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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

YouTube: Hollywood’s Hit Factory

Big-time media companies colonise YouTube. Disney, Warner Brothers et al are building and buying YouTube channels which mix amateur and professional content from many contributors, much as Huffington Post does in journalism, reaching millions of viewers. The strategy relies on exploiting the amateur talent; which, for the time being, seems happy to be exploited in exchange for a wider audience (3,500 words)

Twilight Of The Pizza Barons

Tom Monaghan founded Domino’s, which was all about delivery. Mike Ilitch founded Little Ceasar, which was all about value — his two-for-one deals “worked so well that he installed conveyor-belt ovens to keep pies coming”. Now they are a study in contrast. Monaghan, 77, has given his money away and prepares like a monk for death; across Detroit, where both men live, Ilitch is building an 18,000-seater hockey arena (2,630 words)

Stairway to Heaven: The Song Remains Pretty Similar

A lawsuit claims that Jimmy Page borrowed the opening chords of Stairway To Heaven from a song called Taurus, by Spirit, an American band which Led Zeppelin supported in their early days. Zeppelin has already settled four earlier claims of plagiarism by sharing writing credits and royalties on disputed songs. But Stairway is in a league of its own: It may well be the most valuable rock song of all time (4,200 words)

Pimco’s Bill Gross Picks Up The Pieces

Vivid snapshot of the eccentric, embattled head of the world’s biggest bond fund: Difficult boss, great trader, driven man. He gets up each morning at 4.30, kisses his still-sleeping wife goodbye, “and prepares a to-go box of Special K with blueberries, which he consumes as he drives himself to work along the Pacific Coast Highway in a black Mercedes, controlling the steering wheel with his knees” (3,950 words)

Invasion Of The Taxi Snatchers

How car hire service Uber became “one of the most loved and hated startups of the smartphone age”. Customers “rave about the reliability and speed of service” even as they “bitterly complain about so-called surge pricing” at peak times. But surge pricing stays, says CEO Travis Kalnick: “People would love to have 100 percent reliability at a fixed price all the time. I get it. That is not possible” (3,100 words)

From The Onion

Backgrounder on TOR, “the onion router”, communications software which hides and encrypts traffic, providing “the closest thing to anonymity on the Internet”. Used by Edward Snowden, Iranian and Chinese dissidents, Silk Road. Created by researchers at the US Naval Research Laboratory and MIT; published in 2006 as open-source software. “Tor’s world headquarters occupies one room of a YWCA in Cambridge, Mass” (3,480 words)

The Bitcoin-Mining Arms Race Heats Up

Big, accessible explainer on how Bitcoin mining works. It used to be a hacker’s hobby. Now big investors are moving in, raising the price of entry and perhaps bringing closer the day when the Bitcoin system as a whole can be broken or gamed. “The fear is that an organization with piles of capital and not much idealism can buy enough computational might to corner the market and box out the individual miner” (3,200 words)

The Rise And Fall Of BlackBerry: An Oral History

When they started out, smart phones hadn’t been invented and few people used email. “Mike and I got obsessed with auto-forwarding our Exchange mailbox messages to our belts. But at that time you couldn’t reply to anything. So one day, Mike came in and said he had decided to nix all the 30 software projects that we were spinning our wheels on. He said: We’re going to create a solution to this two-mailbox problem” (4,400 words)

The Hidden Technology That Makes Twitter Huge

Twitter thrives for two main reasons. First, it’s cunningly engineered: The visible Tweet contains up to 140 characters, but each message also has 31 hidden data fields which allow Twitter to analyse and monetise network activity. Second, it has uncovered hidden value in “a latent aspect of human life”, something that humans produce freely and plentifully, but which was previously seen as worthless: trivial chatter (2,100 words)

Obamacare Website Fiasco: Next Time, Opensource It

“The US federal government should make all taxpayer-funded software development open-sourced by default. In the short run, this would help to prevent the recurrence of problems like those that plague Longer term, it will lead to better, more secure software and could allow the government to deliver a range of services more effectively. And it would enrich democracy to boot” (2,400 words)

Tim Cook: The Complete Interview

Q&A with Apple CEO. “It’s even clearer — if it was not clear to everybody — that everybody in the world is going to have a smartphone. There are a lot of people that maybe worry that the market is so big now it can’t get any bigger, but it’s going to get a lot bigger. So there is a lot of runway in this market. The tablet market in some ways is the smartphone market, just with a lot more players in it” (5,200 words)

Who Is Janet Yellen?

