Thursday, May 24, 2018

Writing American Fiction

Several winters back, while I was living in Chicago, the city was shocked and mystified by the death of two teen-age girls. So far as I know the populace is mystified still; as for the shock, Chicago is Chicago, and one week’s dismemberment fades into the next’s. The victims this particular year were sisters. They went off one December night to see an Elvis Presley movie, for the sixth or seventh time we are told, and never came home. Ten days passed and fifteen and twenty, and then the whole bleak city, every street and alley, was being searched for the missing Grimes girls, Pattie and Babs. A girl friend had seen them at the movie, a group of boys had had a glimpse of them afterwards getting into a black Buick; another group said a green Chevy, and so on and so forth, until one day the snow melted and the unclothed bodies of the two girls were discovered in a roadside ditch in a forest preserve on the West Side of Chicago. The coroner said he didn’t know the cause of death and then the newspapers took over. One paper, I forget which one, ran a drawing of the girls on the back page, in bobby socks and levis and babushkas: Pattie and Babs a foot tall, and in four colors, like Dixie Dugan on Sundays. The mother of the two girls wept herself right into the arms of a local newspaper lady, who apparently set up her typewriter on the Grimes’s front porch and turned out a column a day, telling us that these had been good girls, hardworking girls, average girls, churchgoing girls, et cetera. Late in the evening one could watch television interviews featuring schoolmates and friends of the Grimes sisters: the teen-age girls look around, dying to giggle; the boys stiffen in their leather jackets. “Yeah, I knew Babs, yeah she was all right, yeah, she was popular . . . .” On and on until at last comes a confession. A Skid Row bum of thirty-five or so, a dishwasher, a prowler, a no-good named Benny Bedwell, admits to killing both girls, after he and a pal had cohabited with them for several weeks in various flea-bitten hotels. Hearing the news, the mother weeps and cries and tells the newspaper lady that the man is a liar—her girls, she insists now, were murdered the night they went off to the movie. The coroner continues to maintain (with rumblings from the press) that the girls show no signs of having had sexual intercourse. Meanwhile, everybody in Chicago is buying four papers a day, and Benny Bedwell, having supplied the police with an hour-by-hour chronicle of his adventures, is tossed in jail. Two nuns, teachers of the girls at the school they attended, are sought out by the newspapermen. They are surrounded and questioned and finally one of the sisters explains all. “They were not exceptional girls,” the sister says, “they had no hobbies.” About this time, some good-natured soul digs up Mrs. Bedwell, Benny’s mother, and a meeting is arranged between this old woman and the mother of the slain teen-agers. Their picture is taken together, two overweight, overworked American ladies, quite befuddled but sitting up straight for the photographers. Mrs. Bedwell apologizes for her Benny. She says, “I never thought any boy of mine would do a thing like that.” Two weeks later, or maybe three, her boy is out on bail, sporting several lawyers and a new one-button roll suit. He is driven in a pink Cadillac to an out-of-town motel where he holds a press conference. Yes—he barely articulates—he is the victim of police brutality. No, he is not a murderer; a degenerate maybe, but even that is going out the window. He is changing his life—he is going to become a carpenter (a carpenter!) for the Salvation Army, his lawyers say. Immediately, Benny is asked to sing (he plays the guitar) in a Chicago night spot for two thousand dollars a week, or is it ten thousand? I forget. What I remember is that suddenly there is a thought that comes flashing into the mind of the spectator, or newspaper reader: is this all Public Relations? But of course not—two girls are dead. At any rate, a song begins to catch on in Chicago, “The Benny Bedwell Blues.” Another newspaper launches a weekly contest: “How Do You Think the Grimes Girls Were Murdered?” and a prize is given for the best answer (in the opinion of the judges). And now the money begins; donations, hundreds of them, start pouring in to Mrs. Grimes from all over the city and the state. For what? From whom? Most contributions are anonymous. Just money, thousands and thousands of dollars—the Sun-Times keeps us informed of the grand total. Ten thousand, twelve thousand, fifteen thousand. Mrs. Grimes sets about refinishing and redecorating her house. A strange man steps forward, by the name of Shultz or Schwartz—I don’t really remember, but he is in the appliance business and he presents Mrs. Grimes with a whole new kitchen. Mrs. Grimes, beside herself with appreciation and joy, turns to her surviving daughter and says, “Imagine me in that kitchen!” Finally the poor woman goes out and buys two parakeets (or maybe another Mr. Shultz presented them as a gift); one parakeet she calls “Babs,” the other, “Pattie.” At just about this point, Benny Bedwell, doubtless having barely learned to hammer a nail in straight, is extradited to Florida on the charge of having raped a twelve-year-old girl there. Shortly thereafter I left Chicago myself, and so far as I know, though Mrs. Grimes hasn’t her two girls, she has a brand new dishwasher and two small birds.

