Miscellaneous notes 2015

This document contains only my personal opinions and calls of judgement, and where any comment is made as to the quality of anybody's work, the comment is an opinion, in my judgement.

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These notes are opinions about miscellaneous (non-computing) topics, often brief informal reviews of products or shops or places ranging from canned food to pubs.

150925 Fri: Impressions from the book "The everything store"

This books is a somewhat controversial history of both the Amazon company and its founder Jeff Bezos and various other top executives.

It obviously benefits from the author's familiarity with the subject, as he is a journalist that has followed Amazon and other media and technology companies for a long time. At the same time it suffers from the author using a typical USA journalism-school approach, which is about personal anedoctes to establish an appearance of being based on hard facts, when instead it lacks even the simplest graph or table describing the business that is purportedly the topic of the book.

So in effect it is a biographical collections of gossip about the company and its founder and executives, turning according to that widely taught journalistic style what could be a fascinating story about a business and its economics into a shallow human interest story.

For example the big story about Amazon is whether a catalogue retailer with very thin margins can be a highly profitable large business, simply by substituting printed catalogues and mail and telephone ordering with a web site; only a small part of this story is told in the book, but without many details. For example in this quote:

Kelyn Brannon, Amazon's chief accounting officer at the time, says that she and Joy Covey pulled Bezos into a meeting to show a form of financial analysis called common-sizing the income statement; it expressed each part of the balance sheet as a percentage of the value of sales.

The calculation showed that at its current rate, Amazong wouldn't be profitable for decades. "It was an aha moment" Brannon says. Bezos agreed to lift its foot from the accelerator and begin to move the company towards profitability. To mark the occasion, he took a photo of the group with his ever-present point-and-shoot digital camera and later taped the picture to the door of his office.

But the deluge of spending and widening losses had fueled fear among Amazon's management team -- a fear that Bezos, still a young and volatile thirty-five-year-old CEO, needed additional help.

This is indeed about a very crucial aspect of the Everything store yet it is entirely in terms of feelings, in a human-interest story stlyle, to pander to the feeling of american readers that they are masters of the universe and that only the mechanics sweat over the numbers.

So what should be an engaging history of a business becomes a long gossip column about personalities related to the business, principally Jeff Bezos himself, plus his family and his minions. It is the journalistic equivalent of history as a succession of great protagonists and wars and battles. Its title should probably be more like The owner of the everything store, and the subtitle is more accurate as JEFF BEZOS and the age of AMAZON. It is preposterous that a review at the The Times called it investigative financial journalism.

Anyhow the book presents a great of interesting, but rigorously non-quantitative, gossip about Jeff Bezos and his company, and it is quite clear to me that the author is trying hard to pull his punches. My impression is that the book reveals three things without making them quite explicit:

In general the gossip from the book seems to be fairly plausible with one major exception: the period where Jeff Bezos decided to raise prices only to see sales fall significantly. It is reported in the book as a minor episode, something that just happened, and the main effect of which was to confirm the founder's commitment to always low prices.

This is not how I perceived it at the time: as a failed attempt at flipping the switch, which is the really big issue with Amazon (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) and an issue that astonishingly the book never discusses directly.

It appeared to me at the time that Jeff Bezos had decided to flip the switch into making profits by the simplest device, raising prices having established a dominant market position, and discovered that customers don't use Amazon because it is a technology company that makes shopping much better online, but simply because it was a discounter. I don't buy much from Amazon, but at the time my purchases fell to none, because I perceived that the inconvenience of online shopping is only worth it if prices are significantly discounted, and at the time it seemed to be that many Amazon customers thought the same.

The book then makes a lot of the decision by Jeff Bezos to adopt a strategy of always low prices as Wal*Mart, but that seems to me to have been a realization more than a choice: that the strategy of temporary low, even loss-making, introductory prices at Amazon, often documented in the book, to entice new customers to try out Amazon turned out to be the main foundation of Amazon sales, and that therefore the real strategy was to push down costs always.

Which brings me to the other major flaw of this book, the almost complete lack of comparison with other companies. The business that Amazon probably is most similar to currently is not a mail-delivery retailer, but a physical discounter like CostCo especially with the Prime membership being so similar to CostCo membership, and it is barely mentioned. It is indeed amazing that the book reports Premier as an internally generated Amazon idea, as if CostCo membership and the business model it is based on had been wholly unknown in Seattle.

But even worse there is no mention of the large number of mail-delivery retailers that pre-existed Amazon and continue to exist along Amazon, and I don't mean Zappo or Blue Nile, which do get mentioned. I am rather familiar with mail-delivery retailers of technology gadgets like computer products, which I have used for well before the Internet and well after. They were and are in an even better area than books for retail at a distance, as technology gadgets tend to be small, relatively light, relatively expensive, and quite standardized.

Surely Amazon competes vigorously with them, but the likes of NewEgg, Tiger Direct, micro center, NCIX in the USA and in the UK DABS, eBuyer, Overclockers, CCL Computers, SCAN have not disappeared; indeed some of them have evolved from mail order to telephone order to web ordering fairly seamlessly. The UK case is particularly interesting as it has a level playing field where all online retailers and all physical ones have to pay the same VAT everywhere in the country. That has resulted in the continued existence of a more diverse industry.

To me as a customer non-Amazon computer part shops are as good or better than Amazon, and they have survived for decades despite having none of the immense scale and technology advantages of Amazon. That's strange, because Amazon should have completely displaced them, as it has largely displaced physical book-shops, if it had the large cost advantage that scale and technology that it is credited with. And it has at least the advantage of a much higher stock price that makes financing easier, while many of the above competitors are self-financing and even private businesses.

There is no mention of this in this book, as of most other actual business and financial information.

Overall despite the above criticism this book seems interesting and useful to me, mostly for the human-interest stories about Jeff Bezos and his minions, as intended and described by the subtitle JEFF BEZOS and the age of AMAZON. It is just disappointing as investigative financial journalism about the everything store.

150512 Mon: Impressions of the Asus Memopad 8

Some time ago I decided to buy and try out some tablet to see how useful it is in practice, for example as compared to a light laptop, and I chose an ASUS Memopad 8 which is a midrange product that cost me around £100.

Its main figure of merit is its 8in (diagonal) screen, which makes it not almost as large as a printed page like a 10in screen, but also not as small as a paperback as a 6-7in display. It is Android based like most non-Apple products.

I did not like:

What I like:

Overall as a product I think it is quite good, especially as to value for money, one of the best around among mid-price range, and pretty decent regardless of price.

150427 Mon: Reading "Events, dear boy, events: A political diary of Britain 1921 to 2010"

Tonight as I as going home I forgot my briefcase and the reason was I was engrossed a fascinating book Events, Dear Boy, Events which is a collection of selected quotes from the diaries of personalities, mostly politicians, but not just, over a 90 year period in the UK.

Clearly these are some of the best passages in those diaries, so they are usually very interesting as the editor has used good judgement in sourcing them from diarists of several persuasions and styles. Virtually all are interesting on their own, seeing them in the context of others is even better.

Some of the most amusing quotes: