Page 2 – News Debris for the Week of February 20th
One Amazon to Crush Them All

Short version. Apple’s former VP of retail sales, Ron Johnson, left Apple in 2011 to become the CEO of J.C. Penney. It was tough sledding. Mr. Johnson tried to implement some of the retailing ideas that were so successful at Apple. However, the pushback from other executives and shareholders stopped him cold when revenues declined, and he eventually left. Back in 2016, Mr. Johnson explained why Penney should have weathered the storm with him and prepared for the future. “Ex-CEO Ron Johnson Says J.C. Penney Should Have Stuck With His Plan.

Ron Johnson

Ron Johnson (Image credit: Wikipedia)

This week, we learned that J.C. Penney’s corporate wisdom about the retail business has not fared well. “J.C. Penney to close up to 140 stores, offer buyouts.” Notable, “The company said Friday that it would shutter 13% to 14% of its locations and introduce new goods and services aimed at the shifting preferences of its customer base.” Here’s the fun part.

‘It became apparent to us that our footprint was too large,’ Penney CEO Marvin Ellison told investors Friday, and the closures will ‘allow us to raise the overall brand standard of J.C. Penney’ and invest in remaining stores.

That sounds to me like a company that’s rearranging the deck chairs and has no idea how to compete with WalMart online and Amazon. My guess and opinion is that J.C. Penney, seeing the handwriting on the wall years go, just couldn’t change. It clung to the past and didn’t trust Ron Johnson’s instincts. CEO Johnson’s notions led to financial difficulties in the early stages but likely would have turned things around down the road.

Instead, I surmise, J.C. Penney will now go the way of Borders because it takes an enormous amount of cash investment to build a major online sales presence. It’s always easier to take the money at hand, roll it up the chain of command, than spend Big Bucks on a future bet. We shall see.

Apple's legendary "1984" TV ad.

Apple’s legendary “1984” TV ad. (See next.)

More Debris

Jan Dawson, who’s been on Background Mode, has written a persuasive and powerful indictment of the political aspirations of Facebook. See: “Fighting Facebook’s Power with More Facebook.

Author Dawson starts off with:

There has been rising concern about Facebook’s power over many facets of our lives for years now and the concern is especially strong when it comes to news and media consumption where Facebook is becoming an ever more important channel. Because Facebook’s algorithms determine which things users could be shown they actually see, Facebook bears a primary responsibility for making decisions about the media world its users live in.

But then we get to a much bigger issue. Author Dawson quotes Mark Zuckerberg’s solution which is basically to turn Facebook into our virtual town hall that dictates the future course of discussion and the democratic process.

… establishing a new process for citizens worldwide to participate in collective decision-making. Our world is more connected than ever, and we face global problems that span national boundaries. As the largest global community, Facebook can explore examples of how community governance might work at scale.

If you’re alarmed by this kind of online political group-think, raise your hand.

Moving on. One sign that Apple remains very serious about working in an open way with academia in AI research is this: “Apple’s Turi acquisition funds new $1M UW professorship in AI and machine learning.”

A new $1 million endowed professorship, made possible by Apple’s acquisition of Seattle-based machine learning startup Turi last year, will give the University of Washington Computer Science & Engineering department a chance to attract more top talent in the field of machine learning and artificial intelligence.


Apple Pay AMEX

Jonny Evans has done a very thorough job of documenting the real prospects of Apple Pay worldwide. My guess is that more and more companies are coming to recognize how easy it is to enhance their payment security strategy with Apple Pay, but that’s just a piece of this excellent overview by author Evans. “Apple Pay Will Be Available Everywhere, Anywhere, by 2020.

One of the questions we keep asking is what wil be the impact of computerization, AIs and robots on society? Consider this: “A conversation about the end of work, individualism, and the human species with the historian Yuval Harari” in “The Post-Human World.” It’s a sobering interview.

Finally, time for some upbeat tech. Well, maybe. Fed up with iTunes? Jeff Byrnes explains: “You Can Ditch iTunes With These Apps.

Choice is good.


Particle Debris is a generally a mix of John Martellaro’s observations and opinions about a standout event or article of the week (preamble on page one) followed on page two by a discussion of articles that didn’t make the TMO headlines, the technical news debris. The column is published most every Friday except for holidays.

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Lee Dronick

Regarding J.C. Penny’s and other brick and mortor stores. I very much prefer to shop in real store, particularly for clothes.


Back in the early 90’s I worked with researchers doing both voice recognition and voice generation. They maintained that female voices were easier to generate and male voices were easier to recognize. It was something to do with dynamic range and modulation, i.e. how a voice varied in loudness and frequency. As these were people actually trying to generate and recognize voices, I assume they knew what they were talking about.

That being said, that was quite a while ago, and new techniques come along fairly frequently. Still, simple ease of generation explains why the voices are female.


John: I just commented on AI on Jeff Gamet’s Amazon/Echo article from 24 February, as I had on your PD article from last week, and more forcefully articulated the challenge that Apple faces on enhancing AI performance whilst protecting user privacy, and have no doubt that Apple are aggressively working on meeting this challenge not simply from an engineering perspective but by hiring some of the best minds in the academic community, which also means embracing academic standards of peer-review. I think you provide a great service to the community in continuing to draw attention to this discussion. That said,… Read more »


Gender exists, and it’s real. Like it or not, women have specialized body parts and chemistry for child rearing, and part of nurturing very young children is maternal tenderness. This is not to say men can’t be tender. They absolutely can. And there are women who abuse their kids. But generally speaking, there is a maternal aspect to women that is real. Likewise, while there are a few exceptions that prove the rule (such as Amazon women), generally speaking the highest authority in a country has been kings, the head of the family has been the father. This does not… Read more »

Bartholomew J. Woodcocke

I work as an airline pilot and all the voice annunciations, some of them for the most serious warnings (Collision with another aircraft, collision with terrain) are all male voices. FWIW.


After talking devices become more popular I’m sure someone will start selling celebrity voice packs. With apps like Adobe’s Voco they can get the computer to talk like anyone from Gracie Allen to Jessica Rabbit.

In this case it would be nice to be able to distinguish your smart appliances by their voices. Have Stephen Fry as Jeeves be the voice for your smart home things, Julia Child for your kitchen stuff, and Brian Blessed for your car.

Voice actors would find gainful employment in this new field.

Lee Dronick

Here you go Geoduck

“Can Zuckerberg save journalism — or democracy?”


I was quite offended when 9to5Mac used the headline “Sexism rules in voice assistant genders, show studies, but Siri stands out“Having a preference for one voice over another for an inanimate object is not sexism. It reminds me of the professor I read about when I was in college that proclaimed that any music school that taught Classical music was racist because they were all white male Europeans. In this case whether I use a female or a male voice is really a matter of personal taste. Anyone who would proclaim otherwise is just grinding an ever shrinking political axe… Read more »