And what is the moral of so long a story? Simply this: that the American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination.

by Philip Roth, Commentary |  Read more:
Image: uncredited
[ed. See also: An Agent's Lament.]

What’s in a Food Truck?

First of all, no matter what you think is in there, there’s probably more. Most modern food trucks — at least the ones special enough to make it into your regular lunch rotation — are operated by serious foodies whose wheeled restaurants roam more than 300 U.S. cities as part of a $2.7 billion industry. They’re often veteran chefs who are used to the amenities of commercial kitchens or entrepreneurial home cooks who demand the perfect tools.

None of these folks are willing to compromise on equipment, even if it all has to fit, Tetris-like, into the space of a large minivan.

First in: The basics

Before a new food truck owner can shop for the perfect griddle or pizza oven, they have to figure out how much room is left after they pencil in the equipment required by their jurisdiction.

These basic requirements are similar around the country, according to Jason Tipton, co-owner of East Coach Mobile Business Launchpad, which has outfitted more than 400 food trucks in his Manassas shop over the past decade. [ed. See annoying graphic.]

Fortunately, not all of that takes up valuable kitchen space. Water tanks are often stored below the truck, and generators sometimes ride shotgun in the cab. Fire suppression and ventilation are built into the hood and ceiling. After these basics, owners are limited only by their budgets and their ability to shoehorn their culinary visions into a space as small as 70 square feet.

A small budget and a big oven

Start-up costs for a food truck average about $100,000, far lower than the several hundred thousand required for even a tiny brick-and-mortar place in the D.C. area, Tipton said. Some trucks get on the road for far less.

“When I was a kid, I’d eat cookies until there weren’t any more cookies,” said Kirk Francis, who began baking as a 4-year-old with his mom. He had supplied cookies to a local coffee shop before deciding to bring chocolate chips (and fresh milk, of course) to the masses.

His budget was just $30,000 for the entire truck, and he wanted to make sure his cookies were baked fresh at the curb.

So he found a used, 625-pound Vulcan convection oven on Craigslist, stuck it into a 1988 Washington Post delivery van that he bought for $2,400, and Captain Cookie and the Milkman was born.

The truck is small — the 6-foot-1 Francis has maybe an inch of clearance when he stands inside — but the commercial oven is about twice the size of a normal kitchen oven and can bake 120 cookies at once, or 720 in an hour. Francis estimates that it has baked more than a million cookies since he launched the truck in 2012.

Francis now owns four Captain Cookie trucks, a food hall and a brick-and-mortar shop, so he has seen many sides of the business. He said trucks can be inspected a dozen or more times a year, much more often than most restaurants. And while the trucks have lower overhead costs and are more profitable — owners worry about potholes and parking tickets but not leases and rent — trucks are also less predictable.

Francis told all this to a culinary arts class at D.C. Central Kitchen on a frigid March day when steady rain and umbrella-shredding wind had kept most trucks off the road. When it’s raining, truck operators say, sales go down by half compared with a sunny day. When it’s cold and raining, sales drop to a quarter.

The cookie truck’s motor coughed and died as Francis pulled into the parking lot, and after the class of cooks-in-training checked out the truck and sampled cookies, he had to wait in the rain for a tow truck.

