Longreads + Open Thread
Chips, The Grid, TheGlobe, Attribution, Wish, Japan, Apple
Tekla Perry in IEEE Spectrum has a great in-depth story on the development of Intel's first million-transistor chip. This piece is very worthwhile for anyone who is working on something technically challenging with a large team. First, it's a story full of tradeoffs, where just about every part of the process breaks unexpectedly and that breakage has to be incorporated into planning. Second, it's about how many different tasks had to be worked on, by different teams that didn't necessarily communicate regularly, in order to build a new chip. (For example, Intel had a CAD tool, which helped in the early stages but started running all weekend or crashing halfway through as the design got more complex.) It's a good reminder that Moore's Law is not a single amazing accomplishment, but a series of amazing accomplishments, back-to-back over decades.
Austin Vernon on the smart grid. This is worth reading partly as a look at what technical and economic challenges stand in the way of a smart grid, and partly as a great overview of how the current electric grid works.
Joe Weisenthal and Tracy Alloway interview Stephan Paternot, co-founder of TheGlobe.com, on what it's like to be in the middle of a bubble. I wasn't following the market when TheGlobe set a record by rising 606% on its IPO day, but I was paying attention soon after, so this piece is both a nice bit of nostalgia and a good look at what different speculative bubbles have in common. Especially interesting, on the aftermath: " I went through an existential crisis when TheGlobe essentially folded a year later after the dotcom bubble burst and the internet went under and the media was basically like ‘haha, we told you so.’ You know, it made me question my own sanity, ‘wait, were we all crazy about what this internet thing could be?’"
Antonio García Martínez has a look at how performance attribution works in Web 2 and how that can be translated into Web 3. When tokens are going up in price and everyone is getting rich, you don't have to think about customer acquisition cost because your customers are basically getting paid to try your product. But that can't last forever, and the infrastructure for what comes next is getting built now.
Sapna Maheshwari at the New York Times on what went wrong at Wish, which is down 92% since its December 2020 IPO. Wish partly ran into unavoidable problems from its model: trading fast shipping for cheap products gets a lot less compelling when shipping delays get even longer and higher container costs reduce the relative discount. And some of their problems stem from very aggressive business practices the article details. Wish sort of digitized the experience of thrifting, not just in terms of cheap products but in terms of weird surprises. The trouble with that is that in the digital version, the company has some control over what those surprises are, and can be tempted to boost margins or growth by surprising customers with less than they paid for but about what they expected.
Embracing Defeat: A great Japan-focused complement to Tony Judt's Postwar. Books about the immediate postwar period outside of the US are worth reading to emphasize the fact that, in terms of their human cost, wars last a long time after the treaties are signed. This book goes into great depth on both the political and cultural situation in Japan immediately after their defeat. The book features some surreal postwar incidents, like the time the US occupation forces decided they didn't like Japan's proposed new constitution and wrote their own in a week (Japanese legislators complained that it was poorly-translated into Japanese, and some of the maneuvering between the draft and the final version involved subtle changes in wording that affected its ultimate meaning).
After Steve: This book is partly a mournful story about how somewhere along the way to becoming the most valuable company on earth, Apple stopped being the coolest company on earth. But it's also a begrudging celebration of what a phenomenal manager Tim Cook has been. The story is told as a parallel biography of Tim Cook and Jony Ive, so it bounces back and forth between Apple as an unusually well-run big company and Apple as an industrial design mecca. Many companies face the question of how much they want to be true to their original quirks and how much they want to maximize shareholder value, and the right answer is rarely 100% of either.
Drop in any links or comments of interest to Diff readers.
On the topic of Apple above, one company it reminds me of is Disney, which also went through a business renaissance and a creative one at around the same time. Like Apple, Disney has more recently leaned into the business side instead, but it's notable that both companies improved their financial performance by renewing their cultural roots. Are there other good examples of this? Or good counterexamples?
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