We all know the feeling. You're sleepless in the sad hours of the night or stumbling around early on a hazy weekend morning in need of something to read, and that pile of unread books just isn't cutting it. Why not take a break from the fire hose of Twitter and RSS and check out our weekly roundup of essential writing from around the web about technology, culture, media, and the future? Sure, it's one more thing you can feel guilty about sitting in your Instapaper queue, but it's better than pulling in vain on your Twitter list again.
Two essential reads from The New York Times this week explore Apple's supply chains — and noted dangerous labor conditions — to question the consumer electronics industry's' reliance on Chinese manufacturers. As a current, anonymous Apple executive said, "right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China."
The New York Times: Charles Duhigg and David Barboza - In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad
"You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards," said a current Apple executive.
Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher - How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work
"Apple’s an example of why it’s so hard to create middle-class jobs in the U.S. now," said Jared Bernstein, who until last year was an economic adviser to the White House. "If it’s the pinnacle of capitalism, we should be worried."
Brad Stone tells the tale of Larry Kirshbaum's journey from the hallowed halls of the New York publishing houses to head up Amazon's new Publishing arm, and the increasingly strained relationship between the digital and print worlds.
Businessweek: Brad Stone - Amazon's Hit Man
Then last March, Random House, the biggest book publisher in the U.S., announced that it too would sell e-books using agency pricing. Amazon could no longer run the best play out of its playbook—slash prices and sustain losses in the short term to gain market share over the long term. Sure enough, with no stark price disadvantage, the Nook e-reader store and Apple’s iBookstore for the iPad started to gain market share. "For the first time, a level playing field was going to get forced on Amazon…"
On the failure of clean tech
Government and VC investment drove an astounding $44.5 billion into the clean tech sector between 2009 and 2011, and Wired uses the failure of solar cell manufacturer Solyndra, which Obama called an "engine of economic growth" in a 2010 factory visit, to explain how this clean tech bubble popped.
Wired: Juliet Eilperin - Why the Clean Tech Boom Went Bust
What a lot of them didn’t bargain for, and, frankly, didn’t really understand," he says, "is that it’s almost never going to be five guys in a garage. You need a heck of a lot of money to prove that you can do your technology at scale."
On the weird internet
Max Read profiles expert "weird internet" curator Katie Notopoulos who consistently finds oddities like tweets saying, "crying myself to sleep because I can't read this summary of paradise lost because Wikipedia is blacked out. -.-".
The patterns that Katie curates, whether for a few hours on her Twitter, or in a more extensive and permanent way on one of her many blogs, tend to highlight the special way that the internet makes our most serious and meaningful desires and expressions come across as petty and absurd.
On mercenary techies
Adrien Chen profiles Martin, a blackhat online reputation manager for "high net-worth individuals" and self-proclaimed "mercenary hacker" who is straight out of a William Gibson novel.
Gakwer: Adrian Chen - The Mercenary Techie Who Troubleshoots for Drug Dealers and Jealous Lovers
Standing on the sidewalk, Martin explained the snoop-resistant system he had devised: a makeshift private cell phone network built around prepaid phones, dozens of SIM cards and plastic pill organizers—the kind seniors use to keep their meds in order.
Richard Beck follows how Ryan Schreiber's music website Pitchfork capitalized on the internet's effects on music and hype in the 21st century and the site's influence on music consumption.
n+1: Richard Beck - Pitchfork, 1995–present
By keeping user-generated comments off the site, Pitchfork has behaved more like a magazine than the magazines have. The only major modification Schreiber made to the print template—putting reviews, not interviews or features, at the center—was an ingenious adaptation to the dynamics of internet buzz: interviews may sell the rock and roll lifestyle, but reviews are what blogs will link to and argue about.
On 'Super Metroid'
Even if you're not a mega-Metroid fan, Hugo Bille's analysis of the Super Nintendo classic shows just how well the game designers were able to manage players' mental images of the game's world.
Gamasutra: Hugo Bille - The Invisible Hand of Super Metroid
Since the player never completely leaves an area behind and forgets about it, the game world constantly expands in the mind of the player. By never completely exhausting an area before moving on to the next, Metroidvanias promise us that if we remember and acquaint ourselves with the game world, it will not go unrewarded.
On Facebook subscriptions
Our very own Laura June captured the state of Facebook's recent subscriptions feature best : "The fact that you're human doesn't mean you're not spam."
Romenesko: Jim Romenesko - A Facebook Status Update experiment
But I know too that the majority of my 15,000-plus subscribers — including Socrat Jim Jones P ("Engineer at My Sweet Factory") — really have no interest in U.S. media. These Facebook Subscribe numbers that are being thrown around are bogus.
It's from earlier this month, but don't miss Susan Cain's piece on the cult of collaboration and undervalued importance of solitude.
The New York Times: Susan Cain - The Rise of the New Groupthink
Culturally, we’re often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process. Consider Apple. In the wake of Steve Jobs’s death, we’ve seen a profusion of myths about the company’s success. Most focus on Mr. Jobs’s supernatural magnetism and tend to ignore the other crucial figure in Apple’s creation: a kindly, introverted engineering wizard, Steve Wozniak, who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer.
Have any favorites that you'd like to see included in next week's edition? Send them along to @thomashouston or share in the comments below.