“You have to be able to roll with it,” he said, shrugging. “I never have to worry about the store breaking down by the side of the road.”

by Bonnie Berkowitz, Seth Blanchard, Aaron Steckelberg and Monica Ulmanu, WaPo | Read more:
Image: Bill O'Leary

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Do Be Evil

Google’s unofficial motto has long been the simple phrase “don’t be evil.” But that’s over, according to the code of conduct that Google distributes to its employees. The phrase was removed sometime in late April or early May, archives hosted by the Wayback Machine show.

“Don’t be evil” has been part of the company’s corporate code of conduct since 2000. When Google was reorganized under a new parent company, Alphabet, in 2015, Alphabet assumed a slightly adjusted version of the motto, “do the right thing.” However, Google retained its original “don’t be evil” language until the past several weeks. The phrase has been deeply incorporated into Google’s company culture—so much so that a version of the phrase has served as the wifi password on the shuttles that Google uses to ferry its employees to its Mountain View headquarters, sources told Gizmodo.

by Kate Conger, Gizmodo |  Read more:
Image: Tyler Merbler via
[ed. Write your own jokes.]

A Lot Changes in One Century

A Lot Changes in One Century
Young Chinese vs. old Americans during 2018 trade talks. Young Western reps vs old Qing envoys at the signing of the 1901 Boxer Protocol.

Party Leaders are Not Strategic Geniuses, They Just Really Like Moderates, New Research Finds

The battle between grassroots Democratic activists and Washington-based party leaders continued to unfold Tuesday night, with the national party notching some rear-guard victories and local forces delivering the party its second high-profile setback in as many weeks.

Through all of these contests, national party leaders have argued that their decision-making is not personal or ideological. They believe in the same progressive values as the grassroots activists, goes the argument, but more moderate candidates are needed to be able to win the general election and take the House back from Republicans.

That argument was made most explicitly earlier this month in the New York Times, by Brookings senior fellow Elaine Kamarck, who endorsed the practice of political parties intervening in primary elections. Kamarck was responding to The Intercept’s coverage of House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer attempting to push a candidate in Colorado out of a House race by appealing to party elites’ superior savvy (emphasis added):
Are party leaders always right? Of course not. But they are different from the activists who often dominate the party primaries because they are more concerned with electability than with ideological purity. Party leaders have the job of winning nationally; Democrats are painfully aware that not all congressional districts are Berkeley, Calif.
Her contention, which mirrors conventional wisdom, is that party leaders — the loose network of campaign committees, consultants, elected officials, and key donors — are simply more strategic than activists, refusing to let ideology get in the way of their laser focus on winning elections.

That’s an assertion of fact, not opinion. And according to new political science research, it is incorrect.

A paper in this month’s edition of the peer-reviewed Legislative Studies Quarterly analyzes a decade’s worth of federal elections, finding that party organizations boost moderate candidates across the board, whether the general election is expected to be competitive or a long shot. In other words, party support for moderates does not appear to be strategic, but sincere. “They’re not doing this to have a better shot at winning elections,” said the paper’s author Hans Hassell, assistant professor of politics at Cornell College in Iowa.

The evidence points more to the conclusion that party elites “have strong incentives to prefer loyalists who can be trusted to implement its preferred policies after the nomination,” Hassell writes.

The study not only breaks with other political science findings, but decades of rhetoric from party leaders. It’s obvious from the most casual survey of primary elections that parties support moderates, but the races that observers tend to watch closely are competitive contests in swing states, so it stands to reason that a moderate in such a district may indeed be the smarter strategic play. Indeed, in a series of high-profile battles with progressive activists, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has consistently positioned itself as being pragmatic, willing to bend on its progressive principles if doing so can lead to victory.

Hassell’s work expanded the field of vision, looking at races in which the Democratic nominee is likely to cruise to victory. The full scope of the research indicates that party leaders are actually committed to elevating candidates with a narrow range of beliefs.

If party elites were merely strategic actors, the data would show higher support for moderate candidates in swing races, while not showing as much support in seats that were either safe or out of reach. That’s not the case. In Hassell’s findings, parties consistently supported the more moderate primary candidate, regardless of the expected outcome of the general election. Even after excluding incumbents — which party committees almost always support — support for moderates holds. It’s also consistent regardless of party. And while this data set used Senate races, for his book Hassell also measured House races, finding the same result.

“Party elites are not systematically showing any preference for more moderate candidates in competitive districts,” Hassell writes. In fact, the pull for moderate candidates is stronger in noncompetitive districts. “This shows that parties are not strategically moderating their preferences in attempts to win competitive districts.”

Kamarck’s use of Berkeley to make her point is instructive to this end. If Hassell’s research is right, we’d expect to find elites even in Berkeley lining up behind the more moderate candidate, even though a communist is more likely to be elected there than a Republican. And indeed we do. Former Obama campaign aide Buffy Wicks is running for an open state Assembly seat, receiving large donations from the likes of Obama’s billionaire former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. The majority of her donations for a down-ballot Assembly seat came from out of state in the initial reporting period. This is precisely the type of party elite donations that Hassell tracks to prove establishment support for moderates, regardless of the makeup of the district.

Kamarck’s reference to Berkeley may simply have been meant as a rhetorical flourish, but it ended up undermining her central claim. Hassell’s paper, which builds off his 2017 book, “The Party’s Primary,” includes interviews Hassell conducted with Republican and Democratic state party chairs, staffers, donors, and candidates, to see if what they say matches what they do. The interviews are inconclusive. While some parroted the line that the party network focuses more on winning, others highlighted splits with lower-level activists. “There absolutely is a disconnect between the elites — party leaders and donors — and party activists,” said one former state party chair who was unnamed in the paper. “They’re focused on different things. They’re different types of people.”

This ideological leaning can be best seen in how parties target viable candidates within their narrow networks. As a former party staffer puts it, “[The party’s elite] are all connected to each other. … And if they don’t know each other, they all know somebody who knows somebody who knows them. It’s a small group where information is shared.” So the candidate search cannot help but reflect the preferences of that small, insular group; it’s like looking under a streetlamp for your keys because that’s the only place where you can see.

by David Dayen and Ryan Grim, The Intercept | Read more:
Image: Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle via AP
[ed. See also: Clinton To Keynote State Democratic Convention.]

Vaonis Stellina Smart Telescope

Most telescopes are more pleasing to look through than to look at, but the sleek, $2,999 Stellina from French startup Vaonis revolutionizes on both fronts. Not only does it resemble a prop from 2001, it also comes without the traditional eyepiece. Here, the goal is less searching, more finding: Select, say, the Andromeda Galaxy from one of 150 preloaded options on the app, and the motorized telescope—less than 20 inches tall and powered by a battery good for about 10 hours—focuses itself on the star system and sends a close-up view to your phone or tablet.

The Competition

The ETX 125 Observer ($699) from Meade Instruments Corp. has quality optics coupled with the ability to guide itself to any object in its 30,000-item database. But to save images of your interplanetary wanderings, swap out the eyepiece for its $380 LPI-G advanced-camera module. Unistellar’s eVscope will make its debut this fall, but it’s already gaining traction with devoted stargazers. The $1,999 telescope uses a digital eyepiece and sends back high-quality images by stacking multiple exposures of objects in its view, similar to how high-dynamic-range technology works.

by Matthew Kronsberg, Bloomberg |  Read more:
Image: Hannah Whitaker for Bloomberg Businessweek; Prop stylist: Heather Greene
[ed. See also: Vaonis Stellina Smart Telescope, MoMA Design Store (more pictures).]

Sevnica, Slovenia

Getting a Flood of G.D.P.R.-Related Privacy Policy Updates? Read Them.

You have probably noticed a flood of emails and alerts from companies in the past few weeks informing you about changes to their privacy policies.

Don’t ignore them.

