The Hub Cool News

Campbell’s Conant

“The challenge for us is to be relevant," says Douglas Conant, ceo of Campbell Soup Company, in a USA Today piece by Bruce Horovitz (12/26/09). "We’ve been around for 139 years, but that’s not relevant to consumers." Doug says he reads four hours a day, and one can only speculate on what he might have been reading lately (link). Where relevance is concerned, Doug says it’s about four things, for Campbell: "value, wellness, quality and convenience." After eight years at the Campbell helm, Doug believes he "has at least a beachhead in all four."

Where value is concerned, he notes that Campbell’s condensed soups cost just 52 cents a serving, on average. On wellness, Campbell has introduced low-sodium soups, although Doug admits the company still has an MSG problem (which he plans to correct). Quality is wrapped up in Campbell’s acquisition of "the Wolfgang Puck line of organic soups." And for convenience, he points to Campbell’s introduction of microwaveable soup, although he admits, "The microwave was invented in 1947 … Why did it take us 55 years to do that?" Each of these moves may be incremental, but they appear to have paid off, as Campbell managed to outperform the stock market (down 16 percent versus the S&P’s 38 percent).

Doug also sold off the fashionable Godiva brand, which Jim Collins cites as evidence of Doug’s discipline. "That gets my attention, when someone has the discipline to let go of what doesn’t fit." For growth, Doug is eyeing Russian and China, where "99 percent of soups … are home-made." However, while Americans consume "15 billion servings of soup annually, Russians eat 32 billion and Chinese eat 300 billion." Says Doug: "We’re the world’s largest soup company, but only in six percent of the world’s soup markets." He also says: "You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved yourself into," in perhaps a doubled-barrelled reference to Campbell’s culture as well as its consumers. ~ Tim Manners, editor.

Campbell's Conant

“The challenge for us is to be relevant," says Douglas Conant, ceo of Campbell Soup Company, in a USA Today piece by Bruce Horovitz (12/26/09). "We’ve been around for 139 years, but that’s not relevant to consumers." Doug says he reads four hours a day, and one can only speculate on what he might have been reading lately (link). Where relevance is concerned, Doug says it’s about four things, for Campbell: "value, wellness, quality and convenience." After eight years at the Campbell helm, Doug believes he "has at least a beachhead in all four."

Where value is concerned, he notes that Campbell’s condensed soups cost just 52 cents a serving, on average. On wellness, Campbell has introduced low-sodium soups, although Doug admits the company still has an MSG problem (which he plans to correct). Quality is wrapped up in Campbell’s acquisition of "the Wolfgang Puck line of organic soups." And for convenience, he points to Campbell’s introduction of microwaveable soup, although he admits, "The microwave was invented in 1947 … Why did it take us 55 years to do that?" Each of these moves may be incremental, but they appear to have paid off, as Campbell managed to outperform the stock market (down 16 percent versus the S&P’s 38 percent).

Doug also sold off the fashionable Godiva brand, which Jim Collins cites as evidence of Doug’s discipline. "That gets my attention, when someone has the discipline to let go of what doesn’t fit." For growth, Doug is eyeing Russian and China, where "99 percent of soups … are home-made." However, while Americans consume "15 billion servings of soup annually, Russians eat 32 billion and Chinese eat 300 billion." Says Doug: "We’re the world’s largest soup company, but only in six percent of the world’s soup markets." He also says: "You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved yourself into," in perhaps a doubled-barrelled reference to Campbell’s culture as well as its consumers. ~ Tim Manners, editor.

Salt Talks

saltHaving emerged victorious in his battles against smoking, trans-fat and calories, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, commissioner of New York City’s department of Health and Mental Hygeine, is now taking aim at salt, reports Kim Severson in the New York Times 91/28/09). He’s not going after the salt you use at home, or even the salt the chef uses at your favorite restaurant. Instead, he wants to limit the salt used on a mass-market basis, at chain restaurants and in packaged or prepared foods, "which contribute 80 percent of the sodium in the average American diet."

