hand as it moves across a surface. I am using one now, making weird little loops and slashes to write these words. As a tool, it is admirably sensitive. The lines it makes can be fat or thin, screams or whispers, blocks of concrete or blades of grass, all depending on changes of pressure so subtle that we would hardly notice them in any other context. (The difference in force between a bold line and nothing at all would hardly tip a domino.) And while a pencil is sophisticated enough to track every gradation of the human hand, it is also simple enough for a toddler to use.

Such radical simplicity is surprisingly complicated to produce. Since 1889, the General Pencil Company has been converting huge quantities of raw materials (wax, paint, cedar planks, graphite) into products you can find, neatly boxed and labeled, in art and office-supply stores across the nation: watercolor pencils, editing pencils, sticks of charcoal, pastel chalks. Even as other factories have chased higher profit margins overseas, General Pencil has stayed put, cranking out thousands upon thousands of writing instruments in the middle of Jersey City.

. . . .

Other parts of the factory are eruptions of color. Red pencils wait, in orderly grids, to be dipped into bright blue paint. A worker named Maria matches the color of her shirt and nail polish to the shade of the pastel cores being manufactured each week. One of the company’s signature products, white pastels, have to be made in a dedicated machine, separated from every other color. At the tipping machine, a whirlpool of pink erasers twists, supervised patiently by a woman wearing a bindi.

. . . .

In an era of infinite screens, the humble pencil feels revolutionarily direct: It does exactly what it does, when it does it, right in front of you. Pencils eschew digital jujitsu. They are pure analog, absolute presence. They help to rescue us from oblivion. Think of how many of our finest motions disappear, untracked — how many eye blinks and toe twitches and secret glances vanish into nothing. And yet when you hold a pencil, your quietest little hand-dances are mapped exactly, from the loops and slashes to the final dot at the very end of a sentence.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Nate at The Digital Reader for the tip.

PG recommends you go to the OP to see wonderful photos of industrial age machinery with contrasting bright colors of colored pencils.

If you are having problems accessing the story, here’s PG’s tip for the day for those of you using a Chrome browser: Right Click on the NYT link above, then choose the third item from the top in the drop-down menu – “Open link in incognito window” and you may find success.

How to Design an Addictive Product

15 January 2018

From The Startup:

Most of us think of design as making something more functional, intuitive, comfortable, and ultimately more desirable. In a lot of cases, this is the purpose of design. To create happier humans by making daily tasks less cumbersome. But what if making things easier doesn’t actually make us happier? What if the key to happiness is actually by fostering challenge? When are we supposed to make things easier, and others difficult? These are the questions every product designer and entrepreneur should ask, because understanding fundamental systems of motivation is the key to creating fulfilling products and services that ultimately enrich lives.

In light of the new and old science on motivation, we — the examining population — are forced to ask critical questions that society as a whole should work through. Consider this article an addition to the epistemological shift — one that I feel is long overdue. The following seven sections will outline a brief history of the phenomenon known as intrinsic motivation and/or the seeking system. I will highlight how products such as the television, Facebook, and the internet all satisfy the seeking system and are hugely successful because of it. The article will close with examples of how companies create addicting products that strike both the seeking system, alongside the social-affective reinforcement system to create viciously engaging products that require minimum creative investment. All of these reasons makes intrinsic motivation and social conditioning an extraordinarily economically viable topic of study, one that every living person should be aware of.

. . . .

To understand the components of an addicting product, we must first understand the science of motivation, the old paradigm, and the discovery that completely broke it. Back in the early–mid 1900’s, the dominating theory proposed that humans were motivated primarily by things that served a physiological purpose. According to drive-reductionists (the dominant theory), thirst, hunger, and sex are primary drives, while value in things like money and material possessions are learned through conditioning. So, according to scientists like Robert Hull and Kenneth Spencer, most behaviours were explained as a desire to reduce these innate drives. We get jobs, buy fancy cars, and help or hurt people in an effort to survive and procreate. At the time, it paralleled Freud and Maslow’s different but conceptually similar ‘layered’ explanation of human needs and motivations, where food and sex were always at the forefront of these desires, whether conscious or not.