Yes, there is a lot of legalese to wade through. But resist the temptation to immediately delete those emails or close the alerts right away. They may contain important information about managing your digital privacy at a time when it’s become clear that our online data is far from safe.

All those privacy messages are appearing now because a law called the General Data Protection Regulation will go into effect across the European Union on Friday. The law has been heralded as the world’s strongest protector of digital privacy rights. And while it was designed for Europeans, the borderless nature of the online world has virtually every commercial entity that touches the web making changes to its sites and apps to comply.

The data regulation law centers on two main principles. The first is that companies need your consent to collect your data. The second is that you should be required to share only data that is necessary to make their services work.

Danny O’Brien, a director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, offered this analogy: “A birthday cake company needs your name to put on the birthday cake. If it isn’t essential information, you can deny them consent to use that data and you still have to get the service.”

If companies don’t comply with the new rules, they can be fined up to 4 percent of their global revenue. But you should expect businesses that rely on advertising revenue to work hard to persuade as many of us as possible to give our consent for them to collect as much data as possible. Companies can do that by making it easy for people to give permission, and immensely complicated to opt out.

So to ensure you benefit from the new law, it helps to examine the revamped privacy policies we are all getting. Here is what to look for.

by Brian X. Chen, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Minh Uong/The New York Times

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Louisa Howard, Pollen

Lawmakers Officially Forget the Financial Crisis

The U.S. Congress might have just set a record for shortness of memory: Just 10 years after a crisis that nearly brought down the global financial system, it’s loosening the safeguards designed to prevent a repeat. Now it’s up to regulators — and specifically the Federal Reserve — to ensure that the backsliding doesn’t go too far.

Prodded by President Donald Trump to “do a big number” on the 2010 Dodd-Frank reform, the House and Senate have agreed on a bill, the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act. It’s not a major rollback, and it provides some welcome relief for community banks, but it does take aim at a crucial guarantor of financial resilience: the equity capital that allows banks to absorb losses in difficult times.

The bill eases capital requirements for “custodial” institutions such as State Street and Bank of New York Mellon. These are among the most systemically important because they facilitate other banks’ transactions. What’s more, it does this by complicating a key measure of capital, known as the leverage ratio, which is meant to be a simple supplement to more easily manipulated regulatory metrics.

The bill also frees regional banks with less than $250 billion in assets from company-run stress tests and from special Fed supervision. That threshold is too high: Many of those banks are large, and institutions in this category required billions of dollars in taxpayer support to get through the last crisis.

The changes could be viewed in a more positive light if the banks had plenty of capital. They don’t. Some barely squeaked by in the last round of stress tests, and the largest have as little as $6 in equity for each $100 in assets — not nearly enough to avoid distress in a severe crisis. The loosening is also poorly timed: risks in the financial system are mounting, and banks have been reducing their reserves against bad loans.

by The Editors, Bloomberg |  Read more:
Image: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Invisible Asymptotes

"It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle." - Sun Tzu
My first job at Amazon was as the first analyst in strategic planning, the forward-looking counterpart to accounting, which records what already happened. We maintained several time horizons for our forward forecasts, from granular monthly forecasts to quarterly and annual forecasts to even five and ten year forecasts for the purposes of fund-raising and, well, strategic planning.

One of the most difficult things to forecast was our adoption rate. We were a public company, though, and while Jeff would say, publicly, that "in the short run, the stock market is a voting machine, in the long run, it's a scale," that doesn't provide any air cover for strategic planning. It's your job to know what's going to happen in the future as best as possible, and every CFO of a public company will tell you that they take the forward guidance portion of their job seriously. Because of information asymmetry, analysts who cover your company depend quite a bit on guidance on quarterly earnings calls to shape their forecasts and coverage for their clients. It's not just that giving the wrong guidance might lead to a correction in your stock price but that it might indicate that you really have no idea where your business is headed, a far more damaging long-run reveal.

