How Should Apple Spend Its $117 Billion in Cash?

What could Apple buy with its cash hoard of $117 billion? Andrew Ross Sorkin, editor of the Dealbook at The New York Times, offers six suggestions:

1) NUANCE This is the one no-brainer on the list. Nuance, based in Burlington, Mass., provides much of the speech recognition technology behind Apple’s Siri and dictation functions. Right now, Apple has merely licensed it and integrated it into both its mobile devices like iPhones and iPads as well as its new Macintosh operating system. Most users think it is Apple technology, but those services wouldn’t work without Nuance.

2) RESEARCH IN MOTION Yes, this one may be a head-scratcher, considering that the iPhone seems to have eaten RIM’s BlackBerry for breakfast — and lunch. But with a marke value of $3.7 billion it is a relative bargain and could be had for four weeks’ worth of Apple’s spare cash).

Such a deal would instantly put Apple into the enterprise market, giving it access to corporate and government customers that require RIM’s highly secure servers. Apple could build access into RIM’s network directly into future iPhones and maybe even create an iPhone with BlackBerry’s famous keyboard, which for many of us would create the ultimate smartphone.

3) SPRINT Yes, the phone company. This might seem the most out-there idea. But it solves many of Apple’s biggest problems.

Such a deal would give Apple its own wireless network, which it could upgrade to become the ultimate high-speed wireless carrier in the country. It could eventually use the network to bypass the cable operators to deliver content directly to the home on multiple devices, including the product that everyone speculates is on its way: a TV device.

With a stock market value of $13.5 billion, Sprint can be purchased for a song. Apple could easily spend four times more than that — say, $50 billion — to build out the Sprint network and turn it into a showcase for the next generation mobile technology. Apple could still offer its devices on other carriers, but its premium product would exist on its own network.

All good ideas. But the best one offered is Twitter.

A Brief History of Toilet Paper

A brief history of toilet paper, from The Frailest Thing blog:

Toilet paper, in case you’re wondering, was in use  in China as early as the fourteenth century and it was made in 2′ x 3′ sheets. Everywhere else, and in China before then, people made use of what their environment offered. Leaves, mussel shells, corncobs were among the more common options. The Romans (what have they ever done for us!) used a sponge attached to the end of a stick and dipped in salt water. And yes, as you may have heard, in certain cultures the left hand was employed in the task of scatological hygiene, and in these cultures the left hand retains a certain stigma to this day.

Until the late-nineteenth century, Americans opted for discarded reading material. It’s not clear if this is why Americans still today often take reading material into the bathroom, or if the practice of reading on the toilet yielded a eureka moment subsequently. In any case, magazines, newspapers, and almanacs were all precursors to the toilet paper as we know it today. It has been claimed that the Sears and Roebuck catalog was also known as the  ”Rears and Sorebutt” catalog. The Farmer’s Almanac even came with a hole punched in it so that it could be hung and the pages torn off with ease.

Toilet paper in its present form first appeared in 1857 thanks to Joseph Gayetty. It was thoughtfully moistened with aloe. In 1879, the Scott Paper Company was founded by brothers Edward and Clarence Scott. They sold toilet paper in an unperforated role. By 1885, perforated roles were being sold by Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company.

In 1935, Northern Tissue advertised its toilet paper to be “splinter-free.” Apparently, early production techniques managed to embed splinters in the paper. Three cheers for innovation! And finally, in 1942, two-ply toilet paper was introduced in St. Andrew’s Paper Mill in the UK. An odd development considering wartime austerity and rationing. Speaking of rationing, the Virtual Toilet Paper Museum (you’re learning all sorts of things in this post) reports that the first toilet paper shortage in the US took place in 1973. Presumably, it was overshadowed by the oil embargo.

Very interesting.

Which Countries Invented the Various Olympic Events?

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article “Why Are You So Bad At the Sport You Invented?” profiling the respective countries which lay the claim to have invented the various Olympic sports.

You probably knew that the marathon has its roots in Greece. But did you know that Iraq invented boxing, Egypt invented archery and fencing, Mongolia invented field hockey, France invented the triathlon, Great Britain invented the shot put and water polo, Japan invented swimming, and Germany invented diving? I didn’t.

