Jeff Bezos

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An indicator of how far we’ve fallen and how much further we might plummet is a pair of really talented New York Times journalists having a casual conversation about Donald Trump potentially using the office of the Presidency to punish private companies that haven’t been “nice” to him and neither one mentioning how unethical that is and how chilling for a democracy. You could say perhaps that goes without saying, but it seems like we’ve already accepted what should never be acceptable.

The excerpt:

Farhad Manjoo:

Amazon put out a statement promising to create 100,000 new full-time jobs in the United States over the next year and a half. The company did not mention Trump, but the statement seemed as if it was part of a pattern of corporations sending out good news to the incoming president. A half-dozen companies, including Ford and SoftBank, have promised to hire more American workers. As with the others, though, it’s not quite clear if Amazon’s promises are a deviation from its plans, or if it’s just pre-announcing growth that was already baked in.

Mike Isaac:

Is it cynical for me to say “the latter”? Seems like a pretty obvious way to curry favor with the new boss while just doing what you were already planning to do.

Farhad Manjoo:

Well, analysts also believe it’s the latter — Trump or no Trump, Amazon is growing really quickly, so it most likely had plans to hire all these people anyway. But Trump has had Amazon in his sights for a while; during the campaign he frequently threatened the company with antitrust action, often in response to critical coverage from The Washington Post, which Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, owns. In that light, Amazon’s job announcement is a savvy defense: Come after us and you’ll come after all these new jobs. Do you think it’s going to work?

Mike Issac:

Honestly, I’m not sure, but if experience tells us anything about Trump’s actions, it is this: Compliment the guy or win him over, and he’ll be your new best friend. Cross him, and prepare for a gnarly tweetstorm. He’s about as mercurial as a thermometer, so there’s no real road map for predicting his actions outside of seeing who has wooed him most recently.

Farhad Manjoo:


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It’s not likely that Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are spoken to honestly very often, certainly not by those who work for them. What good could come of that for an employee? Perhaps, then, no one has been brazen enough to directly point out that their defense of Trump supporter and emotional homunculus Peter Thiel, if not his politics, is utter horseshit. 

“There are many reasons a person might support Trump that do not involve racism, sexism, xenophobia or accepting sexual assault,” Zuckerberg wrote in defense of maintaining Thiel as a Facebook board member. Bezos added at a Vanity Fair event that “it’s way too divisive to say if you have an opinion, you can’t sit on my board…that makes no sense.”

What really makes no sense is Thiel being treated as if he just so happens to be supporting a fellow conservative, a right-of-center politician who earned the Republican nomination. But Trump isn’t that. He’s someone who’s called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, used anti-Semitic memes online, labeled Mexicans rapists and African-Americans inherently lazy, threatened to jail his political opponent who’s been found guilty of no crime, promised to change libel laws to diminish journalistic freedom and boasted about sexually assaulting women.

Thiel, who’s spoken out against multiculturalism, made puzzling comments about suffrage and had a checkbook ready when racists like Hulk Hogan or Trump needed an assist, wants people to accept that he loathes his candidate’s overt bigotry–his “personal characteristics,” as Thiel terms it–and only supports the GOP nominee because he somehow possesses the magical talents to “fix America,” or some such thing, despite having demonstrated not even a basic understanding of foreign or domestic policy. As I’ve said before, Thiel is the single best argument for a return to the draconian progressive tax rates of the Eisenhower Administration. 

The venture capitalist has the absolute right to support financially and otherwise this Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini, but sitting on the board of Facebook and working for the Y Combinator is a privilege, not a right. Zuckerberg and the rest can’t pretend this is politics as usual. Il Duce and his fellow 1930s Fascist Adolf Hitler also were popular with millions of their citizens. That wasn’t “diversity,” but tyranny. So it is, perhaps, again.

From David Streitfeld at the New York Times:

Two weeks ago, Mr. Thiel revealed that he was donating $1.25 million to support the election of Donald J. Trump. As these things go, it was a small gift. Dustin Moskovitz, a founder of Facebook, is giving tens of millions to support Hillary Clinton. But the news made Mr. Thiel a pariah in much of the tech community.

He was accused of promoting racism and intolerance. There were demands that Facebook drop him from its board of directors and that Silicon Valley’s leading start-up incubator, Y Combinator, sever ties with him. Emotions and accusations raged on Twitter. …

“I was surprised by the intensity,” Mr. Thiel said. “This is one of the few times I was involved in something that was not a fringe effort but was mainstream. Millions of people are backing Trump. I did not appreciate quite how polarizing the election would be in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.”

“By lending his image, his voice, his influence and substantial capital to Trump, Thiel isn’t simply exercising his legal right to vote: He is fueling and enabling racism, sexism, sexual assault, violence and tyranny,” Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital, a Los Angeles venture firm, wrote in a blog post.

She said she turned down an investment of $500,000 — a huge sum for a small firm like Backstage — because of the investor’s ties to Mr. Thiel. Ms. Hamilton did not identify the investor or respond to an email.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, defended the company’s association with Mr. Thiel, emphasizing that it did not endorse his views — and much less Mr. Trump’s — but was striving to be inclusive toward those whose values differed from its own. Critics noted that if diversity was such a cherished value in Silicon Valley, why wasn’t there more of it?•

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The Washington Post, which went from taking the pulse of the world to barely having one of its own, just another newspaper laid low despite its Watergate fame, couldn’t have hoped for a better fate than Jeff Bezos buying the company in 2013 with some of his couch-cushion change. But as WaPo has become something of a digital juggernaut, aggressively publishing 1,200 pieces a day online to gain eyeballs, the question is whether the quantity has been matched by quality. It isn’t quite Buzzfeed with brain-numbing listicles, but some of the content is questionable. There are no easy answers to the thorny new questions, though I certainly enjoy it more post-Bezos.

From Lukas I. Alpert and Jack Marshall at WSJ:

While Mr. Bezos has rarely visited the paper’s offices, he holds a one-hour teleconference with the paper’s top managers once every two weeks. Twice a year, Post executives fly to Seattle for daylong retreats with their boss.

On the calls, Mr. Bezos is given briefings on everything from how the paper is dealing with ad blocking to the status of technology upgrades. He primarily focuses on improvements to the paper’s digital products, particularly its mobile apps, and its distribution strategies and has stayed out of editorial matters, executives said.

“He does not get involved in the journalism except to encourage us to hire the best journalists that we can,” Mr. Ryan said. “He has really focused on the technology and customer side, which has been one of the hallmarks of Amazon. Our engineers have an open line to him and he has made his expertise available to us anytime.”

Some critics have raised questions about whether the new focus has resulted in an increasing amount of poorer quality content in the drive to attract more readers and whether it will ultimately lead to what the Post will need most to survive: more digital subscribers. The paper’s executives declined to get into specifics about finances or how many digital subscribers they have signed up. The New York Times had 1.04 million digital subscribers at the end of the third quarter, while The Wall Street Journal had 819,000.

Post executives say while they are always looking for the best ways for content to succeed, they insist they are not cheapening their journalism. “The Internet is its own medium but we approach everything as Washington Post stories. They may not always be traditional newspaper stories, but we are not living in a traditional newstelling time,” said editor-in-chief Marty Baron.•

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Why hasn’t someone like myself who loves books–reading them, not collecting them–yet switched to a Kindle? I don’t quite know because despite having issues with Amazon’s impact on the pricing of digital books and what that means for the future of publishing, I’m awed the company has made it possible to easily carry a universal library anywhere in the world. That’s amazing, though it would seem, no sufficiently so for me to “go electric.”

While Bezos’ e-reader can hold everything from Henry James to the King James Bible, Craig Mod is losing his religion in the tool. In an Aeon essay, the writer explains he grew disenchanted (unconsciously, at first) with the Kindle’s lack of development, how the device which seemed poised to surpass the experience of paper reading, has instead become complacent the way monopolies often do. Virtual books were going to have a tough time competing with the physical kind in terms of sheer beauty, but so far they trail in key ways even in functionality. As Mod writes, Amazon’s dominance has made for an isolated infrastructure and the “closed nature of digital book ecosystems hurts designers and reader.”

An excerpt:

In the past two years, something unexpected happened: I lost the faith. Gradually at first and then undeniably, I stopped buying digital books. I realised this only a few months ago, when taking stock of my library, both digital and physical. Physical books – most of all, works of literary fiction – I continue to acquire voraciously. I split my time between New York and Tokyo, and know that with each New York trip I’ll pick up a dozen or more volumes from bookstores or friends. My favourite gifts, to give and to receive, are still physical books. The allure of the curated front tables at McNally Jackson or Three Lives and Company is too much to resist.

The great irony, of course, is that I’ve never read more digitally in my life. Each day, I spend hours reading on my iPhone – news articles, blog posts and essays. Short to mid-length content feels indigenous to the size, resolution and use cases of smartphones, and many online publications (such as this very site) display their content with beautiful typography and layouts that render consistently on any computer, tablet or smartphone. Phones also allow us to share articles with minimal effort. The easy romance between our smartphones and short-to-mid-length articles and video is part of the reason why venture capitalists have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into New York publishing upstarts such as Vox, Vice and Buzzfeed. The smartphone coupled with the open web creates a near-perfect container for distributing journalism at a grand scale.

But what of digital books? What accounts for my unconscious migration back to print?•

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Tim Harford’s FT reading of the recent New York Times Amazon exposé is, well, subjective.

Most of us probably recognized a place in which workers are asked to surrender their lives for a corporation, given impossible goals and abused and undermined when they prove human. Making it worse, there would seem to be a thick air of paranoia in the offices because a good percentage of the criticism is rooted in power consolidation, not job performance. It sounds like the Hunger Games with an on-campus farmer’s market, a place where sociopaths thrive. As anyone who’s worked in Internet companies (myself included) knows, these types of outfits are toxic and meant to be avoided, stock options or no stock options.

Harford’s take is different, and to me, puzzling. He sees a culture in Amazon that may actually be refreshingly straightforward, a paragon of things improving through workplace honesty. Perhaps its candor just being misinterpreted as rudeness because the company embodies a rare virtue? If only that were so. That kind of arrangement would be great. 

His opening:

Last month’s Amazon exposé in The New York Times evidently touched a white-collar nerve. Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld described what might euphemistically be called an “intense” culture at Amazon’s headquarters in a feature article that promptly became the most commented-on story in the newspaper’s website’s history. As Kantor and Streitfeld told it, Amazon reduces grown men to tears and comes down hard on staff whose performance is compromised by distractions such as stillborn children, dying parents or simply having a family. Not for the first time, The Onion was 15 years ahead of the story with a December 2000 headline that bleakly satirised a certain management style: “There’s No ‘My Kid Has Cancer’ In Team.”

Mixed in with the grim anecdotes was a tale of a bracingly honest culture of criticism and self-criticism. (Rival firms, we are told, have been hiring Amazon workers after they’ve quit in exasperation, but are worried that these new hires may have become such aggressive “Amholes” that they won’t fit in anywhere else.)

At Amazon, performance reviews seem alarmingly blunt. One worker’s boss reeled off a litany of unachieved goals and inadequate skills. As the stunned recipient steeled himself to be fired, he was astonished when his superior announced, “Congratulations, you’re being promoted,” and gave him a hug.

It is important to distinguish between a lack of compassion and a lack of tact. It’s astonishing how often we pass up the chance to give or receive useful advice. If Amazon encourages its staff to be straight with each other about what should be fixed, so much the better.•

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Things deemed inconvenient if you are employed at Amazon: getting cancer, having a relative get cancer, miscarriages. If you are “selfish” enough to engage in these activities, you’ll be put on notice and likely reduced to tears. Jeff Bezos’ gigantic success has long been reported to be a ridiculously bruising and demanding workplace only a sociopath could love, a place that attracts the highest achievers and routinely lays them low. 

Tremendous job by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld of the New York Times for the deepest profile yet of a company that’s the envy of the business world and a pretty horrible place to work. How can Amazon get away with such practices, a seeming social experiment that preys on workers psychologically? “Unfairness is not illegal,” is the way one lawyer in the piece puts it. The question is whether some of the tools used to quantify employees at the online retail behemoth will become common. Probably.

An excerpt about Elizabeth Willet, a former Army Captain who discovered a new kind of combat during her brief employment at Amazon:

Ms. Willet’s co-workers strafed her through the Anytime Feedback Tool, the widget in the company directory that allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management. (While bosses know who sends the comments, their identities are not typically shared with the subjects of the remarks.) Because team members are ranked, and those at the bottom eliminated every year, it is in everyone’s interest to outperform everyone else.

Craig Berman, an Amazon spokesman, said the tool was just another way to provide feedback, like sending an email or walking into a manager’s office. Most comments, he said, are positive.

However, many workers called it a river of intrigue and scheming. They described making quiet pacts with colleagues to bury the same person at once, or to praise one another lavishly. Many others, along with Ms. Willet, described feeling sabotaged by negative comments from unidentified colleagues with whom they could not argue. In some cases, the criticism was copied directly into their performance reviews — a move that Amy Michaels, the former Kindle manager, said that colleagues called “the full paste.”

Soon the tool, or something close, may be found in many more offices. Workday, a human resources software company, makes a similar product called Collaborative Anytime Feedback that promises to turn the annual performance review into a daily event. One of the early backers of Workday was Jeff Bezos, in one of his many investments. (He also owns The Washington Post.)

The rivalries at Amazon extend beyond behind-the-back comments. Employees say that the Bezos ideal, a meritocracy in which people and ideas compete and the best win, where co-workers challenge one another “even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting,” as the leadership principles note, has turned into a world of frequent combat.•

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It’s pretty clear that Jeff Bezos doesn’t have a silver bullet to fire at the vampire world which has feasted on the Washington Post and every other traditional print newspaper, but he has plenty of gold to keep things running and growing until an answer materializes. For that reason, the Post’s chances are much rosier these days, a marked change from the recent period of steep decline. From Isabell Hülsen of Spiegel:

Until a little over a year ago, the Post was a newspaper in a “we’re still here” twilight state. Circulation was declining, as were sales, more than 400 jobs had been cut since 2003 and it was unclear whether the paper stood a chance of surviving. The editorial staff clung to the fact that the Post was still a good newspaper and was still winning Pulitzer prizes — in short, that it was still the Washington Post. But that “we’re still here” attitude was also tinged with an odor of decline.

Since August 2013, a new calendar has begun for the 137-year-old newspaper: B.B. — before Bezos, and A.B. — after Bezos. The Amazon CEO has injected new energy into the editorial staff. Instead of simply bringing in cash to allow the staff to continue the status quo, he plunged the Post into a period of cultural change, determined that the paper would reinvent itself and escape the confines of the printed page.

Bezos wants the paper’s editors and journalists to learn to think big. What does a digital newspaper have to look like in 10 or 20 years to keep millions of readers interested? He has given them time — and a lot of money – to come up with an answer.

Not surprisingly, there is a hint of Amazon in the air at the Post these days. Any experiment that promises to bring in millions of new readers is encouraged and paid for. Bezos reasons that once the Post has penetrated into the lives of millions of Americans, profits will somehow materialize on their own. He applied the same rationale to turn Amazon into the world’s largest Internet retailer, revolutionizing consumption and, with the Kindle, the way we read books.

No Magic Pill To Solve Industry’s Woes

But what exactly is Bezos up to at the Washington Post? Is he trying to turn the old world of newspaper publishers upside-down and provide them with an answer to the question on everyone’s mind: How can journalism survive on the Web? Or is the Post ultimately nothing but an exciting hobby for someone who doesn’t know what to do with all his money?

Bezos’s motives remain a mystery to those at the Post. “But it’s ridiculous to believe that Jeff Bezos came here with a magic pill to solve all the media industry’s problems within a year — that’s a preposterous notion. If he knew already what worked, we would not need any experiments,” says Executive Editor Marty Baron.•

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You hear less about Jeff Bezos’ ambitions for space pioneering than you do Elon Musk’s or Richard Branson’s, perhaps because his core business, that mom-and-pop store Amazon, is such a lightning rod, sucking up all the oxygen. From a report about his work on Blue Origin from Lisa Eadicicco at Business Insider:

“Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has an ambitious vision for the future of humanity.

When asked about why space exploration appears to be a common interest among tech entrepreneurs such as himself, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, Bezos replied with the following:

‘We are really evolved to be pioneers,’ Bezos told Business Insider CEO Henry Blodget at this year’s Ignition conference. ‘And for good reason. New worlds have a way of saving old worlds… And that’s how it should be. We need the frontier. My vision is I want to see millions of people living and working in space.’

Bezos’ private spaceflight company Blue Origin is currently working with the United Launch Alliance to build a new liquid rocket engine called the BE-4. The United Launch Alliance is said to be one of the biggest rivals to Musk’s commercial spaceflight company SpaceX.”

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America has a love-hate relationship with Uber, wanting what it offers even if it knows the company is ethically challenged, a Walmart on wheels. (Or perhaps the love-hate relationship is really with ourselves for being addicted to something that we know hurts others.) In “How to Get Away with Uber,” a terribly titled Matter piece, Bobbie Johnson tries to locate the source of our visceral discomfort with the leading ridesharer, thinking it may lie in the unblinkingly brutal nature of its business model–capitalism boiled down to its purest form–and the uncharted path that lies ahead. An excerpt:

“[Uber CEO] Travis Kalanick certainly knows who his heroes are. He rejects the Amazon comparison, but he’s made no secret of his admiration for Bezos (who was, in fact, an early Uber investor), or his envy of Amazon’s relentless march from a mere supplier of services to a business that maintains a choke hold on modern life (Amazon was, in fact, almost called ‘Amazon was just books and then some CDs, and then they’re like, you know what, let’s do frickin’ ladders,’ Kalanick told Wired earlier this year. ‘We feel like we’re still realizing what the potential is… We don’t know yet where that stops.’

Amazon — more than any other company, more than Google, more than Facebook, more than Apple — taps into what people desire in a terrifyingly primal way: We want a thing, fast and preferably cheap. Not much else matters. We know Amazon’s not a nice company, and that the people who work there are treated poorly. We don’t always like it, but there is absolutely, definitively, nothing we will do to stop it. We are happily addicted.

That same feeling is there with Uber, except one thing: We know where Amazon has ended up, more or less, but we don’t know where Uber’s going to stop. Maybe, for Uber, it doesn’t stop at all. For Kalanick and his team, the means are the end. There is no greater mission. There is only hunger.

Raw, pure, unbridled ambition is an uncomfortable thing to look at. It’s not that it’s ugly, necessarily. It’s just brutally, shockingly honest. Uber does not pretend to have a glorious philosophy—it wants to make transport easy, but there is no aspiration as lofty as ‘organize the world’s information’ or ‘make the world more open and connected.’ And perhaps that’s the way it should be. After all, would it be more offensive if Uber had a mission beyond itself? It certainly feels like less of a betrayal to know that it just wants to be as big, as powerful, as necessary, as it can be.”

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Jeff Bezos didn’t think the Washington Post is hopeless, not completely, so he decided to buy the company. In a piece by Mike Isaac of the New York Times, which is currently undergoing its latest wave of painful buyouts and layoffs, Bezos explains his reasoning:

“In his telling, which was one of the first candid interviews on the subject since he bought the paper for $250 million last year, Mr. Bezos was approached through an intermediary by Donald E. Graham, then the chairman and chief executive of The Washington Post Company. Aside from his lack of expertise on the newspaper industry, Mr. Bezos was skeptical for other reasons.

‘I went through a few gates before deciding to buy The Post. Is it hopeless? I didn’t want to do it if it was,’ he said. ‘The Internet has radically disrupted traditional newspapers. The world is completely changed, and advertisers have tons of options on how to reach people in local areas.”

Mr. Bezos and the staff of The Post have their work cut out for them. As the newspaper industry undergoes significant change to cope with the rise of digital publishing, The Post has gone throughmultiple rounds of layoffs, and recently announced cuts to employees’ retirement benefits. Similar to The Post, The New York Times is currently going through a round of employee buyouts.

But Mr. Bezos was ultimately convinced that The Post, which he called a national institution, can be brought into the digital age by leveraging the technical expertise and knowledge that he has gained over his decades spent building Amazon into a global technology company.

‘I didn’t know anything about the newspaper business, but I did know something about the Internet,’ Mr. Bezos said. ‘That, combined with the financial runway that I can provide, is the reason why I bought The Post.’

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It’s a heartbreaker watching what’s happening to the New York Times these days, and the latest layoffs are just the most recent horrible headline. The Magazine is currently a green shoot, with its bright new editor, Jake Silverstein, and a boost to staffing, but that section is the outlier. The business can’t continue to suffer without being joined by the journalism. You just hope the company is ultimately sold to someone great.

At the Washington Post, not much has changed dramatically since Jeff Bezos bought the Graham family jewel, despite some executive shuffles and new hires. Does Bezos have a long-term plan? Does he have any plan? Does it really matter in the intervening period, since he can afford to wait for everyone else to fall and position his publication as the inheritor? From Dylan Byers at Politico:

“Despite expectations, Bezos himself had never promised a reinvention. ‘There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy,’ he wrote in his first memo to Post staff in August of last year. Still, his reputation preceded him: With Amazon, he had revolutionized not just the book-selling business but the very means and standards of online shopping. He was planning ambitious new initiatives like drone delivery. Surely, this man had the silver bullet to save the Washington Post, and perhaps the newspaper industry.

Bezos, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is holding his cards close to his chest. He has no influence on the editorial side, according to [Exceutive Editorm Martin] Baron, but is focused on ‘broader strategic efforts.’

If Bezos has any innovative digital initiatives in the works, they’re being formed not in Washington but in New York. In March, the Post launched a Manhattan-based design and development office called WPNYC, which is focused on improving the digital experience and developing new advertising products.

‘Jeff’s preoccupation isn’t editorial, it’s delivery,’ one Post staffer said of WPNYC. ‘He wants to change the way people receive, read and experience the news. The only problem is we still don’t know what that looks like.'”

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In a Financial Times essay, economist Tim Harford finds a link no one else was looking for: the scorched-earth strategies which drive both Amazon and contemporary Russia. An excerpt:

“Brad Stone’s excellent book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, paints Amazon’s founder to be a visionary entrepreneur, dedicated to serving his customers. But it also reports that Bezos was willing to take big losses in the hope of weakening competitors. Zappos, the much-loved online shoe retailer, faced competition from an Amazon subsidiary that first offered free shipping and then started paying customers $5 for every pair of shoes they ordered. Quidsi, which ran, was met with a price war from “Amazon Mom.” Industry insiders told Stone that Amazon was losing $1m a day just selling nappies. Both Zappos and Quidsi ended up being bought out by Amazon.

When the weapons of war are low prices, consumers benefit at first. But the long term looks worrying: a future in which nobody dares to compete with Amazon. Apple is a striking contrast: the company’s refusal to compete aggressively on price makes it hugely profitable but has also attracted a swarm of competitors.

Consider a grimmer parallel. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the chain store. Georgia, Ukraine and many other former Soviet states or satellites must consider whether to seek ties with the west. In each case Putin must decide whether to accommodate or open costly hostilities. The conflict in Ukraine has been disastrous for Russian interests in the short run but it may have bolstered Putin’s personal position. And if his strategy convinces the world that Putin will never share prosperity, his belligerence may yet pay off.

I feel a little guilty comparing Bezos and Putin. My only regret about Bezos’s Amazon is that there aren’t three other companies just like it. I do not feel the same about Putin’s Russia.”


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Come what may, Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post can only be viewed as a blessing since the Watergate paper had been increasingly taking on water in these more digital times. At least it has a chance now, a decent one. From Michael Meyer’s new CJR report about the Post during the formative stages of its Amazonian era, as the company ramps up in earnest to dominate the world, or, you know, something:

“Editors and reporters talk about the Post becoming a ‘global’ paper. They say that the Post will create a news ‘bundle’ that will repackage all the elements of the print newspaper in a way that readers will pay for in digital form. Using tablets and other devices, Bezos aims to recreate the intimate, cohesive, and somewhat linear consumption experience of old media in a way that makes sense for digital. The newsroom has also been told that the paper will cultivate an audience of 100 million unique visitors. Or paid digital subscribers. One hundred million something. They say that, unlike traditional newspaper publishers with their notions of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, their new owner thinks in terms of hundreds of millions. I asked editor Marty Baron why the 100-million number kept coming up in my conversations. What did it refer to? ‘We don’t have a set goal for a hundred million of anything, okay?’ he told me. ‘We just want to grow, that’s all. There’s a desire to increase our number of unique visitors by a very significant degree.’

Given this rather loose mingling of the rhetorical and the actual, of the far horizon and the near-term, it’s not surprising that the mood at the paper is a mix of excitement and confusion. By the time of [publisher Katharine] Weymouth’s town-hall event in April, the Post had already begun to increase staff after a decade of layoffs and buyouts. The hires, aimed at Weymouth’s newly acquired goal of expanding the national audience, were spread across a mix of aggregation projects, blogs, and digital opinion columns, as well as more traditional reporting roles, though the common theme of all the hires was ‘digital sensibility,’ as Baron likes to say.

One reporter told me of the inevitable confusion among the staff, given Weymouth’s sudden push for a strategy of expansion that is ‘directly contrary’ to the previous one of narrowing the paper’s focus. ‘The pendulum swung all the way over and now it’s swinging all the way back again, without anyone ever saying how that came to be or why we’re doing this other than that we need more traffic,’ he said. ‘Everyone’s thrilled that we’re hiring again, and hiring really good people for the most part. But it’s not clear to the rank and file how this comes together into a vision for what we want to do and what we want to be. That’s been the problem for 15 years.’

An editor added: ‘I think Bezos wants us to be everything for everyone, the same way Amazon is.'”

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A place where Wish Lists comes true, the Amazon fulfillment center is chiefly guided by intelligence that’s artificial. And that will only become truer with each passing year. From Marcus Wohlsen’s Wired article which peeks inside Bezos’ humming Phoenix warehouse:

Through the engineering of its fulfillment centers, Amazon has built the world’s most nimble infrastructure for the transfer of things, a logistics platform that dramatically amplifies any one person’s ability to move matter to anyone else. As Amazon expands that capacity to include its own trucks and someday flying drones, the physical reach it can offer other businesses extends even further. Much in the way cloud services and the data centers that house them have become the foundation of doing business online, Amazon’s fulfillment centers have the potential to become the networked hubs of the consumer economy, the biggest of big boxes that free up businesses to focus on making things rather than moving them.

An Overarching Brain

Entering the fulfillment center in Phoenix feels like venturing into a realm where the machines, not the humans, are in charge. Also known by the codename PHX6, the place radiates a non-human intelligence, an overarching brain dictating the most minute movements of everyone within its reach.

At 1.2 million square feet, PHX6 consists of two fulfillment operations working as mirror images of one another, a redundancy that lets the FC scale up or down in response to rising and falling demand. A central mezzanine provides panoramic views of both sides of the warehouse, the back walls obscured in the distance. An impossible-to-trace web of conveyor belts and rollers shuttle the ubiquitous yellow totes–the basic logistical units of an Amazon FC–from one point to another, filled with goods destined for warehouse shelves or for customers.

Also known by the codename PHX6, the place radiates a non-human intelligence, an overarching brain dictating the most minute movements of everyone within its reach.”

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Could a few entrepreneurs, even wildly successful ones like Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos, rescue an entire city from collapse? A new essay by Andrew Yang in Fast Company,The Entrepreneurs Who Saved Seattle,” credits the Microsoft and Amazon founders almost wholly with Seattle’s renaissance. The openings of Yang’s article and “City of Despair,” the 1971 Economist piece he references, which interestingly demonstrates the downside of a company town.


From “The Entrepreneurs Who Saved Seattle,” 2014:

“Today, Seattle is considered one of the most desirable places to live and work in the U.S. Amazon, Starbucks, Expedia, and other leading companies make their homes there.

But in 1979, Seattle was the last place you’d think to find a growth business. It had more in common with today’s Rust Belt than Silicon Valley–its economy centered on a declining manufacturing base and the lumber industry, both of which were shedding jobs. Starbucks was just a tiny local company with three stores serving standard-issue coffee. The Economist had labeled Seattle the ‘city of despair’ and a billboard appeared saying “Will the last person leaving Seattle–turn off the lights.’

So what changed? Two Seattle natives decided to move their 13-employee company there in 1979 from Albuquerque. The two natives were Bill Gates and Paul Allen. And the company was Microsoft.

Is it possible to ascribe Seattle’s entire economic trajectory to just one company? Well, today over 40,000 people work at Microsoft in the region, and 28,000 of them are highly paid engineers. Approximately 4,000 businesses have been started by Microsoft alumni, many of which are in the region. Just one of these companies, RealNetworks, employs 1,500 people. Expedia, originally a Microsoft spinoff, employs another 14,000. The Gates Foundation itself has another several hundred employees. The economist Enrico Moretti estimates that Microsoft’s growth has directly created 120,000 regional jobs for services workers with limited educations (cleaners, taxi drivers, carpenters, hairdressers, real estate agents, etc.) and another 80,000 jobs for workers with college degrees (teachers, nurses, doctors, architects).

The growth of Microsoft also influenced Jeff Bezos to locate Amazon there in 1994 when he was looking for a city with ample tech talent to build an e-commerce company. Today, about 17,000 of Amazon’s 51,000 employees live and work in the Seattle region. If Microsoft had not been there, Bezos could easily have migrated elsewhere.


From “City of Despair,” 1971:

“The country’s best buys in used cars, in secondhand television sets, in houses, are to be found in Seattle, Washington. The city has become a vast pawnshop, with families selling anything they can do without to get money to buy food and pay the rent. Even restaurant meals are a bargain: a two for the price of one is offered to customers in smart, half-empty eating places.

More than 100,000 people are out of work in the Seattle area, which many people think is the worst example of economic decline in any sector of America since the great depression 40 years ago. Unemployment in Seattle stands officially at 13.1 per cent of the labour force, more than double the national level, Unofficially the welfare workers closest to the people put it at twice that high.

The root of the problem lies in the economic dominance of the area by one giant corporation, the Boeing Company. Two years ago its sales of aircraft were booming but now Boeing is undergoing a continuing attrition of government and civilian contracts. The halt in the development of the SST, America’s projected Supersonic aircraft, was merely the latest of many blows. Boeing’s payroll of 106,000 two years ago is down to 40,000 and the company acknowledges that it will cut employment further this year, probably to 29,000. The decline would not ave been halted even if the Senate had voted this week to revive the SST.”

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Amazon is building a trio of biospheres–the kind filled with crazy laughter, not crazy ants–in Seattle to serve as new company headquarters. Unlike Google and Nintendo, which live in that city’s suburbs, Bezos’ bunch are heading downtown, bringing excitement to the locals but also fears that they’ll be priced out of the fun. From Colin Marshall at the Guardian:

“Pending the completion of the towers, Amazon’s current South Lake Union operations go on in clusters of lower-rise buildings whose purpose you couldn’t necessarily surmise through a streetcar window. But other, subtler clues identify their function: the sudden preponderance of blue Amazon badges and unflattering Amazon logo-emblazoned hooded sweatshirts on the street; the nearby dentist’s and even masseuse’s offices advertising their acceptance of Amazon health insurance; the recorded voice inside the streetcar itself advertising the upcoming stop as ‘sponsored by’

Nobody could ever mistake Microsoft and Nintendo’s Redmond campuses, surrounded for miles by little more than grass and parking, for cities. Even the most Amazonian blocks of South Lake Union, by contrast, never feel less than urban in form. Maybe it has to do with the nearness of the Seattle skyline, or with all the construction adding to the bustle, or with the fact that people actually live here, not just sleep on the plush employee-lounge couches. Still, much of it struck me as slightly too new, and slightly too thought-through; I couldn’t quite shake the feeling of spending time in a company town, albeit a company downtown.

Even in its incomplete state – and even more than America’s older city centres, now coming back to life largely through infusions of high-end shopping – South Lake Union caters to those prepared to spend. You may do it with relative modesty, at the food truck parked at the end of the streetcar line offering kale salads and burgers with bacon jam and jalapeño aioli; you may drop a few dollars more at the speciality hot-chocolate shop or the combined dog bakery and boutique; or you may go all the way and get your teeth capped, purchase a Bang & Olufsen stereo system, and put in an order for an $80,000 electric sports car at the neighbourhood Tesla showroom.”

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Three quick exchanges from Erik Lundegaard’s 1996 interview with then-fledgling Internet entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, when Amazon was merely books, and delivery drones and Washington Post ownership were most certainly not in the offing.



So how did you come up with the idea for this company?

Jeff Bezos:

… I looked at several different areas and finally decided that one of the most promising ones is interactive retailing. Then I made a list of 20 products, and force-ranked them, looking for the first-best product to sell on-line.

Original logo for amazon.comIn the top five were things like magazine subscriptions, computer hardware, computer software, and music. The reason books really stood out is because there are so many books. Books are totally unusual in that respect—to have so many items in a particular category. There are one and a half million English-language books, different titles, active and in-print at any given time. There are three million titles active and in-print worldwide in all languages. If you look at the number two category in that respect, it’s music, and there are only about 200 thousand active music CDs. Now when you have a huge number of items that’s where computers start to shine because of their sorting and searching and organizing capabilities. Also, it’s back to this idea that you have to have an incredibly strong value proposition. With that many items, you can build a store on-line that literally could not exist in any other way. It would be impossible to have a physical bookstore with 1.5 million titles. The largest physical bookstores in the world only have about 175,000 titles. It would also be impossible to print the catalogue and make it into a paper catalogue. If you were to print the catalogue it would be the size of seven New York City phone books.

So here we’re offering a service that literally can’t be done in any other way, and, because of that, people are willing to put up with this infant technology.



 Do you have a favorite book?

Jeff Bezos:

It used to be Dune. I’m sort of a techno-geek, propeller-head, science-fiction type, but my wife got me to read Remains of the Day and I liked that a lot. I also like the Penguin edition of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s biography



How will all of this affect physical bookstores?