It didn't take long for me to see that our visibility out a few months, quarters, and even a year was really accurate (and precise!). What was more of a puzzle, though, was the long-term outlook. Every successful business goes through the famous S-curve, and most companies, and their investors, spend a lot of time looking for that inflection point towards hockey-stick growth. But just as important, and perhaps less well studied, is that unhappy point later in the S-curve, when you hit a shoulder and experience a flattening of growth.

One of the huge advantages for us at Amazon was that we always had a fairly good proxy for our total addressable market (TAM). It was easy to pull the statistics for the size of the global book market. Just as a rule of thumb, one could say that if we took 10% of the global book market it would mean our annual revenues would be X. One could be really optimistic and say that we might even expand the TAM, but finance tends to be the conservative group in the company by nature (only the paranoid survive and all that).

When I joined Amazon I was thrown almost immediately into working with a bunch of MBA's on business plans for music, video, packaged software, magazines, and international. I came to think of our long-term TAM as a straightforward layer cake of different retail markets.

Still, the gradient of adoption was somewhat of a mystery. I could, in my model, understand that one side of it was just exposure. That is, we could not obtain customers until they'd heard of us, and I could segment all of those paths of exposure into fairly reliable buckets: referrals from affiliate sites (we called them Associates), referrals from portals (AOL, Excite, Yahoo, etc.), and word-of-mouth (this was pre-social networking but post-email so the velocity of word-of-mouth was slower than it is today). Awareness is also readily trackable through any number of well-tested market research methodologies.

Still, for every customer who heard of Amazon, how could I forecast whether they'd make a purchase or not? Why would some people use the service while others decided to pass?

For so many startups and even larger tech incumbents, the point at which they hit the shoulder in the S-curve is a mystery, and I suspect the failure to see it occurs much earlier. The good thing is that identifying the enemy sooner allows you to address it. We focus so much on product-market fit, but once companies have achieved some semblance of it, most should spend much more time on the problem of product-market unfit.

For me, in strategic planning, the question in building my forecast was to flush out what I call the invisible asymptote: a ceiling that our growth curve would bump its head against if we continued down our current path. It's an important concept to understand for many people in a company, whether a CEO, a product person, or, as I was back then, a planner in finance.

Amazon's invisible asymptote

Fortunately for Amazon, and perhaps critical to much of its growth over the years, perhaps the single most important asymptote was one we identified very early on. Where our growth would flatten if we did not change our path was, in large part, due to this single factor.

We had two ways we were able to flush out this enemy. For people who did shop with us, we had, for some time, a pop-up survey that would appear right after you'd placed your order, at the end of the shopping cart process. It was a single question, asking why you didn't purchase more often from Amazon. For people who'd never shopped with Amazon, we had a third party firm conduct a market research survey where we'd ask those people why they did not shop from Amazon.

Both converged, without any ambiguity, on one factor. You don't even need to rewind to that time to remember what that factor is because I suspect it's the same asymptote governing e-commerce and many other related businesses today.

Shipping fees.

People hate paying for shipping. They despise it. It may sound banal, even self-evident, but understanding that was, I'm convinced, so critical to much of how we unlocked growth at Amazon over the years.

People don't just hate paying for shipping, they hate it to literally an irrational degree. We know this because our first attempt to address this was to show, in the shopping cart and checkout process, that even after paying shipping, customers were saving money over driving to their local bookstore to buy a book because, at the time, most Amazon customers did not have to pay sales tax. That wasn't even factoring in the cost of getting to the store, the depreciation costs on the car, and the value of their time.

People didn't care about this rational math. People, in general, are terrible at valuing their time, perhaps because for most people monetary compensation for one's time is so detached from the event of spending one's time. Most time we spend isn't like deliberate practice, with immediate feedback.

Wealthy people tend to receive a much more direct and immediate payoff for their time which is why they tend to be better about valuing it. This is why the first thing that most ultra-wealthy people I know do upon becoming ultra-wealthy is to hire a driver and start to fly private. For most normal people, the opportunity cost of their time is far more difficult to ascertain moment to moment.

