May 30, 2008
May 29, 2008
Peter Pan buses carried reporters back to Max Yasgur’s Calving Barn, where Duke Devlin, the now-gray hippie who stayed for three days of peace and music in 1969 and never left, waxed pyschedelic about what it all means nearly 40 years after, as reported by Peter Applebome in the New York Times (5/29/08). “I don’t know if this can be recreated,” he said, “but something like it can happen again. We’re back in the ’50s man. The reason we’re all here is because we’re not all there.” Actually the reason he, and busloads of reporters, were there was that a the Museum at Bethel Woods, memorializing the famous festival, will open on Monday in Bethel, N.Y.
Richie Havens was there for the occasion, as was John Sebastian, who played a couple of period-appropriate tunes and reflected on what it all meant. “It evaporated so fast,” said John. “One minute we were there and the next minute we were in Reaganville.” Maybe it was because most of the music actually sucked. “No matter what we say after the fact, most of us disliked our performances at Woodstock,” John admitted. “I can find you a quick dozen people who would look back on that performance and say, ‘Oh, man, I bit the big one.'”
Perhaps that’s one reason the museum is less a tribute to the music itself as it is an icon of a “culminating moment, the capstone of the 1960s,” as Patrick Gallagher, whose firm designed the museum, said. Most of the displays do in fact capture events outside the festival, from war to assassinations to civil rights to the moon to the Beatles, and even Elvis. The 6,728-square-foot museum is “housed in a lovely laminated wood structure” built by the same company that constructed the silos on Max Yasgur’s farm. It is a big part of a local economic development plan that includes a $100 million arts center with a 15,000-seat outdoor performance area.” Yes, a 40th anniversary concert is planned for next year. ~ Tim Manners, editor
May 28, 2008
“There’s a word for it in Yiddish,” says Denise Matis as she looks around Howard Sportswear, a shop at 69 Orchard Street on New York’s Lower East Side, as reported by Tanzina Vega in the New York Times (5/20/08). “Haimish” is the word Denise has in mind and she says it means “character.” Unfortunately, the word in English for stores like Howard Sportswear is “endangered.” There was a time when the “most Jewish-owned shops” on Orchard and Grand Streets were “bustling on Sundays with shoppers stopping at egg-cream stands and going to Katz’s Delicatessen for corned beef sandwiches. Shops were filled with clerks who could tell a customer’s size in one glance.”
Howard G. Winterfield, who has worked at Imkar Company at 294 Grand Street for 30 years, remembers those days. “In this store, people used to line up outside the door just to come in, and there wasn’t room for everybody in the store. Today, we go hours without seeing a person.” The only reason Imkar is still in business is that its owner, Wolf Karfiol, owns the building and “refuses to sell.” He’s one of few holdouts though, as estimates are that there used to be ten times as many shops like his — underwear shops basically — in the neighborhood. Now there are only about a dozen left. “We’re a dying breed,” says Howard Markowitz of Howard Sportswear.
Perhaps ironically, the main reason Howard is still in business is because he also sells online. “That’s how you survive,” he says, adding, “I don’t do it for my pocketbook, I do it for my head.” However, one exception to this trend is Orchard Corset Center at 157 Orchard Street, where, according to owner Peggy Bergstein, business is great because she has a very special talent. “I can walk down the street, and I can look at a person and tell you exactly what their bra size is.” This sort of thing means a lot to Ayanna Hendricks, who says she’s been shopping on the Lower East Side “since she was a little girl in the 1980s,” and is impressed that Peggy remembers her purchase history. “You can’t get that kind of customer service at T.J. Maxx,” she says. ~ Tim Manners, editor
May 27, 2008
Ever since the Iran Hostage Crisis began in 1979, Lord & Taylor has opened each and every shopping day by playing the Star Spangled Banner, reports James Barron in the New York Times (5/26/08). The tradition began with then-chairman Joseph E. Brooks, who ordered the anthem played because, as he said at the time, “with all its problems, this is still the greatest country in the world.” Joseph’s idea outlasted his tenure at Lord & Taylor (he resigned when L&T was sold in 1986) and shows no signs of going away, even as the retailer undergoes “re-branding and re-imaging” to make “it relevant for today,” as spokesperson La Velle Olexa puts it.