Moreover, drive reductionists believed that food and sex (extrinsic motivators) were an organisms ‘primary’ drivers, and said organism could thus be conditioned with these types of rewards.

. . . .

It was up until the mid-twentieth century when one scientist’s observation completely changed the way we think about motivation, conditioning, and ultimately fulfillment in life.

. . . .

The revelation first began seemingly by accident when a very prolific and controversial American scientist named Harry Harlow was studying problem-solving abilities of rhesus monkeys, a common subject of his experiments. The story goes that Harlow noticed that his subject monkeys would continue to play with mechanical puzzles before and after the planned experiment — in the absence of typical reward (food). Essentially, the monkey’s learned for the sake of learning. This went against the conventional wisdom that positive reinforcement would undeniably shape behaviour positively (to the desired outcome). Dually astounding, when a positive reward was introduced to try to reinforce the ‘playing’ (exploration), it had an extinguishing effect on behaviour. More simply, when the subject monkeys were encouraged or rewarded to play, they for some reason lost interest and stopped playing. This counterintuitive observation and eventual proven phenomenon went against everything scientists thought about root motivation, which was generally thought to serve some physiological purpose whether direct or not. This exploratory behaviour was coined ‘intrinsic motivation’ by Harlow, and it is the crux of our engagement model.

. . . .

Harry Harlow first coined the term intrinsic motivation, but psychologist Edward Deci, and Richard Ryan dedicated their lives to studying it. Here is their standard definition from their 2000 paper titled, Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being:

Intrinsic motivation refers to the spontaneous tendency “to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacity, to explore, and to learn” (Ryan and Deci, 2000, p.70).

Exercise, games, travel, reading, and even watching TV all satisfy the seeking system to varying levels of effortful operation. On one side of the spectrum someone could climb Mount Everest, and on the other they could browse Netflix. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp defines this exploratory behaviour as being driven by the organisms innate seeking system. To reiterate, the anomaly behind seeking is that it provides seemingly very little utilitarian value — it does not fulfil some physiological needs deficit, but we do it anyway. We create our own value from within. Also fascinating, we now know that organisms behave in intrinsically motivated ways even when they are lacking ‘basic’ needs such as food, water, or shelter. How many times have you seen a homeless person reading a book? Do you think they’re practising for a job interview? No, they’re seeking.

Link to the rest at The Startup

PG says “to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacity, to explore, and to learn” describes the motivations driving most of his non-professional reading.

The One Thing That Will Kill Book Sales Dead—And 10 Ways to Avoid it.

14 January 2018

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

I never have as much time to read as I think I will, and my trusty old Kindle is pretty loaded up. So I’m a picky book-buyer. Unfortunately, there are a lot of readers like me out here, and you don’t want to lose us.

I’m often intrigued by a book’s cover and blurb, and sometimes a glowing review on Facebook or a book blog will send me to a buy page.

But I never buy without checking out the “LOOK INSIDE!” On most retail sites, that’s 10% of the book—which anybody can read free.

That  “LOOK INSIDE” freebie is your most important book sales tool.

Make sure it’s going to snag readers, not kill book sales just as you’re about to close the deal.

With many books—not only self-published, but trad-pubbed as well—the first few pages will stop the sale for me.

. . . .

I’m a grammar freak, so a misplaced apostrophe or verb/object disagreement will stop me.  I know not everybody is such a stickler.  But I think all readers want to see that a book looks professional and polished. They don’t want to invest time in a book—even if it’s free—unless they feel they’re in competent hands.

. . . .

1) Consider Chapter Titles

The first thing the reader sees when he hits LOOK INSIDE is your “Table of Contents” (unless you have a formatter who will put it at the end. Unfortunately the Big Five don’t ever seem to do this.)

Why waste your first four pages with Chapters titled:

  • One
  • Two
  • Three
  • Four
  • Etc?

You might consider going back to the old-fashioned device of text in chapter titles. Yes.  I know they’ve been out of fashion for a century or so. But ebooks are bringing them back.

You don’t have to go all 18th Century and write:

“Chapter the Tenth, In Which Our Intrepid Hero Encounters Several Not Terribly Nice Ladies, Some Very Strong Spirits and a Face Full of Gravel, as he Searches for his Long-Lost Brother Murgatroyd, and their Father, who May or May Not be Lord Mayor of London.”