You can't imagine what a relief it is to have a single overarching obstacle to focus on as a product person. It's the same for anyone trying to solve a problem. Half the comfort of diets that promise huge weight loss in exchange for cutting out sugar or carbs or whatever is feeling like there's a really simple solution or answer to a hitherto intractable, multi-dimensional problem.

Solving people's distaste for paying shipping fees became a multi-year effort at Amazon. Our next crack at this was Super Saver Shipping: if you placed an order of $25 or more of qualified items, which included mostly products in stock at Amazon, you'd receive free standard shipping.

The problem with this program, of course, was that it caused customers to reduce their order frequency, waiting until their orders qualified for the free shipping. In select cases, forcing customers to minimize consumption of your product-service is the right long-term strategy, but this wasn't one of those.

That brings us to Amazon Prime. This is a good time to point out that shipping physical goods isn't free. Again, self-evident, but it meant that modeling Amazon Prime could lead to widely diverging financial outcomes depending on what you thought it would do to the demand curve and average order composition.

To his credit, Jeff decided to forego testing and just go for it. It's not so uncommon in technology to focus on growth to the exclusion of all other things and then solve for monetization in the long run, but it's easier to do so for a social network than a retail business with real unit economics. The more you sell, the more you lose is not and has never been a sustainable business model (people confuse this for Amazon's business model all the time, and still do, which ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).

The rest, of course, is history. Or at least near-term history. It turns out that you can have people pre-pay for shipping through a program like Prime and they're incredibly happy to make the trade. And yes, on some orders, and for some customers, the financial trade may be a lossy one for the business, but on net, the dramatic shift in the demand curve is stunning and game-changing. (...)

Prime is a type of scale moat for Amazon because it isn't easy for other retailers to match from a sheer economic and logistical standpoint. As noted before, shipping isn't actually free when you have to deliver physical goods. The really challenging unit economics of delivery businesses like Postmates, when paired with people's aversion for paying for shipping, makes for tough sledding, at least until the cost of delivering such goods can be lowered drastically, perhaps by self-driving cars or drones or some such technology shift.

Furthermore, very few customers shop enough with retailers other than Amazon to make a pre-pay program like Prime worthwhile to them. Even if they did, it's very likely Amazon's economies of scale in shipping and deep knowledge of how to distribute their inventory optimally means their unit economics on delivery are likely superior.

The net of it is that long before Amazon hit what would've been an invisible asymptote on its e-commerce growth it had already erased it.

Know thine enemy.

by Eugene Wei, Remains of the Day |  Read more:
Image: Stratechery, uncredited

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Compleat Angler Calendar: January
‘and ‘tis no matter how fine you fish, for nothing will rise in this Month but a Grayling, and of them I never at this season saw any taken with a Flie, of above a foot long in my life: but of the little ones about the bigness of a smelt in a warm day, and a glowing Sun, you may take enough… the whole Month through’.
A Back’s grayling and a cross-section of its gill. Coloured etching by J. Curtis.
Creative Commons via Wellcome Library, London.

Sonic Youth

[ed. Time flies.]

The Five Best Alternatives to Google URL Shortener

If you've ever relied on to tighten up links for you, it's time to start thinking about alternative URL shorteners. Google ended support for its Google URL Shortener at the end of March 2018 and is taking a year to fully phase out the tool.

URL shorteners make sharing written-out links more manageable. Say you want to provide a link on a business card, in an advertisement, or in an email format where hyperlinking isn't ideal. A shortened URL takes up less space and keeps your text tidy. For example, using, you can convert to It's easier to read and easier for someone to copy and paste or type.

Some URL shorteners do little more than turn long links into short ones, while others let you customize the text of the new URLs, track click-through rates, and analyze other information about who's clicking your links. Most URL shorteners have a free tier of service, but you often have to pay for added features, such as data and analysis. The five that made the cut for this list are easy to use and access, and each one stands out for one special reason, noted as "Best for" below.

Here are the best URL shortening services to replace, followed by details of how and why Google is shutting down the service.

The Five Best Alternatives:
URL Shortener by Zapier

by Jill Duffy, Zapier |  Read more:
Image: uncredited