What I’m reading

A few reads for your weekend.

The One Device [book]

The story of the iPhone and how it came to be and a story that is two decades in the making. The retirement of Ive from Apple earlier this year marked a turning point: he was the last executive from the original iPhone team to leave the firm.

Insta Novels

In August 2018, Instagram followers of the New York Public Library were tapping through their Insta Stories when something unexpected showed up: the full text of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, designed for a small screen, with small animations that brought the story to life as you flipped.

“Anywhere people want to read is fine by us,” says Richert Schnorr, the director of digital media at the NYPL. “We’re happy to meet people where they are.”

Four Years in Startups

San Francisco was tipping into a full-blown housing crisis. Real-estate brochures offered building owners enticements to flip. “Hi, neighbor!” they chirped. “We have considered and ready buyers eager to invest in your neighborhood.” There was a lot of discussion, particularly among the entrepreneurial class, about city-building. Everyone was reading “The Power Broker”—or, at least, reading summaries of it. Armchair urbanists blogged about Jane Jacobs and discovered Haussmann and Le Corbusier. They fantasized about special economic zones. An augmented-reality engineer proposed a design to combat homelessness which looked strikingly like doghouses. Multiple startups raised money to build communal living spaces in neighborhoods where people were getting evicted for living in communal living spaces.

There was a running joke that the tech industry was simply reinventing commodities and services that had long existed. Cities everywhere were absorbing these first-principles experiments. An online-only retailer of eyeglasses found that shoppers appreciated getting their eyes checked; a startup selling luxury stationary bicycles found that its customers liked to cycle alongside other people. The online superstore opened a bookstore, the shelves adorned with printed customer reviews and data-driven signage: “Highly rated: 4.8 stars & above.” Stores like these shared a certain ephemerality, a certain snap-to-grid style. They seemed to emerge overnight: white walls and rounded fonts and bleacher seating, matte simulacra of a world they had replaced.

Software margins

If the product is software and thus can produce software gross margins (75% or greater), then it should be valued as a software company.

If the product is something else and cannot produce software gross margins then it needs to be valued like other similar businesses with similar margins, but maybe at some premium to recognize the leverage it can get through software.

Navigating NYC schools

The mood of meritocracy is anxiety—the low-grade panic when you show up a few minutes late and all the seats are taken. New York City, with its dense population, stratified social ladder, and general pushiness, holds a fun-house mirror up to meritocracy. Only New York would force me to wake up early one Saturday morning in February, put on my parka and wool hat, and walk half a mile in the predawn darkness to register our son, then just 17 months old, for nursery school. I arrived to find myself, at best, the 30th person in a line that led from the locked front door of the school up the sidewalk. Registration was still two hours off, and places would be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. At the front of the line, parents were lying in sleeping bags. They had spent the night outside.

I stood waiting in the cold with a strange mix of feelings. I hated the hypercompetitive parents who made everyone’s life more tense. I feared that I’d cheated our son of a slot by not rising until the selfish hour of 5:30. And I worried that we were all bound together in a mad, heroic project that we could neither escape nor understand, driven by supreme devotion to our own child’s future. All for a nursery school called Huggs.

Apple Maps’ expansion

Beautifully tracked progress of Maps’ latest updates in the U.S.

Working [Caro’s latest; excerpt]

I will never forget that night. It was the first time I had ever gone through files. The official met me at the front door and led me to a room with a conference table in the middle, and, on the table, high stacks of file folders. And somehow, in a strange way, sitting there going through them, I felt at home. As I went through the memos and the letters and the minutes of meetings, I could see a pattern emerging, revealing the real reason that the agency wanted the field to become a civilian airport: executives of corporations with offices on Long Island, who seemed to be quite friendly with the F.A.A. officials, wanted to be able to fly in and out of Long Island on their company planes without the inconvenience of having to drive to Idlewild or LaGuardia. I kept looking for a piece of paper on which someone came right out and said that, but I didn’t find one; everything I could find talked around that point. But between all the pieces of paper I found sentences and paragraphs that, taken together, made the point clear.

There are certain moments in your life when you suddenly understand something about yourself. I loved going through those files, making them yield their secrets to me. And here was a particular and fascinating secret: that corporate executives were persuading a government agency to save them some driving time at the expense of a poor kid getting an education and a better chance in life. Each discovery I made that helped to prove that was a thrill. I don’t know why raw files affect me that way. In part, perhaps, it’s because they are closer to reality, to genuineness—not filtered, cleaned up, through press releases or, years later, in books. I worked all night, but I didn’t notice the passing of time. When I finished and left the building on Sunday, the sun was coming up, and that was a surprise. I went back to the office, and before driving home I wrote a memo on what I had found.