Welcome to Muhr's Must Reads!
I focus on delivering relevant business & finance related articles while occasionally straying to other topics (sports, art, technology, etc.) to keep the "juices" flowing. While I primarily read for myself, and this site acts as a quasi-personal library, I created MMR because I'm passionate about sharing what I find interesting.
My goal is to provide readers with ~60 minutes of high-quality material per edition (selections come from many sources representing 5-10% of what I've seen/read). I also add estimated read times for each link in order to easily manage their information intake.
Years ago Indra Nooyi made an audacious strategy shift beyond unhealthy snacks and drinks. She was prescient—as well as disciplined and tough—but the challenges are still daunting. ... The infractions might seem insignificant—one missing can of Pepsi on one shelf in one store in one city in one country—but for Nooyi it is this level of detail that sets her company apart. “We ought to keep pushing the boundaries to get to flawless execution,” she declares. “Flawless is the ultimate goal.” ... You can’t blame anyone at PepsiCo for feeling a sense of urgency—or embattlement—in recent years. Their staple products, soda pop and potato chips, are only slightly less demonized these days than cigarettes. ... now in her eighth year in the grueling crucible that is the leadership of one of America’s most globally recognized brands, it just may be a moment to exhale. You could even call it vindication. From the start of her tenure she dared to acknowledge what was obvious to everyone outside the business but unutterable to those inside it: Junk food makes people fat and harms their health. Nooyi began emphasizing products that are at least a bit healthier than the traditional chips and soda—a pivot some observers thought could sink the company. Now shoppers are proving her right.
Subaru can barely make enough cars to meet demand and has the best profit margin in the industry. But expanding might jeopardize what makes it work so well ... Since 2011, Subaru’s global sales have surged 45 percent to 913,100 vehicles, a pace bested only by a few burgeoning Chinese brands and Fiat Chrysler which has been intent on making Jeep a popular choice in Europe and Asia. ... Almost any car company one can name is far bigger than little Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru's parent. BMW? More than twice the size in terms of unit sales. Kia? Almost three Subarus. Even Mazda sells 50 percent more cars. ... Being small, though, is the reason Subaru has become such a big deal. With manufacturing capacity maxed out, it now has to decide what kind of company it wants to be. ... Traditionally, the company has spurned the volume game for steadier prices and better relationships with its dealers. Because supplies are so tight, a Subaru sitting on a sales lot right now might be the closest thing the car business has ever seen to a fixed price. Last month, the average incentive on a Subaru in the U.S. was a minuscule $481, compared with almost $2,000 on a Mercedes and almost $3,000 on a Ford. This is also why Subarus today retain their value better than any other brand, according to a TrueCar analysis.
How an artificial language from 1887 is finding new life online ... Like its vastly more successful digital cousins — C++, HTML, Python, Linux — Esperanto is an artificial language, designed to have perfectly regular grammar, with none of the messy exceptions of natural tongues. Out loud, all that regularity creates strange cadences, like someone speaking Italian slowly while chewing gum. William Auld, the Modernist Scottish poet who wrote his greatest work in Esperanto, was nominated for the Nobel Prize multiple times, but never won. But it is supremely easy to learn, like a puzzle piece formed to fit into the human brain. ... Decades before Couchsurfing became a website (or the word website existed), Esperantists had an international homestay service called Pasaporta Servo, in which friendly hosts around the world listed their phone numbers and home addresses in a central directory available to traveling Esperantists. It may be a small, widely dispersed, and self-selected diaspora, but wherever you go, there are Esperantists who are excited that you exist. ... There’s no money, no power, no marketing, no prestige — Esperanto speakers speak Esperanto because they believe in it, and because it’s fun to speak a foreign language almost instantly, after a couple months of rolling the words around in your mouth. ... Esperanto was invented in 1887 by a Polish ophthalmologist named L.L. Zamenhof, who hoped his creation would bring about world peace. Zamenhof saw a turbulent world divided by language, and concluded that the situation was too complicated, essentially unfair, and ultimately doomed. He believed that the languages people already spoke were oversaturated with history, politics, and power, making it impossible to communicate clearly. Esperanto was a fresh start, a technology that would allow its speakers to sidestep the difficulties of natural languages altogether.
