Longreads + Open Thread

Logistics, History (x2), Privacy, Softbank, Bell Labs

Longreads

  • From A16Z's new tech news site, this is a great overview of the background and importance of the Ever Given. The logistics industry illustrates how software eats the world in a more abstract sense: containerization and broader standardization made the entire system more mentally tractable. The process was a bit like a decentralized attempt to refactor code—reducing the number of concepts simplified the system, but a simplified system can support much more complexity built on top of it. Unfortunately, since this process happened in an ad hoc way, some of the architectural decisions were questionable.

  • The WSJ reports on how China under Xi is repackaging history ($). One of the interesting things about a one-party state is that it gives everyone a shared vocabulary for talking about politics. The CEOs of DiDi and Alibaba have both compared their companies' efforts to Mao's, for example, while in the US a CEO might be reluctant to embrace a comparison to FDR on the grounds that not everyone thinks it's flattering. This has a self-reinforcing effect: if the state is viewed as legitimate, people treat it as the yardstick of legitimacy, which makes that status stick.

  • Scholars Stage as a meditation on how history books reflect the time in which they were written. Especially worth reading in light of the story above: in a two-party system, there will at any given time be two dominant narratives about progress. But since each party is a coalition whose members can shift, the narratives will shift, too.

  • Wired has a good story on privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo. One interesting thing about the piece is that some of the solutions that DuckDuckGo implements are very close to things Apple is doing. It raises the high-level question: if privacy is a feature that helps sell products, will the most effective way to monetize it involve selling a privacy-centric version of an existing product, or adding an anonymity/data-protection layer to a platform? There is, naturally, room for both.

  • From The Economist, a look at Softbank as an act of financial engineering. At their scale, it makes sense to carefully structure deals, but this creates many opportunities for hard-to-manage conflicts.

Books

  • The Idea Factory is a great history of Bell Labs. It's a testament to how much Bell Labs accomplished that the book passes over some inventions quite briefly will still being a book's worth of stories. Very much worth reading to see how much modern technology came from giving researchers a budget, a free hand in deciding what to investigate, and close contact with people on the factory floor and in the field to refine their ideas.

Open Thread

  • Post any links/articles/ideas that would be of interest to Diff readers

  • A great question from yesterday's subscriber call: what job will ambitious people flock to in 2025? Today's answer is still Big Tech, but will that change?