April 30, 2015

The New York Times - How Bitcoin is Disrupting Argentina’s Economy 5-15min

With its volatile currency and dysfunctional banks, the country is the perfect place to experiment with a new digital currency. ... His occupation is one of the world’s oldest, but it remains a conspicuous part of modern life in Argentina: Calle Florida, one of the main streets in downtown Buenos Aires, is crowded day and night with men and women singing out “cambio, cambio, cambio, casa de cambio,” to serve local residents who want to trade volatile pesos for more stable and transportable currencies like the dollar. For Castiglione, however, money-changing means converting pesos and dollars into Bitcoin, a virtual currency, and vice versa. ... That afternoon, a plump 48-year-old musician was one of several customers to drop by the rented room. A German customer had paid the musician in Bitcoin for some freelance compositions, and the musician needed to turn them into dollars. Castiglione joked about the corruption of Argentine politics as he peeled off five $100 bills, which he was trading for a little more than 1.5 Bitcoins, and gave them to his client. The musician did not hand over anything in return; before showing up, he had transferred the Bitcoins — in essence, digital tokens that exist only as entries in a digital ledger — from his Bitcoin address to Castiglione’s. Had the German client instead sent euros to a bank in Argentina, the musician would have been required to fill out a form to receive payment and, as a result of the country’s currency controls, sacrificed roughly 30 percent of his earnings to change his euros into pesos. Bitcoin makes it easier to move money the other way too. The day before, the owner of a small manufacturing company bought $20,000 worth of Bitcoin from Castiglione in order to get his money to the United States, where he needed to pay a vendor, a transaction far easier and less expensive than moving funds through Argentine banks. ... Avalancha offers customers a 10 percent discount when they use the virtual currency, because accepting credit cards generally ends up costing Avalancha more than 10 percent as a result of the vagaries of the Argentine financial system.

Bloomberg - The People’s Republic of Cruiseland 5-15min

The cruise business in China is still small. In 2014 about 700,000 Chinese travelers cruised, compared with 10 million Americans and more than 6 million Europeans. But the numbers are climbing rapidly—an increase of 79 percent from 2012 to 2014—and the ceiling isn’t yet visible. In the U.S. and Australia, about 3.5 percent of the population cruises each year; the proportion in China is less than one-sixtieth of that. Some forecasters estimate that China will be the No. 2 market by 2017—and that it could eventually replace the U.S. as the largest in the world. ... Local governments have already built cruise terminals in Sanya, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Xiamen, with more on the way in at least four other coastal cities. Cruise companies are bringing ships to China as fast as the ports can squeeze them in. But the hardware is the easy part. The software—the onboard experience of the Chinese customer—is still in beta. Localization itself is nothing new; brands from KFC to Oreo as well as Hollywood studios have tailored their products to the Chinese market, with varying levels of success. For cruise companies, it’s more complicated than hiring a Chinese celebrity spokesperson or throwing in a green tea flavor. They must rethink the entire cruise experience, from food to décor to how a rapidly capitalizing society thinks about class and luxury.

Forbes - Twinkie's Miracle Comeback: The Untold, Inside Story of a $2 Billion Feast 5-15min

Walk in the door of Hostess Brands’ flagship bakery in Emporia, Kansas and your first thought is: What a dump. The former front office for the bakery that pumps out classic American treats like golden Twinkies and swirl-topped Cup Cakes is a series of dank, near-empty rooms with scuffed, oatmeal-color linoleum floors, water-stained ceiling panels and a jumble of mismatched office furniture that looks like it was picked up off the curb. Three minutes in this place and you’re suddenly thankful for the wilted sign on the front door warning visitors that firearms are barred from the premises. ... This grim wing of the Hostess plant is a leftover from the old Hostess–the one that debt, pension costs and mismanagement shuttered in 2012. But throw on a hairnet and pass on to the newly rehabilitated factory floor ... The new factory is bright and clean. Tight rows of Twinkies m arch along the $20 million Auto Bake system with the precision of Soviet soldiers in a May Day parade. Yellow robotic arms, which look like they should be welding Teslas rather than boxing Twinkies, stack snacks with hypnotic rhythm. This 500-person plant produces more than 1 million Twinkies a day, 400 million a year. That’s 80% of Hostess’ total output–output that under the old regime required 14 plants and 9,000 employees. ... How they’d do it? Cherry–picking top assets, modernizing manufacturing and distribution, doubling the shelf life of products and capitalizing on the rare place in pop culture Hostess products still held.