Jeff Bezos:

I think you’ll see a continuation of the trend that’s already in place, which is that physical bookstores are going to compete by becoming better places to be. They’ll have better lattes, better sofas, all this stuff. More comfortable environments. I still buy about half of my books from physical bookstores and one of the big reasons is I like being in bookstores. It’s just like TV didn’t put the movies out of business—people still like to go to the movie theater, they like to mingle with their fellow humans—and that’s going to continue to be the case. Good physical bookstores are like the community centers of the late 20th century. Good physical bookstores have great authors come in and you can meet them and shake their hands, and that’s a different thing. You can’t duplicate that on-line.

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It’s always been a difficult balance for newspapers–and never more than it is now–to give readers what they want and what they seemingly need. From Eugene L. Meyer’s Bethesda Magazine interview with Katherine Weymouth, the Graham family member who has stayed aboard the Washington Post as publisher at the behest of new owner, Jeff Bezos:


What can Jeff Bezos do that the Grahams couldn’t?

Katherine Weymouth:

I personally believe there’s no magic bullet. If there were, someone would’ve found it, how to transform for the digital era. But we are in a great position. We have a credible brand, deeply engaged readers, [and we] cover Washington. And now we are owned by someone with deep pockets who cares what we do and is willing to invest for the long term.


What has changed now that the Post newspaper is owned by Jeff Bezos?

Katherine Weymouth:

People have stopped wearing ties, that’s the biggest change around here. …He hasn’t yet told us what to do, not that he would. He’s buying it for all the right reasons: It’s an important institution. He said, ‘I’m an optimist by nature and, yes, I’m optimistic about the future of the Post. If not, I wouldn’t join you.’ Can he bring something to the table? He clearly does have deep pockets. By itself, that’s not enough. He is obsessively focused on the reader’s experience.


Have you and he discussed changes you might make under his ownership that you were unable to or didn’t make before?

Katherine Weymouth:

I do not anticipate any dramatic changes. He has made it clear that he wants to build on what we do best, with a deep focus on serving our readers…[while] experimenting with new ways of presenting our journalism digitally that will create even more compelling experiences for our readers and users.”

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Amazon’s delivery drones may just be hoopla for now, but other companies have similar designs. Question: Since these drones will be working in dense, urban areas, and those are mostly filled with apartment buildings, how exactly would that unfold? Would the drone auto-text the recipient when nearing the address so that person could come down to the door and collect the package? I would assume. From Nick Bilton at the New York Times:

“Even the serious technophiles like Mr. Bezos say delivery drones and their ilk are still years away. Many ordinary people probably think the idea sounds dangerous, maybe even a little creepy, given that these drones will have cameras. So far, the Federal Aviation Administration has resisted the idea. Swarms of computer-guided octocopters? As if the F.A.A. doesn’t have enough to do.

But given the explosive growth of e-commerce, some experts say the shipping business is in for big changes. United Parcel Service, which traces its history to 1907, delivers more than four billion packages and documents a year. It operates a fleet of more than 95,000 vehicles and 500 aircraft. The ubiquitous Brown is a $55 billion-plus-a-year business. And, like Amazon, U.P.S. is reportedly looking into drones. So is Google. More and more e-commerce companies are making a point of delivering things quickly the old-fashioned way — with humans.

Some of the dreamers in the technology industry are dreaming even bigger. It won’t be just drones, they insist. Robots and autonomous vehicles — think Google’s driverless car — could also disrupt the delivery business.”


The opening of Dan Lyons’ post which pushes back at last night’s Amazon drone-delivery reveal on 60 Minutes, which he sees as hoopla for Cyber Monday marketing and also as damage control against Brad Stone’s unflattering Bezos book, The Everything Store

“Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos runs one of the world’s most notoriously secretive organizations. Yet last night he went on national TV and showed off a bunch of dazzling delivery drones that he says won’t realistically arrive in the real world for another four or five years, which in realspeak means they’re a decade or more away. 

Why is this incredibly tight-lipped company suddenly showing off prototypes? The answer is that these drones were not designed to carry packages, but to give a lift to Amazon’s image.

For one thing, today is Cyber Monday, the day when everyone goes shopping online. Amazon somehow got CBS and 60 Minutes to create a 14-minute free ad spot for Amazon on the eve of this huge shopping day.”

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Amazon is a wildly successful company that doesn’t really make any profits. Huh? That cackling taskmaster Jeff Bezos has a long-term plan based on trading the present for some nebulous point in the future. The opening of “The Amazon Mystery” by Derek Thompson at the Atlantic:

If there’s a sentence that sums up Amazon, the weirdest major technology company in America, it’s one that came from its own CEO, Jeff Bezos, speaking at the Aspen Institute’s 2009 Annual Awards Dinner in New York City: “Invention requires a long-term willingness to be misunderstood.”

In other words: if you don’t yet get what I’m trying to build, keep waiting.

Four years later, Amazon’s annual revenue and stock price have both nearly tripled, but for many onlookers, the long wait for understanding continues. Bezos’s company has grown from its humble Seattle beginnings to become not only the largest bookstore in the history of the world, but also the world’s largest online retailer, the largest Web-hosting company in the world, the most serious competitor to Netflix in streaming video, the fourth-most-popular tablet maker, and a sprawling international network of fulfillment centers for merchants around the world. It is now rumored to be close to launching its own smartphone and television set-top box. The every-bookstore has become the store for everything, with the global ambition to become the store for everywhere.

Seriously: What is Amazon? A retail company? A media company? A logistics machine? “

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A couple of excerpts from a very entertaining New Republic interview that Laura Bennett conducted with literary agent Andrew Wylie, who disdains popular fiction, Amazon and most of the American public.


Laura Bennett:

Do you feel as hostile toward Amazon as you used to?

Andrew Wylie:

I think that Napoleon was a terrific guy before he started crossing national borders. Over the course of time, his temperament changed, and his behavior was insensitive to the nations he occupied.

Through greed—which it sees differently, as technological development and efficiency for the customer and low price, all that—[Amazon] has walked itself into the position of thinking that it can thrive without the assistance of anyone else. That is megalomania. 