Nancy F. Koehn, a retail historian at Harvard Business School, says that by keeping the anthem, Lord & Taylor is “keeping its core attributes.” She also says that the daily ritual is a reminder of a time when shopping at department stores was a day-long event. “To stand for the national anthem in a department store … is to step briefly back into a moment when things seemed simpler and more straightforward and more firmly rooted than they are now, in the sense that people say ‘I remember that’ and ‘I’m looking for that footing today.'”
So powerful is that concept for Lord & Taylor that it has outlasted another of its famous traditions — an employee in starched uniform serving free coffee in cups-and-saucers to early arrivals. “As we updated the store, we needed to update the coffee service,” says La Velle Olexa, the spokesperson. Apparently “updating” means “dropping.” Not so the national anthem, however, in full orchestral splendor. Some people stand, while others sit; some sing along while others do not. For at least one shopper, the message was clear. As the final note was played she stage-whispered, “‘Play ball'” and headed for the aisles. ~ Tim Manners, editor
May 23, 2008
“They’re like little gifts with purchase, and I love them,” says Nicole Bugna-Doyle, commenting on the brief messages writer Chuck Lorre posts following each episode of his hit sitcoms, reports Katherine Rosman in the Wall Street Journal (5/14/08). Chuck’s sitcoms are “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory,” and his messages are delivered in “what many in the industry call ‘vanity cards’ — an image flashed on the screen at the end of a TV show.” Vanity cards typically “just identify a show’s creator or production company.” But Chuck uses his card to publish personal essays of up to 200 words, which you can catch on CBS, Monday nights at 8:29 p.m. and 9:29 p.m., Eastern.
Sometimes Chuck vents about network executives, as in: “I received a phone call from a mid-level CBS exec who began the conversation by saying he wanted to give me a head’s up. Having been in this business a while I knew ‘head’s up’ is code for ‘we’ve decided to s—— you.'” Then there was the vanity card he wrote hours before marrying his second wife: “I’m riddled with fear to the point of mind-numbing disassociation.” In other cases, Chuck simply comments on society in general: “Don’t hug men while shaking their hand … The shake/hug (shug?) is probably something Roman guys did when their empire was in decline.”
Chuck has been posting these messages since 1997, starting with “Dharma & Greg,” with his early offerings mainly featuring “existential wonderings and explanations of his personal beliefs.” He has since “written more than 200 cards,” (archives here) a total of four of which have been censored (including this reference to bad behavior by a Catholic priest). Most of the messages are too long to be read in the two-seconds afforded to vanity cards, but Chuck’s fans simply record them and hit the pause button (naturally there’s a Facebook group here dedicated to this). Says Chuck: “These vanity cards have tracked couple of nervous breakdowns, a divorce … You can watch my psyche collapse, rebuild itself and collapse again.” ~ Tim Manners, editor
May 22, 2008
“The Colorado River is not filled with Dasani,” says Scott Peters, making the case for recycling wastewater for drinking water to help address mounting water shortages, as reported by AnJali Athavaley in the Wall Street Journal (5/15/08). Scott, who is San Diego’s city council president makes a good point. In fact, the Colorado River, from which San Diego gets most of its drinking water “gets 400 million gallons of treated wastewater discharged into it each day.” So, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for people to get used to the idea that water that once filled someone’s toilet could be cleaned up and re-purposed through their kitchen faucets. But of course that is a stretch.
I would never touch it, nor would I give it to my dog to drink,” says Carina Sampson, a hairstylist, commenting on a plan in Orange County, Calif., to recycle wastewater as tap water. The reaction may be understandable, but experts say it is unfounded, explaining that the recycled water is actually cleaner than what’s typically found in groundwater supplies. This is because the water goes through an elaborate, and very expensive, purification process. First, the sewer water “goes through a microfilter to remove solids and bacteria.” Next up is “a reverse-osmosis treatment “that removes viruses, salts, pharmaceuticals and other materials.
Then it is treated with ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide to get rid of contaminants that are left.” At this point, the water is “pumped into a groundwater basin where it mixes with other water and filters through materials like sand, gravel and clay.” And then “it takes about a year for the water to travel to a drinking-water well.” Orange County’s water officials say that the recycled water tastes like chicken. No, seriously, they say it’s comparable to distilled water. “It’s just about as pure as it possibly can be,” says Michael Duvall, an Orange County lawmaker. This of course is not satisfactory to Carina and her pet Chihuahua, both of whom drink bottled water: “I just find it repulsive regardless of what it goes through,” she says. ~ Tim Manners, editor
May 21, 2008
The idea of products that can be composted once you’re done with them might sound appealing until you really think about it, suggests Penelope Green in the New York Times (5/8/08). Penelope writes about a company called Montauk Sofa, which is now marketing what it says is a biodegradable sofa, which features “wood frames from sustainably managed forests, uncoated nails, organic fabrics and stuffings” and “non-toxic dyes.” Montauk’s Tim Zyto says the sofa was inspired by the thought that “the sofa just disappears when you’re done with it.” However, Steve Mojo of the Biodegradable Products Institute says the idea just isn’t practical.
