Subscribe to The Atlantic and get 2 free issues

Booz Allen, the World's Most Profitable Spy Organization

How the United States came to outsource its intelligence operations:

"Yet conversations with current and former employees of Booz Allen and U.S. intelligence officials suggest that these contractors aren’t going anywhere soon. Even if Snowden ends up costing his former employer business, the work will probably just go to its rivals. Although Booz Allen and the rest of the shadow intelligence community arose as stopgap solutions—meant to buy time as shrunken, post-Cold War agencies tried to rebuild after Sept. 11—they’ve become the vine that supports the wall. As much as contractors such as Booz Allen have come to rely on the federal government, the government relies on them even more."
PUBLISHED: June 20, 2013
LENGTH: 10 minutes (2702 words)

The Dunbar Number, From the Guru of Social Networks

Social network CEOs look for wisdom from evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, who pioneered research into human relationships:

"A little more than 10 years ago, the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar began a study of the Christmas-card-sending habits of the English. This was in the days before online social networks made friends and “likes” as countable as miles on an odometer, and Dunbar wanted a proxy for meaningful social connection. He was curious to see not only how many people a person knew, but also how many people he or she cared about. The best way to find those connections, he decided, was to follow holiday cards. After all, sending them is an investment: You either have to know the address or get it; you have to buy the card or have it made from exactly the right collage of adorable family photos; you have to write something, buy a stamp, and put the envelope in the mail. These are not huge costs, but most people won’t incur them for just anybody.

"Working with the anthropologist Russell Hill, Dunbar pieced together the average English household’s network of yuletide cheer. The researchers were able to report, for example, that about a quarter of cards went to relatives, nearly two-thirds to friends, and 8 percent to colleagues. The primary finding of the study, however, was a single number: the total population of the households each set of cards went out to. That number was 153.5, or roughly 150."
PUBLISHED: Jan. 16, 2013
LENGTH: 13 minutes (3383 words)

Making the World's Largest Airline Fly

An inside look at the operational challenges facing United and Continental as they merge—from the union negotiations to the choice of in-flight coffee:

"On July 1 the new United introduced its new coffee. Fliers on the 'legacy United' fleet, accustomed to Starbucks, let out a collective yowl of protest. Pineau-Boddison had expected some resistance—Starbucks, after all, is a popular brand—but this was something else. Flight attendants reported a barrage of complaints. Pineau-Boddison received angry e-mails from customers, as did Smisek. The coffee, fliers complained, was watery.

"The beverage committee launched an inquiry. The coffee itself, they discovered, was only part of the problem. Airplane coffee is made from small, premeasured 'pillow packs' that sit in a brew basket drawer at the top of the galley coffee machine. When the drawer is closed, boiling water flows through the pillow into the pot below. The old United brew baskets, the committee discovered, sit a quarter of an inch lower than Continental’s, leaving a space for water to leak around the pillow pack."
PUBLISHED: Feb. 3, 2012
LENGTH: 15 minutes (3866 words)

David Graeber, the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street

Graeber’s arguments place him squarely at odds with mainstream economic thought, and the discipline has, for the most part, ignored him. But his timing couldn’t be better to reach a popular audience. His writing provides an intellectual frame and a sort of genealogy for the movement he helped start. The inchoate anger of the Occupy Wall Street protesters tends to cluster around two things. One is the influence of money in politics. The other is debt: mortgages, credit-card debt, student loans, and the difference in how the debts of large financial companies and those of individual borrowers have been treated in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
PUBLISHED: Oct. 26, 2011
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3543 words)

Elizabeth Warren Has Already Won

Elizabeth Warren’s admirers often refer to her as a grandmother from Oklahoma. This is technically true. It’s also what you might call posturing. Warren, 62, is a Harvard professor and perhaps the country’s top expert on bankruptcy law. Over the past four years she has managed to stoke a fervent debate over the government’s role in protecting American consumers from what she sees as the predatory practices of financial institutions, and she has positioned herself as the person to oversee a new federal agency to rewrite the rules of lending. Warren is a grandma from Oklahoma in roughly the same way Ralph Nader is a pensioner with a thing about cars.
PUBLISHED: July 7, 2011
LENGTH: 17 minutes (4257 words)