I flew to Somalia in early 2012 to write about a pirate gang jailed in Hamburg. They had been captured two years earlier when they tried to hijack the MV Taipan, a German cargo ship, near Somalia. Their marathon trial represented the first proceeding on German soil against any pirate, Somali or otherwise, in more than four centuries. I had reported on the case for Spiegel Online, where I worked in Berlin, and it seemed to me that a book about the case and some underreported aspects of Somali piracy might be interesting. ... Gerlach assured us that we would be safe, and his friend, the regional president, sent a personal car. A Somali gunman rode with us. But by then it was too late. We had been researched. I pieced this together only months after, when a pirate showed me an image of my own face on his phone. The pirates had pulled an author photo of mine from an old New York Times interview. I’m a dual citizen, and I had travelled to Somalia on a German passport; but they knew I was an American writer. ... A hostage does nothing, but the long hours are a crisis of longing. My sense of self, in fact my sanity, would surge and ebb. I tended to wake up in a stark panic and pray for no greater mercy than the dawn.
In 1800 the weather remained a mystery. The sky was the last part of nature to be classified: a relic of the arcane, chaotic world that had existed before Newton and the Scientific Revolution. ... Very few in scientific circles would have heard of William C. Redfield’s name before the publication of his storm paper in 1831. A New York businessman, he had made his name with his Steam Navigation Company. Redfield’s steamers plied up and down the Hudson, from New York to Albany, carrying passengers and freight. Redfield’s success had come through his natural instinct for innovation. In the 1820s, the early years of steam, passengers had been wary of traveling too close to the engines, worried that they might explode—as they often did. Redfield’s solution to the problem had been simple but effective. He had designed “safety barges” for the passengers to travel in, precursors of the railway carriages of the future, drawn in strings behind the steamer. Over time, as safety standards had improved and passengers had become more confident, he had switched his tactics: moving the passengers back into the steamer and filling the barges with cargo. ... But Redfield was more than a wily businessman. He had worked as a mechanic in his youth in small-town Connecticut, and he had retained his interest in engineering. ... Traveling on a steamer from New York to New Haven one day in 1831 Redfield chanced to meet Denison Olmstead, professor of mathematics and physics at Yale. Spotting Olmstead on deck he had approached and “modestly asked leave to make a few inquiries” about a paper Olmstead had recently published on hailstorms in the American Journal of Science. Soon Olmstead and Redfield were talking about storms and it was then, for the first time, that Redfield unveiled his theory of whirling winds. It was a pivotal moment in the history of meteorology. ... Redfield’s idea of circular winds was clearly perplexing. Espy could find no reason why winds should dart about the central axis of a storm. Eventually he concluded that Redfield was wrong. A more logical answer, Espy reasoned, was that winds rushed toward the central column at the core of the storm as air in a room would be drawn in toward a burning fire—cool air from beneath replacing the warm heat traveling upward. The science behind this idea was sound. In a powerful storm, Espy thought, the effect would simply be magnified.
Masters of one of the world’s most revered forms of analog craftsmanship take on the smartwatch. ... Swiss watchmaking emerged from a radically different background, one rooted in meticulous manual labor. The industry got its start in the 16th century after John Calvin persuaded the City Council in Geneva to impose sumptuary laws banning jewelry, and the city’s skilled jewelers joined forces with the makers of pocket watches instead. Later, French Catholics chased Protestant Huguenots out of their country; many of these French exiles happened to be watchmakers, and they settled in Switzerland. In the mountains of the Jura region, they encountered local farmers who spent half the year indoors and idle and who turned out to be extremely patient and detail-oriented. The émigrés hired them to spend their winters hand-polishing tiny metal components for the “movements,” the watch’s spring-driven inner workings. ... By the 20th century, Swiss watches had become famous for their reliability and complexity. They are also marvels of energy efficiency, because dozens or even hundreds of components depend on tiny wound springs for power. Each new “complication” — say, a calendar that advances the date with a satisfying snap at midnight — demanded a new set of gears and more energy, thus requiring ever more clever compensations. A mechanical watch is both a dance with and a fight against physics.