The problem, he notes, is that landfills, being “tightly packed, covered and relatively dry … are not exactly designed for biodegradability.” Joe Makower of Greenbiz.com, says “biodegradability seems like a noble attribute but an irrelevant concept.” In addition to the improbability that the product will be composted, he cites “a notorious experiment called the Garbage Project, wherein researchers from the University of Tucson excavated the contents of landfills and discovered layers of mummified natural objects.” Even carrots had failed to decompose over fifty years, “and you could tell how long because of the headlines on the newspapers, also intact, found alongside them.”
Bill Brown, an English professor at University of Chicago, meanwhile says that the very idea of biodegradable furniture is twisted. “Their longevity, in the past, has always been part of the thing that gives them value,” he says of furniture … We all live such cluttered lives in which so much of what we have we’d be better off without, yet most of us are better off with our dining room tables or our sofas.” What’s more, it would seem that the very idea of biodegradable furniture only reinforces the “throwaway society” that a truly “green” consumer would want to curtail. Mark Zucker, a P.R. guy who specializes in sustainability issues, says that many green-leaning consumers are confused, reporting that one man told him: “I don’t know the right answers. I guess at the end of the day I’m trying to buy less stuff.” ~ Tim Manners, editor
May 20, 2008
“This is how breakfast cereal manufacturers compete,” says Dr. Benjamin Caballero, commenting on the use of sucrose in Similac Organic baby formula, reports Julia Moskin in the New York Times (5/19/08). Sucrose is sweeter than the lactose typically used in other “organic” formulas such as Earth’s Best and Parent’s Choice, which Dr. Caballero thinks is cause for concern. “The issue is that sweet tastes tend to encourage consumption of excessive amounts,” he says. His worry is supported by studies suggesting that babies who overeat will experience “rapid weight gain in the first year, which is often a statistical predictor of childhood obesity.”
In addition, sucrose tends to be rougher on tooth enamel than other sugars. Carolyn Valek of Abbott Nutrition, makers of Similac Organic, counters that sucrose is FDA approved and is “safe and well established.” She also notes that Similac Organic contains no more sweetener than any other kind of formula, and asserts that the product was not formulated with its sweetness in mind. Dr. Jatinder Bhatia meanwhile points out the obvious contradiction: “The parents in my practice who would use organic formula are the same parents who would be worried about giving sweets to their babies,” he says. And Dr. William J. Klish observes that a sweeter formula would give Similac Organic a clear competitive advantage.
“Babies love sweetness, and anyone selling a sweeter formula is going to have an advantage, because it would be harder to switch a baby to another formula once they get used to the taste,” Dr. Klish says. The sweeter formula (which is said to compare in sweetness to “grape juice or Country Time lemonade) certainly has been a commercial success for Similac: “In 2007, its first full year on sale, it captured 36 percent of the organic formula market, with sales of more than $10 million.” As a category, organic formula is a $20 million annual business, and Similac Organics “is largely responsible for the nearly tenfold growth in sales of organic formula from 2005 to 2007,” according to analysts. ~ Tim Manners, editor
May 19, 2008
That what people do is more meaningful than what they say is the premise of Proclivity Systems, which uses online behavior to figure out what customers will buy next, reports Eric A. Taub in the New York Times (5/19/08). Proclivity’s approach is a departure from that used by e-tailers including Amazon and Netflix, which rely on past purchases and user recommendations. Problem is, maybe you bought that book for your grandmother or rented that movie for your grandchild the activity doesn’t say a whole heck of a lot about you. Or maybe your taste in novels says nothing about what you favor in business books.
Even Netflix ceo Reed Hastings admits that while some five million subscribers have submitted some two billion movie ratings, his system has its limits: “I wish I could tell you that our recommendations system was reliable, but it’s not perfect,” he says. Netflix even sponsored a contest (link here) offering a $1 million prize to anyone who could improve the accuracy of its ratings system, but so far “only slightly better than a nine percent improvement has been achieved.” Sheldon Gilbert, ceo of Proclivity Systems meanwhile achieved a 10 percent sales increase for Barney’s by instead looking at “when a customer visited its site” along with demographic information.