Here’s how the WSJ referenced the invention of the various Olympic sports:

The countries were assigned case-by-case based on the circumstance which meant most to the development of the modern sport. Some countries were designated due to that place having created the modern version of the sport, like Germany’s claim of diving—something they originally liked to call “fancy diving.” Others were assigned because countries created a device that essentially birthed a sport, like Canada and the canoe. Some were awarded for having created an earlier version of a modern sport, like China’s claim to soccer or Mongolia’s claim of field hockey. And other sports were awarded to countries who were the first to hold documented competitions, like Japan and swimming.

And as for the results:

By this simple methodology, the most inexcusably horrible country at a sport they claim is Iraq. An Iraqi has never won one of the 841 total Olympic boxing medals despite their claim of boxing as the Ancient Sumerians created carvings depicting boxers in 3000 BC. Egypt and Ireland have similar calamities based on ineptitude in sports they devised in ancient times. Greece has managed to medal at least once in every sport they claim via the Ancient Games, eight in total. If you’re Greek flaunt your heritage in the discus. Don’t watch freestyle wrestling.

This interactive graphic provides the summary and is a must-see.

The Flash Mob Wedding Proposal

One way to stand out with a wedding proposal: via a flash mob. But as this New York Times piece explains, flash mobs are very expensive:

A flash proposal can start at $2,000 for a simple affair, which involves all supporting players — choreographers, videographers, rehearsal rental space and D.J.’s, but Ms. Broussard said that the costs could vary widely because each event is customized. If the would-be groom wants multiple cameras, professional dancers with complex choreography and costumes, the costs can surpass $10,000.

Others who can arrange events include Mob the World in Seattle and dance companies like Hip Hop Craze. For Mr. Jones’s efforts, he hired the choreographer Derek Mitchell, who supplied his own dancers.

On average, about 30 to 50 “mobbers,” often culled from Web sites and related Meetup pages, are brought together for an event. Many of the participants are volunteers who often have no background in professional dancing and receive little to no compensation. Once they register for an event, they are sent a link to the choreographed routine and typically get two days to rehearse.

Mr. Jones, whose engagement event included the band, flash mob and camera equipment, said it cost close to $7,000, not including the expense of flying in relatives. Mr. Centner said the price tag for his Union Square event was $7,300. That figure, too, does not account for some extras.

Some flash mob case studies are in the piece.

A Physicist on Everest: How Body and Mind Break Down at High Elevation

In his new book, To The Last Breath, physicist Francis Slakey recounts the myriad of physical and mental challenges in summiting the world’s highest peak. The following is an excerpt from To The Last Breath, full of vivid detail:

I take my first step down the mountain and immediately feel depleted. Adrenaline is a direction-sensitive stimulant. My body has been producing gallons of it since I set out for the summit at midnight, but the moment I turned around to go back down the spigot went dry. I have felt this on every climb I have ever done and other climbers tell me they experience the same thing: adrenaline on the way up, an empty tank on the way down.

These are the moments when I have my greatest focus. It’s not that my mind is sharp; at this altitude, with this level of fatigue, I know that my mind is as thick as timber. And it’s not that I’m broadly aware of my circumstances.

In fact, now, at this moment, my world has become astonishingly small. It no longer consists of friends and family.  My hometown, the smell of coffee, the push and hustle of my job, the last book I read—all of that is distant and forgotten. 

The only thing that exists in my life right now is the square foot of snow directly in front of me where I will plant my next step. I can sense that spot with absolute clarity. I can see the bend of the snow, feel the weight of the falling flakes, sense the flakes settle on the ridge creating a new contour. The shadows and folds of a small patch of snow and rock are my entire world now.

I guide my foot to the spot I’ve been staring at and the metal claws of my crampon punch through the snow, gripping and taking my weight as I lean forward sinking deep into fresh powder. I take in three breaths before I’m ready for another step. I pull my boot out of the foot-deep hole of snow and plod forward. This descent is happening in slow motion, like walking through a vat of molasses.

