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The best writing of the week, February 10

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We all know the feeling. You're sleepless in the sad hours of the night or stumbling around early on a hazy weekend morning in need of something to read, and that pile of unread books just isn't cutting it. Why not take a break from the fire hose of Twitter and RSS and check out our weekly roundup of essential writing from around the web about technology, culture, media, and the future? Sure, it's one more thing you can feel guilty about sitting in your Instapaper queue, but it's better than pulling in vain on your Twitter list again.

Grab all of these as a Readlist.

On Amazon

Sarah O'Connor writes about Amazon's new UK factories and the company's relationship with the local economies and workers.

FT Magazine: Sarah O'Connor - Amazon unpacked

Inside, hundreds of people in orange vests are pushing trolleys around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing down at the screens of their handheld satnav computers for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up when they get there. They do not dawdle – the devices in their hands are also measuring their productivity in real time. They might each walk between seven and 15 miles today.

On Beats

Sam Biddle tells the celeb-filled story of Beats headphones and how Monster ended up having to cede the entire product line to Interscope.

Gizmodo: Sam Biddle - Beat By Dre: The Exclusive Inside Story of How Monster Lost the World

Love fest or no, this was never going to be a Steve and Woz moment of geek kinship. This was business from the start—and while Noel knows it now (Jimmy wanted to "own both ends," he says), Monster didn't show much acumen when it mattered. Monster wanted to jumpstart its headphone business. Badly. In the turmoil of the mid-00s, Dre and Jimmy needed to find something other than records to monetize. Badly. But the money arrangement was destined to be dominated by Iovine, a man who'd gone head to head with Steve Jobs, and ran a music empire—not some small deluxe cable firm.

On 'House of Cards'

While you finish binging on 'House of Cards' this weekend, Tim Wu considers a new reality where cable companies are no longer the sole producers of the best TV.

The New Yorker: Tim Wu - "House of Cards" and the decline of cable

An Internet firm like Netflix producing first-rate content takes us across a psychological line. If Netflix succeeds as a producer, other companies will follow and start taking market share. Maybe Amazon will go beyond its tentative investments and throw a hundred million at a different A-list series, or maybe Hulu will expand its ambitions for original content, or maybe the next great show will come from someone with a YouTube channel. When that happens, the baton passes, and empire falls—and we will see the first fundamental change in the home-entertainment paradigm in decades.

On bounding asterisks

Prompted by John Gruber's note about David Pogue's use of bounding asterisks around *cough* asides in last week's Surface Pro review in The New York Times, Ben Zimmer looks at the pre-web use of asterisks, and later, in online RPGs.

Language Log: Ben Zimmer - The cyberpragmatics of bounding asterisks

The origins of such usage likely can be found in text-based role-playing games in MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons/Domains), which were superseded by IRC and instant-messaging interfaces. As one "Role Play Manual of Style" explains, "Actions are enclosed in asterisks and written in third person perspective." But this type of asterisking has thoroughly infected Usenet posts, blog comments, tweets, and anywhere else online that people feel the need to describe real-world actions in a virtual space.

On "smart" cities

Take some time to dig into Dan Hill's wide-ranging essay on, among many other things, the future of cities in a networked age, how distributed smartphone networks are changing urban spaces, and how the "cities of the future" envisioned by companies like Cisco are woefully stuck in the past.

City of Sound: Dan Hill - Essay: On the smart city; Or, a 'manifesto' for smart citizens instead

Unsurprisingly, the IT corporations preferred to see IT as central to the future of the city. While Cisco’s movie had a strikingly similar plotline and mis-en-scene to that of General Motors, IT is a little harder to make a rollercoaster ride around, "The Social Network" notwithstanding. So the centrepiece of Cisco’s pavilion was a mocked-up "urban control centre", a "NASA Mission Control"-like environment but for urban processes. Cisco staff were dressed up in lab-coats, pretending to operate screens with no connections, as if they were a urban physicians, carefully nurturing and treating the city, massaging it into a safe, secure, efficient condition. Well-meaning, but ultimately a little like the main street in an old Western; all facade.

Have any favorites that you'd like to see included in next week's edition? Send them along to @thomashouston or share in the comments below.

The Verge
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