BEST OF THE WEB: Why the British hate Amazon

Amazon has never had the best reputation with its workers. There are plenty of stories of overworked employees struggling through heatwaves in the southern United States, cramped in blistering warehouses. It’s been a bit of a PR struggle for them.

Now, it seems, that same problem has crossed the pond. Although Britain is enjoying a local Amazon presence, a new story on The Financial Times reveals the company is having a bit of a problem with its local users – and employees.

A little background – Britain’s retail scene is seeing a distinct shift from offline to online. Companies like ASOS are seeing a huge increase in online sales, and as a result are pulling more money out of bricks and mortar.

Amazon is one of those companies, having invested plenty in its British presence. The company has even pledged another one billion pounds for its British operations. But some workers in the town of Rugeley, Staffordshire, aren’t so eager anymore.

If anyone should still be a cheerleader for Amazon, which has created hundreds of jobs in the past 18 months in a community that sorely needs them, it is Glenn Watson, manager of economic development at the district council. But he is dismayed.

“They’re not seen as a good employer. It’s not helpful to our economy; it’s not helpful to the individuals,” he says. Britain’s economic transformation is playing out in miniature in this smoky little town. It hasn’t been a smooth ride.

When Amazon first came to the town of Rugeley, it was something of a celebration – the area had never recovered from the closure of a mine in 1990. Work in Amazon’s warehouse was welcomed by the locals.

But it’s hard work – Amazon runs a tight ship to ensure its products are sent out quickly. But it comes with a cost. There were reports of workers forming blisters on their feet after standing for so long, or by being given the wrong boots to wear.

The pressure was high. Managers use handheld computers to speed up production lines.

Several former workers said the handheld computers, which look like clunky scientific calculators with handles and big screens, gave them a real-time indication of whether they were running behind or ahead of their target and by how much.

Managers could also send text messages to these devices to tell workers to speed up, they said. “People were constantly warned about talking to one another by the management, who were keen to eliminate any form of time-wasting,” one former worker added.

Even stranger? Amazon’s entry into the market, along with other companies, hasn’t improved Britain’s economic situation.

Economists think the rise in insecure, temporary, self-employed and part-time work, while a testament to the British labour market’s flexibility, helps to explain why economic growth remains elusive.

Amazon’s harsh work ethic is a common story – but with rumours the company could be heading to Australia, a timely one.

How a cable company won, and lost, the world’s biggest headphone market

If you’ve been to an airport, shopping centre or, well, anywhere outside, then you’ve probably seen them.

They’re headphones – but distinct headphones. You’ll notice them because they have a little “b” on either side of the ear. They’ve been marketed as good-quality headphones used by people who love music, and people wear them everywhere. And although they’re targeted at a young demographic, older listeners are using them as well. They’re huge.

The headphones began as a partnership between rap star Dr Dre and audio cable company Monster, known for making HDMI cables.

That partnership went bad. It went so bad, in fact, that Monster screwed itself out of a major deal. As chronicled on Gizmodo, Monster’s founder, Noel Lee, began with a vision to make people sound better – but ended up losing a hugely lucrative contract.

Unfortunately, Monster has earned a little bit of a reputation for price gouging, offering overpriced HDMI cables that don’t actually offer anything better than the cheap ones.

The truth is, audio cable is a lot like expensive basketball shoes: There are a couple hundred people in the world who really need the best, and the rest of us probably can’t tell the difference. Doesn’t matter: Through a combination of slick persuasion and status-pushing, Noel Lee carved out a small empire.

But you can only sell so many $200 cables. The next step was speakers, but the company started in on speakers too late; the hi-fi era was over. Plenty of people were content with the sound their TVs made, or at most, a soundbar. Monster took a bath.

Soon Monster delved into headphones, and received an offer from Dre and Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine with an offer to build electronics.

Lee’s son, Kevin, said it was “a love fest” from the beginning of the relationship.

Monster took the rap duo’s vague audio aspirations and pointed them in one very lucrative direction: high-end headphones. Bose was something your dad bought. Everything else was either crap or too obscure and complex for consumers to pick out. “Let’s build headphones together,” Noel decreed.

What follows is a dramatic decline, as the cash-strapped Monster experiments with prototype after prototype. Even more extraordinary? The company was making Beats headphones before the contract had been handed over – and after Dre and Interscope had talked to other manufacturers.

He was making Beats By Dre before Dre said he was allowed. And he was panicking. “It was beyond insubordination,” says Kevin. “[I was going to] lose the trust of my father. I already had millions of dollars of inventory. He would have killed me.”

The relationship was a tumultuous one, and ends with Beats heading over to tech giant HTC – and quite easily due to a hasty contract. You may not know a lot about headphones, but this is a great story about a deal gone wrong; and a stern warning for any entrepreneur.

The martyrdom of Aaron Swartz

Last month the tech world was set alight with news hacker and activist Aaron Swartz had committed suicide, as he was facing litigation for allegedly breaking copyright law.

The story is a tragic one, but as shown by New York Magazine, it seems Swartz’s followers have attempted to turn the young visionary’s death into something of a martyrdom.

But it’s not just a few hacker friends teaming up. A who’s who of the internet is mourning Swartz’s loss:

At his funeral in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, where he was born and raised, the hundreds of mourners were a mix of members of family and Aaron’s far-flung networks, including some towering figures who had known Aaron since he was a chubby kid.

There was Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, and the Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, eminence among Internet legal theorists, each channeling the cosmic sorrow and worldly rage already circulating online before a packed crowd of mourners clad in black, the men wearing kippahs.

The story is a complicated one, delving into Swartz’s hacking history and his relationship with the tech community. Even more tragic is the nature of his trial – legal experts had questioned whether it was even viable.

If you’re at all interested in the tech or hacking community, and the death of Aaron Swartz, this is definitely worth a read.


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