My speed is limited by the intense fatigue and the layers of clothes I’m wearing to weather the twenty-below-zero temperature. I’m encased in a down suit, hands sealed in thick gloves, my face layered in a mask and goggles. Two days from now, when I’m back in Base Camp, I will discover that there was a small gap in all that wrapping. A square of flesh on my cheek, no bigger than a postage stamp, was exposed to the subzero chill. The result is a patch of thick blackened skin, crisped like a burnt marshmallow. It takes months for the skin to return but it forever remains sensitive to the cold.

On the final challenge of reaching the death zone:

As a climber goes up even higher in altitude, into the so-called death zone, the dangerously thin air above 26,000 feet, there is so little oxygen available that the body makes a desperate decision: it cuts off the digestive system. The body can no longer afford to direct oxygen to the stomach to help digest food because that would divert what precious little oxygen is available away from the brain. The body will retch back up anything the climber tries to eat, even if it’s as small as an M&M.

The consequence of shutting down the digestive system is, of course, that the body can no longer take in any calories. Lacking an external fuel source, the body has no choice but to turn on itself.  It now fuels itself by burning its own muscle—the very muscle needed to climb the mountain—at a rate of about two pounds per hour.

The climber’s body is now in total collapse. The respiratory system is working way beyond its tolerance at roughly four times above normal; the circulatory system is pumping at only 30 percent capacity; the digestive system has completely shut down; and the muscular system is eating away at itself. In short, the body is dying. Rapidly. 

Read the entire excerpt here. I’ve placed To The Last Breath in my reading queue.

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(hat tip: @travelreads)

Dennis Crowley on Work and Productivity

The New York Times has a good interview with Dennis Crowley, co-founder and CEO of Foursquare:

On things he’s learned being a CEO:

As the company has grown, I can sometimes start to feel disconnected, and I’ll decide to randomly meet with one person a day, and we’ll go out for a half-hour coffee. You do that for six weeks or so, and then all the channels of communication are open again. People feel like they can come and talk to me. I learn about the things that are troubling them or challenging them, or questions they might have.

I liked this exchange also:

Q. You worked at Google for a couple of years. Anything you’ve borrowed from that culture?

A. A lot of it. One of them is this idea of weekly snippets. Every Monday, you send in a bullet list of the stuff you’ve been working on, and the software compiles a list and mails it out to the entire company. So you can quickly scan them to find out the status of a project or what somebody is working on. It gives you a nice general overview of the company. So you follow the people you want to get updates from, but we make sure that everyone automatically gets them from me and our C.O.O. and our head of engineering and our head of product.

When I send out mine, the first heading is, “Things I’m Psyched About,” and the next is, “Things That I’m Not So Psyched About” or “Things I’m Stressed About.”  The next thing is usually a quote of the week — something I heard from one of our investors or maybe overheard from an employee — and then I have my snippets below that.

I’ve been using this system for about a year, and it works out great. I get a lot of feedback from employees. It only takes them a minute or two to read, and it’s like a bird’s-eye view of what I think is going well at the company and areas where I think we could improve. It’s also a good way to start a conversation. So I might write, “Hey, I heard someone say this, and so let me address why we’re thinking about it this way.”

You can find Dennis Crowley on Twitter here.

Science Fiction Writers Predict 2012 in 1987

In 1987, a slew of science fiction writers were asked to predict the world 25 years away. These time capsule predictions of the year 2012 have been unveiled. A lot of the writers were way off, and here are the highlights. Who do you think was the most accurate?

ISAAC ASIMOV:

Assuming we haven’t destroyed ourselves in a nuclear war, there will be 8-10 billion of us on this planet—and widespread hunger. These troubles can be traced back to President Ronald Reagan who smiled and waved too much.

ALGIS BUDRYS:

Because we will be in a trough between 20th-century resources and 21st-century needs, in 2012 all storable forms of energy will be expensive. Machines will be designed to use only minimal amounts of it. At the same time, there will be a general expectation that a practical cheap-energy delivery system is just around the corner. Individuals basing their career plans on any aspect of technology will concentrate on that future, leaving contemporary machine applications to the less ambitious or to those who foresee a different future. The most socially approved-of individuals will constitute a narrowly focused aristocracy, and will be at the mercy of dull functionaries and secretive rebels who actually perform the day-to-day maintenance of society. It should be noted that most minimal-energy devices process information and microscopic materials, not consumer goods. The function of “our” society may depend on processing information and biotechnology to subjugate goods-producing societies. These societies may be geographically external, or may be yet another social stratum within central North America. In either case, crowd-management technologies will have to turn away from forms that might in any way impair capital goods production. Social regimentation will then have become so deft that most people will regard any other social milieu as pitiable.  