Fast Company - How Japan's Line App Became A Culture-Changing, Revenue-Generating Phenomenon 5-15min

Less than four years after Line’s launch, the company says that more than 560 million people worldwide have registered as members, the majority of them in Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand. One hundred eighty one million users log in to the Line app each month. While that’s a smaller user base than WhatsApp (700 million monthly active users according to research firm Canalys), Facebook Messenger (500 million), and Tencent’s WeChat (480 million), Line has done a remarkable job of turning its popularity into a growing, diversified business. ... Its reported revenue of $656 million in 2014 comes from a range of sources that few rivals can match: It sells games that can be played solo or with other Line users; those digital stickers, which can be purchased to express a dizzying array of emotions; marketing deals with brands and celebrities that want to reach its user base; and merchandise such as the products at the Harajuku shop. ... Spy on other passengers in the Tokyo subway, and there’s a more-than-decent chance that you’ll spot a salaryman or schoolgirl interacting on their smartphone with Brown, Cony, or one of the app’s other hyperlovable mascots. Visit a restaurant and a small placard at the cashier invites you to follow the business on Line in return for discounts. On billboards, the characters endorse chewing gum. Visit an electronics store and you’ll find them in plush form, as prizes in a coin-operated crane game. ... "The turning point," Idezawa says, "was when we released stickers." ... The Japanese call cuteness kawaii, and find it surprisingly meaningful. "The word ‘kawaii’ in Japanese literally means ‘acceptable of affection’ or even ‘possible to love,’" explains Kotaku’s Ashcraft, who says that it’s used to refer to everything from babies to dogs to clothing. Kawaii imagery is "used to soften things, making them more palatable and even more friendly. That's a reason why it's not uncommon to see cute characters in everything from public safety posters to home-loan brochures."

The New Yorker - Escape or Die: When pirates captured a cargo ship, its crew faced one desperate choice after another. 5-15min

The Albedo was weighed down with cargo, leaving its main deck close to the water. The pirates retrieved a long ladder with hooks on one end, hung it over the deck wall, and climbed it easily, without any shocks from the electric wire. (It may have malfunctioned, or the assailants may have been lucky and missed it.) The first pirate to reach the barbed wire pulled back for a moment, then charged through it, the metal cutting into his flesh. “I did not imagine people like these living in this world,” Kumar said. ... “We want only company money,” he said. “If company pay money, no problem.” He ordered the seamen to collect everything valuable from their cabins—cell phones, cash, cameras—and pile it on the bridge. “Crew problem, Somalia problem,” he said. “Crew no problem, Somalia no problem.” ... After the Albedo anchored near Somalia, most of the hijackers left the ship. They were replaced by about a dozen armed guards, two cooks, and a large man with a hoarse voice, who introduced himself as the new boss. Jabin, who had stayed on board, would be his head guard. The crewmen were assured that they would be home within weeks. “You are our guests,” the boss said. “We are only interested in money.” ... For weeks, Kumar refused to believe that Rajbhar, his closest friend on the ship, was gone. He considered jumping off the deck and drowning himself. Aliabadi looked after him, taking on his duties and making sure that he was eating. Eventually, Kumar decided that, if he and his crewmates were to survive, “we would have to fight.” They couldn’t force their way off the ship, but perhaps they could reason their way off, even if their captors were unreasonable. He resolved to learn everything he could about Jabin and the other hijackers. ... Soon, they were describing the mechanics of the Albedo operation. Hijackings were complex financial enterprises, they explained, with committees of investors, accountants, even classes of shares.

Lucky Peach - Inventing the Power Lunch < 5min

I don’t think people go to a restaurant because of the food; I think people go because of the kind of attention that’s given to them. We pay a lot of attention to people; we give them whatever they want. There are a lot of people here that never see a menu. ... I remember many, many years ago, maybe twenty years ago, Mick Jagger came in for lunch, and he was not wearing a jacket. Everybody said, Are we going to let Mick Jagger in without a jacket? I mean, come on. Of course! What seems to be the problem? Well, everybody’s got a jacket on. So what? So what. So what. He came in, he wasn’t wearing a jacket, end of the story. We sat him.