Economist 4/15/16

  1. As assessments of quality are increasingly crowd-sourced—through the Facebook “Like” button, the Yelp review, and algorithms predicting preferences based on previous purchases—the professional critic is marginalised as at best irrelevant and at worst the embodiment of an elitist and undemocratic patriarchy.Few people are in a better position to respond to these slings and arrows than A. O. Scott, a film critic for the New York Times. As he points out in “Better Living Through Criticism”.Artists tend to regard critics as parasites on real creativity, while the general public asks what gives them the right to pronounce on matters that properly belong to everyone.But it is also essential. Without thoughtful and disinterested judges, everyone would be at the mercy of the marketers.One defence he does not offer is that of infallibility, or even great precision. To pass judgment is to risk making a fool of oneself. Getting it wrong, he admits, “is the one job we can actually, reliably do.
  2. REVEALING the curves of breasts was considered lewd for most of Chinese imperial history.Bosoms briefly enjoyed a renaissance after the collapse of the last imperial dynasty in 1911. Fancy foreign bras also began to spread around that time. But such items were dismissed as bourgeois when the Communists took over in 1949. Under Mao’s rule, both sexes sported loose outfits.After China began opening to the outside world in the late 1970s, social mores loosened only slowly. It was not until 1986 that bikinis were worn for the first time in public—and only then because an international bodybuilding contest in China required female contestants to wear them (the bikini had made its debut in Paris in 1946).Even in the 1990s, fashions remained modest. Big, flesh-coloured knickers were then in vogue, often stretching down to the knee.These days China makes and buys more fancy underwear than any other country, supporting socialism from top to bottom.
  3. Bang means stick in Chinese. Bangbang men are porters who for generations have hauled the worldly goods of Chongqing from the Yangzi and Jialing rivers on which the city sits, and up its precipitous slopes, using only bamboo and string. Everything from wide-screen televisions and blocks of ice to bricks and car tyres is tied to a short pole and hoisted onto willing shoulders. The bangbang brigade is unique to Chongqing and an emblem of the city (also once distinguished for the rarity of bicycles; as China gets richer, they are becoming rarer everywhere).But the trade is dying.According to a documentary made in 2015 for state television, the city had over 300,000 stick men in the late 1990s. Now there are only 3,000.Delivery companies with young men on motorcycles have taken over, and the remaining bangbang men are coming to terms with modern technology. They have set up an instant-messaging group to parcel out the available jobs.
  4. APPLE and Tesla are two of the world’s most talked-about companies. They are also two of the most vertically integrated. Apple not only writes much of its own software, but designs its own chips and runs its own shops.A century ago this sort of vertical integration was the rule: companies integrated “backwards”, by buying sources for raw materials and suppliers, and “forwards”, by buying distributors. Standard Oil owned delivery wagons and refineries in addition to oil wells.Today this sort of bundling is rare: for the past 30 years firms have been focusing on their core business and contracting out everything else to specialists.But re-bundling can be found everywhere, from fashion to manufacturing.
  5. The most important is simplicity. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for well-integrated products that do not force them to deal with different suppliers or land them with components that do not talk to each other.A second reason is that firms operating on the technological frontier often find it more efficient to do things in-house.A third reason is choice: the more the market has to offer, the more important it is to build a relationship with customers. Netflix and Amazon now create their own television shows in order to keep their viewers from buying more generic content elsewhere.Choice is reinforced by speed: fashion brands such as Spain’s Zara have resisted contracting out everything.Instead, they operate their own clothes factories, employ their own designers and run their own shops. This gives them a big advantage: they can turn the latest trend into new product.And then there is a combination of old worries about geopolitical uncertainty and new worries about the environment. In 2014 Ferrero, an Italian confectionary-maker, bought Oltan Gida, which produces one-third of Turkey’s hazelnuts, the vital ingredient in Nutella.

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