TIM POWERS:

Probate and copyright law will be entirely restructured by 2012 because people will be frozen at death, and there will be electronic means of consulting them. Many attorneys will specialize in advocacy for the dead.

ORSON SCOTT CARD:

We must count ourselves lucky if anyone has leisure enough in 2012 to open this time capsule and care what is inside. In 2012 Americans will see the collapse of Imperial America, the Pax Americana, as having ended with our loss of national will and national selflessness in the 1970s. Worldwide economic collapse will have cost America its dominant world role; but it will not result in Russian hegemony; their economy is too dependent on the world economy to maintain an irresistible military force. A new world order will emerge from famine, disease, and social dislocation: the re-tribalization of Africa, the destruction of the illusion of Islamic unity, the struggle between aristocracy and proletariat in Latin America—without the financial support of the industrialized nations, the old order will be gone. The changes will be as great as those emerging from the fall of Rome, with new power centers emerging wherever stability and security are established. The homogeneity of Israel will probably allow it to survive; Mexico and Japan may change rulers, but they will still be strong. If America is to recover, we must stop pretending to be what we were in 1950, and reorder our values away from pursuit of privilege.

And perhaps the most accurate predictions come courtesy of DAVE WOLVERTON, who wrote that in 2012 we would see:

1) That economic cycles caused by rises in technological levels will begin to level out—countries that have a falsely inflated economy will be forced to export their technologies to third-world countries where people are willing to work for less money. This will lead to a situation where knowledge, the key to our technologic success, will be spread across the world. We’ll see rapid decreases in starvation levels, but will still be plagued with political turmoil.

2) Men’s Rights—We will see a reaction to the women’s movement. Men will demand to be portrayed by the media as the sensitive, caring creatures that they are. They will also demand equal rights in custody battles where children are seldom awarded to a father because our society chooses to believe a mother is a better care-taker by nature.

3) Introduction of x-ray microscopes in the early 2000′s will lead to rapid progress in gene splicing. Look for rapid growth in medicine and mining, and food production. We may also see bacteria being engineered to simulate parts of the immune system (which could cure immune disorders such as AIDS and allergies).

More here.

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Hat tip: Jodi Ettenberg.

Related: Also see predictions of the year 2000 in 1900.

The Craigslist Experiment

Eric Auld was having a hard time finding a job, so he decided to work backwards and figure out who he was competing against. So he created a job ad on Craigslist:

Administrative Assistant needed for busy Midtown office. Hours are Monday through Friday, nine to five. Job duties include: filing, copying, answering phones, sending e-mails, greeting clients, scheduling appointments. Previous experience in an office setting preferred, but will train the right candidate. This is a full-time position with health benefits. Please e-mail résumé if interested. Compensation: $12-$13 per hour.

The first response came within four minutes. In 24 hours, he received a staggering 653 responses. He then broke down the applicants’ experience into categories and performed an analysis of who applied. His biggest takeaways were:

1.) Employers won’t notice me by my résumé alone. This one I kind of knew already, but I need to actually follow through with my lesson. Am I really going to stand out in a tidal wave of 626 applications? Probably not. What I should do is figure out methods to grab the employer’s attention, whether it’s finding out if anyone I know works with the organization, seeking out a personal recommendation, or calling to double-check that the employer received my résumé (even though we all know how daunting actual phone calls can be). I need to find additional ways to let the employer know that I am the right man for the job. Anything to make the employer say, “Ah, yes, Mr. Auld,” and not, “Oh, right, Applicant #24601.”

2.) When job searching on Craigslist, apply to positions immediately. 49 percent of responses to this non-existent position were submitted in the first three hours alone — that’s 317 emails. I know that when I apply for jobs, I like to imagine my résumé near the top of the pile; this helps me sleep at night (in addition to scotch). Because of this experiment, I’ve decided to not bother submitting to Craigslist positions that are more than one day old. As for other sites, I’ll probably discard any postings that have been up for more than one week.