Laura Bennett:

That sounds different from the attitude you had in 2010.

Andrew Wylie:

I didn’t think that [in 2010] the publishing community had properly assessed—particularly in regard to its obligations to writers—what an equitable arrangement would look like. 

And I felt that publishers had made a huge mistake, because they were pressured by Apple and Amazon to make concessions that they shouldn’t have made.

These distribution issues come and go. It wasn’t so long ago that Barnes and Noble was this monster publishing leatherette classics, threatening to put backlists out of print. Amazon will go, and Apple will go, and it’ll all go.

I think we’d be fine if publishers just withdrew their product [from Amazon], frankly. If the terms are unsatisfactory, why continue to do business? You think you’re going to lose thirty percent of your business? Well, that’s OK, because you would have a thirty percent higher margin for seventy percent of your business. You have fewer fools reading your books and you get paid more by those who do. What’s wrong with that?


Laura Bennett:

Are you really as relaxed about the future of the industry as you sound?

Andrew Wylie:

I am as calm as I’ve ever been in my life. I was concerned for a while. I think everything’s going to work out.

Laura Bennett:

What would you like to see happen?

Andrew Wylie:

The biggest single problem since 1980 has been that the publishing industry has been led by the nose by the retail sector. The industry analyzes its strategies as though it were Procter and Gamble. It’s Hermès. It’s selling to a bunch of effete, educated snobs who read. Not very many people read. Most of them drag their knuckles around and quarrel and make money. We’re selling books. It’s a tiny little business. It doesn’t have to be Walmartized.•

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You can’t fret too much about what Jeff Bezos aims to do with the Washington Post because the paper’s only plans before its sale were funeral plans. His experimentation with a last-legs property is the best-case for all involved–and we’re all involved. From an ABC News interview with him:

“While Bezos doesn’t plan to turn one of the nation’s leading newspapers into a shopping site, he certainly plans to get more out of the business and he says there are business pillars from that can apply to the newspaper industry

‘The big things that we focus on at Amazon, those serve the Amazon customers well and they would transfer to other kinds of businesses,’ Bezos said in a sit-down interview with ABC News earlier. ‘The first thing is put the customer first. If you have a party, are you holding the party for your guests or for yourself?

‘Sometimes people hold parties and they pretend it is for their guests, but they are holding it for themselves. The second is we like to invent. The third piece is we are willing to think long term.’

‘Customer centricity, willingness to invent and willingness to be patient,’ Bezos said, citing tenets that were applicable to a number of industries when asked directly how he could bring aspects of Amazon’s business to the newspaper and media business.

Ultimately, we don’t know much about what Bezos, whose net worth is said to be $27.2 billion, will do tactically at the Post, but it is clear that, above all, he is dedicated and focused on bringing the paper into the 21st century.”


Jonathan Franzen does not heart Jeff Bezos, but in a Guardian article, French digital-media maven Fréderic Filloux offers the Amazon honcho advice for the business side of the Washington Post. The opening:

The questions stated above might not fall into Jeff Bezos’s areas of sharpest expertise. But there is no shortage of smart people within the Washington Post— at least a core group eager to seize their new owner’s ‘keep experimenting’ motto and run with it.

What can he do? For today, let’s focus on editorial products.

#1. The printed newspaper. Should the Washington Post dump its print product altogether? The short answer is no. At least not yet and not completely. Scores of digital zealots, usually with a razor-thin media culture, will push for the ultimate sacrifice. But in every market — Washington, London, Paris — there still exists a solid base of highly solvent readers that will pay a premium for the print product. This very group carries two precious features for newspaper economics: One, they are willing to pay almost any price to have their precious paper delivered every day. For a proof of that statement, see how quality papers repeatedly hiked prices in recent years, $2 or €2 is no longer a psychological threshold. Hefty street prices helped many to offset the decline of advertising revenues. Keeping the printing presses running offers a second advantage, the ads themselves: They gave lost ground, but the remaining print ads still bring 10 or 15 times more money per reader than digital versions — which is, let’s be honest, a complete economic failure of digital news products.

How long will it last? I’d say around five years.”

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Amazon has been great for me as a reader, in the short run. I can get my ink-stained hands on just about any book I want, no matter how forgotten the title, often for just a few dollars. Of course, cheap can be expensive. Are serious writers marginalized by logarithms, with room for many more pawns but no kings or queens? Is everyone at the bottom of the new paradigm? I’m definitely in favor of the decentralization of media, but there negatives.

In the Jonathan Franzen essay I posted about earlier, and in another Guardian piece about him, the novelist and critic decries the Bezos effect on literature. (By the way, Franzen’s new book, The Kraus Project, which gives voice to his discontent with modern technology, can be purchased at Amazon.) From Franzen:

“In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world. But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels? As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring. And the more of the population that lives like those workers, the greater the downward pressure on book prices and the greater the squeeze on conventional booksellers, because when you’re not making much money you want your entertainment for free, and when your life is hard you want instant gratification (‘Overnight free shipping!’).

But so the physical book goes on the endangered-species list, so responsible book reviewers go extinct, so independent bookstores disappear, so literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion, so the Big Six publishers get killed and devoured by Amazon: this looks like an apocalypse only if most of your friends are writers, editors or booksellers. Plus it’s possible that the story isn’t over. Maybe the internet experiment in consumer reviewing will result in such flagrant corruption (already one-third of all online product reviews are said to be bogus) that people will clamour for the return of professional reviewers. Maybe an economically significant number of readers will come to recognise the human and cultural costs of Amazonian hegemony and go back to local bookstores or at least to, which offers the same books and a superior e-reader, and whose owners have progressive politics. Maybe people will get as sick of Twitter as they once got sick of cigarettes. Twitter’s and Facebook’s latest models for making money still seem to me like one part pyramid scheme, one part wishful thinking, and one part repugnant panoptical surveillance.”

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