The index fund pioneer’s low fees have driven down costs but is its success a cyclical phenomenon? ... It passed the $3tn mark in assets under management globally last year, as international growth spurted alongside the US; today the total is $3.4tn. ... if there are vulnerabilities, they are in three areas: the shift to passive investing may prove to be partly a cyclical phenomenon; Vanguard’s move into giving financial advice could cause friction; and regulators could decide to step in to stop the firm becoming too big to fail. ... Instead of having outside shareholders, Vanguard is owned by its funds, which means that instead of having to charge fees high enough to generate a profit for shareholders, it operates “at cost” and charges only enough to cover expenses and business investment. ... The Financial Stability Board, based in Basel, Switzerland, has suggested designating every fund with over $100bn in assets as a “systemically important” organisation and subjecting them to tougher oversight and perhaps other requirements, all of which would raise costs.
Major packaged-food companies lost $4 billion in market share alone last year, as shoppers swerved to fresh and organic alternatives. Can the supermarket giants win you back? ... While consumers have long associated the stuff on the labels they can’t pronounce with Big Food’s products—the endless strip of cans and boxes that primarily populate the center aisles of the grocery store—they now have somewhere else to turn (more on that in a bit). And that has brought the entire colossal, $1-trillion-a-year food retail business to a tipping point. ... Shoppers are still shopping, but they’re often turning to brands they believe can give them less of the ingredients they don’t want—and for the first time, they can find them in their local Safeway, Wegmans, or Wal-Mart. Rather than carry traditional products with stagnant sales, chains like Target are actively giving increasing space on their shelves to a slew of New Age players like yogurt-maker Chobani, Hampton Creek (which sells a popular plant-based mayo), Nature’s Path, Amy’s Kitchen, and Lifeway Foods, which makes a yogurt-like drink called kefir. Retailers are creating their own brands too.
So what is Jay Z thinking? He turned 45 in December. The onetime street hustler is now a husband and a father and hobnobs with world leaders such as President Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France. Some say he has grander ambitions in middle age. “He’d like to be a billionaire,” says Rob Stone, co-founder of the Fader, a magazine that extensively covers the rap world. “He’s talked openly about that. But I think in his mind, it’s no longer just about how much money he’s making. It’s about his legacy and what the name Shawn Carter will mean after he’s gone.” He wants to save the music industry from the brutal economics of streaming—and make himself a fortune in the process. So far he’s doing neither. ... For Jay Z the entrepreneur, the challenge was plain: Find a way to capitalize on the technology industry’s takeover of the music business beyond being a high-priced shill. ... The losses didn’t frighten Jay Z. He offered a 60 percent premium over Aspiro’s market value, according to a filing, and repositioned it as an artist-friendly alternative to Spotify that would pay higher royalties to record labels and artists. ... You can still listen to the catalogs of virtually every Tidal owner on Spotify. ... It’s too early to write off Tidal. But if the company does fail, it may be because Jay Z didn’t anticipate the skeptical response to his claim that he was working for some greater good of all musicians.
Inside the strange world of kidnap and ransom survival schools. ... Wilson, a 43-year-old British Army veteran who once served in Northern Ireland, picks me up on a swampy morning at a Motel 6 in Dania Beach, a suburb of Miami. He is the founder of Risks Incorporated, a private security firm that offers a three-day kidnap and ransom course in which I’m enrolled. A skeptical man with a dark sense of humor who has worked in the security industry for two decades, Wilson moved to South Florida 13 years ago with his then-wife and never left. ... Wilson briefs me on the bourgeoning business of international kidnapping. The White House’s recent acknowledgment of the accidental killing of two al-Qaida hostages in Pakistan in January, as well as the dark news from Syria in recent months, both overshadows and underscores the fact that kidnappings are a global scourge. As incidents have increased worldwide, a parallel industry has emerged, one that includes insurance companies, negotiators, lawyers, and security firms like Risks Inc. In a 2010 investigation, London’s Independent newspaper dubbed this the “hostage industry,” and estimated its worth at about $1.6 billion a year. ... Costs range from about $600 to a couple thousand dollars. Some are entirely in a classroom; others include role-playing. ... Wilson’s course is somewhere in between: part tutorial, part field exercise, tailored to the needs of the client. The company’s website promises to “take you into the real world of terrorism and kidnap and ransom!”