An interesting (if not morally honest) experiment. It’s important to point out that Eric has a Master’s degree, and he didn’t consider whether that was an advantage for him when applying for jobs. As echoed in the comments (and also, from my personal experience as well), Master’s degrees often hurt an application more than help, especially in entry level positions. The consensus is that the applicant might be so bored or resentful of the job, that he/she will be looking for something better/different immediately upon starting the new job.

The Aleppo Codex Mystery

How and why did 200 pages of the Aleppo Codex (Hebrew: כֶּתֶר אֲרָם צוֹבָא‎), the oldest, most complete, most accurate text of the Hebrew Bible, go missing? Ronen Bergman investigates in a thrilling piece for New York Times Magazine:

For a thousand years after the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, the Jewish holy scriptures — the five parts of the Torah and 19 other holy books — were copied and passed down in the various Jewish communities from generation to generation. Some of these texts, according to Jewish faith, were handed down directly by God and included signs, messages and codes that pertained directly to the essence of existence. The multiplicity of manuscripts and the worry that any change or inaccurate transcription would lead to the loss of vital esoteric knowledge created the need for a single, authoritative text. And beyond its mystical significance, a unified text was also necessary to maintain Jewish unity after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Roman Empire. As Adolfo Roitman, the head of the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls and parts of the codex are displayed, said: “One can regard the thousand years between the scrolls and the codex, the millennium during which the standardization of the text was carried out, as a metaphor for the effort of the Jewish people to create national unity. One text, one people, even if it is scattered to the four ends of the earth.”

According to tradition, early in the sixth century, a group of sages led by the Ben-Asher family in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, undertook the task of creating a formal and final text. The use of codex technology — a method that made it possible to record information on both sides of a page, in book form, as a cheaper alternative to scrolls — had already evolved in Rome. Around A.D. 930, the sages in Tiberias assembled all 24 holy books and completed the writing of the codex, the first definitive Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. From Tiberias, the codex was taken to Jerusalem. But Crusaders laid waste to the city in 1099, slaughtering its inhabitants and taking the codex. The prosperous Jewish community of Fustat, near Cairo, paid a huge ransom for it. Later, in the 12th century, it served Maimonides, who referred to it as the most accurate holy text, as a reference for his major work, the Mishneh Torah. In the 14th century, the great-great-great-grandson of Maimonides migrated to Aleppo, bringing the codex with him. There it was kept, for the next 600 years, in a safe within a small crypt hewed in the rock beneath Aleppo’s great synagogue.

The story of what happened next — how the codex came to Israel and where the missing pages might have gone — is a murky and often contradictory one, told by many self-serving or unreliable narrators. In his book, “The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible,” published in May by Algonquin Books, the Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman presents a compelling and thoroughly researched account of the story, some of which served as the catalyst for additional reporting here.

This piece is a contender for one of the best longreads of 2012. Continue reading here.

A Tribute to Dmitri Nabokov

Lila Azam Zanganeh, author of The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, remembers Dmitri Nabokov, the only child of the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Dmitri was a womanizer, whose life resembled a James Bond film. But he was also his father’s best translator. It’s a beautiful tribute:

Dmitri was also a womanizer, once known in the Italian press as “Lolito,” seducer extraordinaire. His life — mountaineering in Wyoming and British Columbia, singing in Medellín and Milan, racing cars and boats along the Mediterranean, carousing with handsome girls — was something out of a James Bond film. When I asked him why he had never married, he told me life had slipped away too quickly. Sensing he was being disingenuous, I later ventured to ask again. This time, quietly, almost in a whisper, he said his parents had been “twin souls,” and he knew it would “always remain impossible to match what they had had.”

What became apparent in Dmitri in later years was the remnant of that lost world. It came with a sense of compassion and dignity, of patience and nobility, despite his foibles, his occasional childlike demands, his folie des grandeurs. As he neared the age of his father’s death, it remained just as impossible for Dmitri to accept that “Father” was no more. Often, when he evoked his parents, Dmitri’s ice-blue eyes would begin to drift out of focus. I caught him at his desk one afternoon watching a YouTube montage called “Nabokov and the Moment of Truth,” which juxtaposes film clips and stills of his parents and himself. He was in his wheelchair, leaning deeply into the computer screen, silently crying.