But modern chapter titles can give an idea of the action to come.

Chapter titles can also be a major sales tool. Here are the first four chapters of my rom-com mystery The Best Revenge

  1. The Color of Fresh Money
  2. Debutante of the Year
  3. Something in the Woods
  4. King of the Chickenburgers

You know there’s something weird going on with rich people, and it’s probably funny.  Isn’t that more informative than a list of numbers?

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

PG doesn’t use Look Inside very often, but he may be aberrant.

PG would be interested in knowing how many visitors to TPV are regular users of Look Inside and what they are particularly looking for when they do.

She fitted

14 January 2018

She fitted into my biggest arm-chair as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing arm-chairs tight about the hips that season.

PG Wodehouse

Rare Scraps of Paper Unearthed in the Sludge of Famed Pirate Ship

14 January 2018

From The Smithsonian:

Three-hundred-year-old scraps of paper that somehow survived centuries aboard the wreck of Blackbeard’s flagship are offering new insight into what pirates read during their down time, according to conservationists at the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

As George Dvorsky at Gizmodo reports, researchers found 16 tiny scraps of paper embedded in sludge pulled from a cannon recovered from the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s flagship vessel re-discovered in Beaufort Inlet in 1996.

. . . .

For a year, the researchers scoured the library, looking for books that referenced Hilo. Finally, in August, Kimberly Kenyon found a match in the book A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711 by Captain Edward Cooke. “Everyone crowded into my office and we started matching all the fragments we had,” Kenyon says in an interview with Gannon.

As it turned out, the book recounts the voyages of two ships, Duke and Dutchess, which set off on an expedition in 1708. Ironically, the expedition leader Captain Woodes Rogers was later sent to the Bahamas as Royal Governor in 1718 with the mandate of getting rid of pirates. The book also recounts the rescue of Alexander Selkirk, a man who had been marooned on an island for four years and who was the inspiration for the 1719 book, Robinson Crusoe.

Dvorsky reports that narratives of voyages were popular reading material at the time. While no one can say if Blackbeard, aka Edward Teach, read the book himself, it’s likely someone on his crew did, either for fun or to gather ideas for places to pillage or insights into pirate-hunters of the Royal Navy.

Link to the rest at The Smithsonian

 

Media is collateral damage

14 January 2018

From Business Insider:

Publishers and media companies got a rude awakening on Thursday after Facebook announced sweeping changes to its News Feed.

In a dramatic shake-up Facebook said it would start playing up status updates from friends and family in the News Feed, effectively deprioritizing content from media publishers and brands.

Publishers in particular — many of whom have relied on Facebook to build up huge audiences and achieve viral gold — are likely to take a hit from the change.

. . . .

“Facebook is dramatically reshaping its business in response to the first real existential risk since gaining dominance,” Derek Mead, Vice Media’s global executive editor, who was previously the editor-in-chief of Motherboard, said in a tweet. “And media is collateral damage.”

. . . .

“I cannot overstate how much Facebook is just screwing our news operations and our democracy over and over and over,” said Audrey Cooper, San Francisco Chronicle’s editor-in-chief, slamming Facebook’s move to solve its fake news problem by getting rid of news altogether.

. . . .

Facebook told some publishers that content from reputable publishers would surface on the News Feed based on the new algorithm, Digiday reported. But it didn’t define such a publisher or say how others may expect their traffic to change.

. . . .

Brown suggested publishers could weather the change by prioritizing content that “encourages community connection.”

“Some pages may see their reach, video watch time, and referral traffic decrease as the updates roll out over the next couple of months,” she wrote.

Link to the rest at Business Insider

PG wonders if we have reached Peak Facebook.

PG has had a Facebook page for TPV for a long time. Basically, he uses an app that automatically takes a post on TPV and reposts it on FB. No offense intended to those who love FB, but PG’s personal FB use as far as reading content on FB has always related solely to what a handful of family members and close friends post.

He checked FB when he saw the OP and FB stopped adding posts to the Facebook-TPV page about three weeks ago. Perhaps the plugin stopped working or maybe TPV has been kicked off the island. PG will check to see if he can get an automatic forwarding app back for those who like to see TPV via FB.

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