For example, Proclivity focuses on information such as: “Does the customer buy only when an item reaches a certain price? Is the customer more likely to buy on a weekend or during the week? Must it be organic material?” Proclivity then targets its email messages only to customers who, based on past behavior, are likeliest to open the email, click through and make a purchase. “One customer found that 10 percent of its population accounted for 60 percent of bargain sales. So on the day of the sale, you can send a full-price ad to everyone else,” says Sheldon. Not only does the company save money by sending fewer messages, but as Larry Promisel, vp of e-commerce for Barney’s notes, it also creates customer good will by sending only relevant offers. ~ Tim Manners, editor
May 16, 2008
On June 18, Ikea will do what even the mighty Wal-Mart could not — open a big-box store in New York City, reports Jennifer 8. Lee in the New York Times (5/16/08). Accomplishing that feat took eight years and involved overcoming a lawsuit that objected to issues ranging from environmental to racial, and of course traffic. In response, Ikea is dredging Erie Basin in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where the new store is located. It is also making a priority of hiring from the neighborhood, giving anyone with a 11231 zipcode “a three-week head start in the application process.”
Perhaps most important, it is offering no fewer than five ways to get to this Ikea store. There are “shuttles from three subway stations” and two bus lines “will be extended to reach Ikea … A free water taxi, operated by New York Water Taxi and paid for by Ikea, will leave from Pier 11 in Lower Manhattan and go to Ikea’s own dock every 40 minutes … You can also drive, which is what most people in the world do to get to Ikea,” which will have a parking lot that can accommodate up to 1,500 cars. Finally, Ikea “will be offering a courier service … where a box of three cubic feet can be delivered the same day or the next day.”
Ikea also hopes to ingratiate itself with its new neighbors by playing “to the neighborhood’s maritime history. It has preserved four sweeping cranes that were once used for loading and unloading. Old tools found on the site were painted orange and transformed into a public art exhibit … Chocks, stone blocks used to secure boats, have been lined up and labeled after historic ships that once docked at Red Hook.” If that’s not enough to win over the locals, “there is an absolutely unobstructed view of the Statue of Liberty … from the Ikea restaurant. So, while drinking the bargain-priced ligonberry juice and muching on Swedish meatballs, you can savor a view that has been largely unappreciated in Red Hooks’ recent history.” ~ Tim Manners, editor
America’s next great sports hero could be a guy whose legs were shattered, his hips dislocated and his spinal cord damaged following a fall from a 12th-story window when he was four years old, reports Alan Schwarz in the New York Times (5/15/08). His name is Josh George, and at age 24 is poised to become a household name when he competes in wheelchair races at 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing this summer. He already holds world records at various distances and plans to take on Heinz Frei of Switzerland, who is currently “considered the world’s premier wheelchair racer” in six events at the Paralympics, including “the 1,500 meters and the marathon, the sport’s most prestigious races.”
Josh’s edge is partly because he was injured at such a young age, but also because of his “sheer strength” and of course, true grit. Because “pushing motion” is “so ingrained in his joints” he enjoys an “off-the-charts power-to-weight ratio that is crucial to acceleration. Add to that the dexterity to hit his wheel rims at maximum power up to 140 times a minute during sprints, lungs strong enough to handle marathons on consecutive weekends and an eat-my-dust competitive verve” and you have a guy who can power his wheelchair at “up to 23 miles per hour” in a “frenzied flutter only a hummingbird could appreciate.” Josh emerges from races with bruised fingers and burned elbows, but victorious over “athletes with injuries less severe than his.”
On top of that, Josh George has a winning personality: “With a Huck Finn grin atop a weight lifter’s shoulders and sweaty curls straight out of a Mountain Dew ad,” he may well turn out to be “a breakthrough athlete, someone whose talent and personality could attract mainstream United States audiences and advertisers.” If so, he would join other wheelchair athletes, such as David Weir of Britain and Chantal Petitclerc of Canada, who “are considered national sports heroes, worthy of product endorsements and other rewards.” Josh, meanwhile, seems happy with or without such possibilities: “If a doctor said a magic pill could probably let me walk again, I wouldn’t take it,” he says. “I’ve worked very hard to be who I am.” ~ Tim Manners, editor