Profile of the front-runner to succeed Ben Bernanke as chair of the Federal Reserve. Interesting throughout — and too short, I wish it were twice or thrice the length. Sample sentence: “Yellen developed the ‘efficiency wage’ model of unemployment, suggesting that if people feel underpaid, they’ll work less efficiently and will be more likely to quit, implying that cutting wages could lower productivity” (1,050 words)

Trash Is Treasure

Driving across America with a Chinese scrap-metal dealer. “By his estimate, there are at least 100 other Chinese traders like him driving from scrap yard to scrap yard, right now, in search of what Americans won’t or can’t be bothered to recycle.” Christmas tree lights, for example. “For the most part, non-Chinese don’t know about these micromarkets, and even if they did, they wouldn’t have access to them because of language and culture” (3,000 words)

Sears: At War With Itself

What it’s like to be an executive at Sears under Eddie Lampert: Like something out of Hunger Games. He’s divided the group into thirty separately-run business units — “warring tribes” — which compete for resources. Lampert thought the outcome would be innovation, efficiency more granular data. Arguments would rise to the top and get adjudicated there. In practice, everybody’s frightened of Lampert, so nothing gets done (4,200 words)

Con Man Wins The War On Terror

Jaw-dropping tale of British ex-soldier who sold 6,000 bogus bomb-detectors to the Iraqi government for $38m. “According to sales brochures, the equipment could locate explosives, narcotics, cash, diamonds, gold, ivory, and missing persons — even underwater, underground, or from an aircraft flying up to three miles overhead”. Other countries bought them too. He’s now serving ten years in jail, but his plastic dowsing rods are still in use (4,690 words)

Would You Like Cucumber With That?

Story behind the introduction of the McDonald’s McWrap, “a 10-inch, white-flour tortilla wrapped around 3 ounces of chicken, lettuce, spring greens, sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and cheddar jack cheese”. Everything was focus-grouped, from the name to the dressing. First time cucumbers have been used in a McDonald’s product. Gently does it. “We talked a lot about the veggies. But we went too far. People thought it was a salad” (2,950 words)

Booz Allen, The World’s Most Profitable Spy Organization

About 70 percent of the US intelligence budget goes to Booz and a few other private contractors. “Name a retired senior official from the NSA or the CIA or the various military intelligence branches, and there’s a good chance he works for a contractor—most likely Booz Allen. Name a senior intelligence official serving in the government, and there’s a good chance he used to work for Booz Allen” (2,700 words)

Costco: The Cheapest, Happiest Company In The World

Workers well paid, most have health insurance, good retirement plans, secure jobs. Company thrives — even in retail. Sales up 40% since 2009, stock price has doubled. CEO talks plain good sense: “This isn’t Harvard grad stuff. We sell quality stuff at the best possible price. If you treat consumers with respect and treat employees with respect, good things are going to happen to you.” Why don’t more companies do business this way? (2,500 words)

Unintended Consequences Of Mobile Money

On the use of mobile phones to make payments and transfer money in African countries. New technology collides with older customs and rituals surrounding payments and gifts, where the economic unit is the community, not the individual. Ease of transfer is a mixed blessing when sharing is expected: “Some mobile money account holders report avoiding their phone altogether. No call comes without a request for money” (1,200 words)

Eve Online Cultivates A Devoted Following

Massive multiplayer game Eve Online is “a controlled experiment in human nature and unfettered capitalism”. Players have three basic aims: “You mine asteroids for minerals, use the minerals to build spaceships, and deploy those spaceships in battles. Things get complex quickly … Eve is a dark strategy game underpinned by libertarian philosophy, which attracts government operatives and hedge fund managers as much as space geeks” (2,953 words)

Bitcoin: The Global Economy’s Safe Haven

Backgrounder on “the Internet’s favorite, media-friendly, anarchist crypto-currency”. Invented four years by a pseudonymous hacker using a Japanese name. Has soared in value from three cents to almost $80. Bitcoins are strings of digits which anyone can generate with enough computing power and time — the virtual equivalent of mining for gold. Transfers are made peer-to-peer, as with PayPal, but with no regulation and no banks in the background. “It feels like a hoax”. But the technology is impeccable and robust (1,445 words)

The Dunbar Number, From The Guru of Social Networks

Profile of Robin Dunbar, deviser of the Dunbar Number, which holds that for most human activities — forming tribes, making friends, sending Christmas cards, using Facebook — the largest manageable in-group is 150 people. It’s a function of brain size. The smaller the brain, the smaller the number

John Paulson’s Very Bad Year

He bet right on the subprime mortgage collapse and took home $4bn in 2008. New money poured in. And what happened? The business soon tanked. One fund down 52% last year. So which is the real Paulson—the winner or the loser?

The Rise Of Innovative State Capitalism

“Across much of the developing world, state capitalism—in which the state owns companies or plays a major role in supporting or directing them—is replacing the free market”. It may not be efficient, but it’s certainly effective

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