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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Jeff Bezos: A Brief Anthology

In the years since Amazon.com sold its first book online in 1995, Jeff
Bezos has often faced doubts about his strategy and the company’s prospects â€" even as it became a giant force in retailing and Mr. Bezos built a personal fortune. As a companion to a major profile this weekend by David Streitfeld and Christine Haughney, here is a sampler of previous articles tracing what he has accomplished and how he has been perceived.


Some of the coverage is downright skeptical, like a 1999 article from The New York Times Magazine, in which the reporter Peter de Jonge notes that “no matter what new foray or feature Bezos is trumpeting, he always keeps our filmy gaze locked on the future.” But with online retailers spending 10 times as much per sale on marketing as physical retailers, he says, “Until Bezos and other Internet retailers can find a way to attract and keep customers without such an enormous outlay, they are all going to have a hard time making any money.”


Three years later, Mr. Bezos was a 38-year-old billionaire who’d floated high with the Internet bubble and fell hard as it burst. His company was steadily regaining ground, according to the reporter Leslie Kaufman, but had a central vulnerability. “Look, they’ve shown us that the book business can be a very nice, profitable business online,” said Mark J. Rowen, a senior Internet analyst at Prudential Securities, but “if Amazon is going to justify its market capitalization, it is going to have to show that other categories are viable on the Internet. So far, they have not shown that sales of other merchandise can grow rapidly and be profitable.”


A decade into its operations, Amazon had already upended the bookselling industry. But as it diversified into a retailer of all manner of products, the reporter Gary Rivlin wrote, some worried that the company was spreading itself too thin. And there were concerns, he said, about “a chronic Amazon sticking point: profitability.” The editor of an industry newsletter even questioned Mr. Bezos’s suitability as chief executive. “The question that needs to be asked,” he said, “is how many years of declining stock performance will a board tolerate before they finally say, ‘Listen, we need to make a change.’”


As the stock market bounced back after the depths of the financial crisis, Amazon shares began their own steep climb. But as the columnist James B. Stewart noted in 2011, Amazon’s short-term results periodically seemed to disappoint investors who did not share Mr. Bezos’s professed focus on the long term. “Nearly 15 years after Amazon’s public offering, it’s safe to say that Mr. Bezos and his colleagues have realized their goal of creating a company to tell their grandchildren about,” he wrote. “But one of these days Amazon has to deliver on its promise of higher margins and profits, however long term that may turn out to be.”


This month came Mr. Bezos’s unexpected move to purchase The Washington Post. Noting that there would be no quick fixes or short-term answers to The Post’s challenges,  the reporters Jenna Wortham and Amy O’Leary said of the Amazon chief: “While terms like disrupter and innovator are often used to describe Mr. Bezos in his years at Amazon, he has also proved to be a long-term thinker, someone willing to buck Wall Street demands for big profits in order to invest in his company’s growth.”

Latest Updates from Unrest in Egypt

The Lede is following events in Egypt on Saturday, where Islamist protesters have taken to the streets again to demonstrate against the military-backed government that killed hundreds this week.

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9:33 A.M. Prime Minister Proposes Dissolving Muslim Brotherhood

Egypt’s prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, has proposed legally dissolving the Muslim Brotherhood, according to a report in Reuters, a move that would return the group to the outlaw status it suffered under the reign of former President Hosni Mubarak.

The proposal “is being studied currently,” a spokesman for the Ministry of Social Affairs, Sherif Shawky, told Reuters.

He also seemed to dismiss the prospect of any form of reconciliation between the military-backed transitional government and Mr. Morsi’s Islamist allies, saying, “Reconciliation is there for those whose hands are not sullied with blood.”

Founded in 1928, the Brotherhood was first banned in 1954 by iconic Egyptian strongman Gen. Gamal Abdel Nasser. The group founded a political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, after the 2011 overthrow of Mr. Mubarak and registered itself as a nongovernmental organization in March.

What’s Lost When Everything Is Recorded

While we fret about losing privacy and other dangers of the digital revolution, one sad change is happening with little notice: Our technology is stealing the romance of old conversations, that quaint notion that some things are best forgotten.

Remember the get-to-know-me chat of a first date or that final (good or bad) conversation with someone you knew for years? Chances are, as time has passed, your memory of those moments has changed. Did you nervously twitch and inarticulately explain your love when you asked your spouse to marry you? Or, as you recall it, did you gracefully ask for her hand, as charming as Cary Grant?

Thanks to our near-endless access to digital recording devices, the less-than-Hollywood version of you will be immortalized on the home computer, or stored for generations in some digital computing cloud.

Wearable devices like Google Glass are only a hint of what is to come â€" ever smaller and cheaper, and tied to inexpensive digital storage. Records of voices and events will be a permanent part of the Internet the way text is already, held forever and searched, mined and inspected.

Casual conversations and off-the-cuff quips are about be put through the data blender, scrutinized and organized and pumped through algorithms in search of deeper meaning.

Computer analysis of talk will yield new insights by closely analyzing the so-called metadata of speech â€" its intonations, pauses and interjections. At what point in the conversation did a joke help close a sale? Who ultimately prevails: the person who talks loudly, or the person who repeats their point the best? What the National Security Agency learns about people by studying metadata may be only the start of how much we can tell, apart from the mere meaning of words.

In short, speaking from the heart could become speaking from the talking points of a computerized recommendation engine.

“There are lots of ways that information is coded” in speech, said Ron Kaplan, a scientist at Nuance Communications, which makes voice-recognition and analysis software. “Phoneticians and phonologists have all kinds of theories about how these work, but they’ve been hard to automate. With lots and lots of data, you’ll be able to see all these patterns.”

Mr. Kaplan is interested in making it easier for your thermostat to understand you when you say you’ll be back next Tuesday, or for Netflix to offer the right choices when you say, “A Bond movie, but not with Roger Moore.” But he also thinks examining conversation will lead to a new understanding of how we interact, and how the individual interacts with the crowd. “It’s hard to say what the societal effect will be” from that, he said.

Some worry about what this will mean not just for the future, but for how we treat the past.

“It could almost be a comedy routine: before they tell the mother the sex of her baby, they play it a recording that says, ‘In the interest of better customer service, portions of your life may be recorded or monitored,’” said Brad Templeton, a director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “I’ve been telling people to change their behavior in the present, because they don’t know how that recording will be analyzed in the future.”

There is much to be gained from storage, of course. Who would not thrill to hear Lincoln at Gettysburg, or Shakespeare playing even a lesser role at the Globe? But Shakespeare’s plays were also reconstructions from the memories of diverse actors, some years after a performance. Our greatest literature was generated by an imperfect collective recollection, as much as it was written by one person.

While it might be interesting at this distance to know if Neville Chamberlain believed it when he said his deal with Hitler had brought “peace in our time,” will we want a real-time analysis of pauses and tones after the president speaks on a national emergency? Which is preferable for our hearts and minds, the theater of politics or deference to the algorithm?

There are also certain difficulties associated with a world of perfect recollection. A recent discussion on the Web site Quora about what it is like to have a photographic memory gives a taste: it’s nice for passing college courses, but it also makes everything seem the same.

Like most of history’s technology-forced changes, this enters our lives as a convenience. A Nuance product is already used to identify high net-worth customers of Barclays Wealth Management after 15 seconds of deliberately casual speech, instead of using irksome PIN codes and interrogations about their mothers’ maiden names. A new version of the software was released last week, with the added benefit of identifying the voice prints of known frauds, and putting callers who exhibit suspicious behavior onto a “gray list.”

Already, stockbrokers are issued cellphones that record all their interactions wherever they are, instead of just calls made from their desks. Conference calls and video chats can be transcribed as text, and later annotated, or tagged, for keywords someone spoke about an important meeting or product.

“Voice is going to places it hasn’t gone before, with people developing applications to post conversations to Facebook, or games that prove you are a good son because you call Mom every week,” said Jason Goecke, the chief executive of Tropo, which makes voice-tagging software. “There are no social constructs for pervasive recording yet, just a hodgepodge of state regulations based on the phone system.”

Mr. Goecke and others call this transformation Hypervoice, a play on the links put on the written word to create hypertext in the early days of the Web. This month the Hypervoice Consortium opened an online forum to create standards and practices for how we’ll manage the switch from the transient to the permanent.

That quintessential American trait, self-reinvention, may well be threatened in the hard world of video and audio documentations and the chase of objective truth.