Dr. Frieden is starting by leaning on food companies to cut the level of salt used in their products by 25 percent over the next five years, and another 25 percent within ten years. He’s thinking that this shouldn’t be a problem if the big food companies all hold hands and reduce their salt usage together. Predictably, the food companies aren’t so sure. Some suggest that "getting so many companies to do something at the same time might have antitrust implications." Others point out that "more research is needed to understand what consumers want and the complex health implications of sodium reduction."

While health experts generally "agree that high blood pressure is a leading factor in the incidence of heart attack and stroke," it’s not clear that "salt causes high blood pressure" for everyone, or that salt reduction is a solution. The food industry also insists it can address the issue by developing "a good salt substitute." Consumers, meanwhile, may not cooperate either: "We’ve created a whole society of people accustomed to food that is really, really salty," says Dr. Sonia Angell, the city’s director of cardiovascular health. But Dr. Frieden says that if the food companies don’t cooperate, he may push for legislation, claiming that a 50 percent reduction in sodium levels might save "150,000 American lives a year." ~ Tim Manners, editor.

XLIII Logos

The 43 Super Bowl logos "draw a line through the league’s growth, the trends of graphic design, even the vagaries of one nation’s popular culture," reports John Branch in the New York Times (1/28/09). John observes: "Flourishes arrive in the disco era, leading to a decade-long phase of red-white and blue badges. They look more like corporate logos, tinged with cold-war-era patriotism … As designers moved to computers, their logos became more complicated, their palettes more varied" (gallery).

Design critic Stephen Heller has a more brutal assessment: "I’ll go out on a limb and say that all the logos starting with XVII are based on beer labels." However, he thinks this year’s logo (designed by Landor Associates) marks a departure, suggesting it "looks like the Bank of America logo." The current logo is also the first to use the color green, in a nod to "the surf and turf of Tampa," where the Big Game will be held on Sunday. That’s part of the design spec, as each logo, in addition to including those Roman Numerals, is meant to convey something of its host city or stadium.

That’s a tradition that started with Super Bowl XXI, with a rose representing the Rose Bowl. Only once was the logo changed, and that was post 9/11, when it was switched from a "festive" New Orleans motif to a more "patriotic" theme (images). Among other uses, each logo "is reproduced on $100 million worth of licensed merchandise." Perhaps inspired by this, the Times is inviting its readers to submit their own designs via email (link) with the best ones published on its blog, The Fifth Down. Michael Gericke of Pentagram Design thinks it’s a snap: "It’s almost like, if you can put it on your lapel, it works," he says. ~ Tim Manners, editor.

Joe Namath

namath jersey It’s been 40 years since Joe Namath "guaranteed" an unlikely Super Bowl win, but his legacy as "the prototype of the hip-type celebrity athlete … who actually had a cultural impact," lives on, writes Robert Lipsyte in USA Today (1/29/09). Robert starts by describing the modern Super Bowl as "mock combat among young male millionaires who often need medical attention" made possible by greedy owners, cheating coaches, and nut-case fans. But he also observes that this year’s game, like the one on January 12, 1969, took place "in another era of war and domestic turmoil," and suggests that Joe Namath "offered a loopy lesson in hope and a strong arm to hang onto."

Namath was just 25 at the time, and with a three-year, $425,000 contract was the game’s best-paid player. He was "the grandson of Hungarian immigrants, the son of a Pennsylvania steelworker, the kind of boy who would be fighting in Vietnam if his knees weren’t only good enough for pro football. He was ethnic chic, handsome and affable, a non-threatening wiseguy who loved Mom, hometown friends, team and country." He was the "unchained, rebellious avatar of self-indulgent ’60s youth — even though he worked hard, managed games with skill, treated fans with respect and called home."

He was not, according to Robert, "that great a quarterback." But "three nights before the game … presumably with drink in hand, Namath responded to a heckler by saying — ‘We’ll win the game. I guarantee you’." The boast wasn’t much noted until he and the New York Jets made good on it, upsetting Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts, 16-7. For Namath, it was one brief shining moment, as "he never won big again." He’s 64 now, and just earned his college diploma because he promised his mother he would. "So," writes Robert, "whether you think this holiest day of the sports calendar is a reflection of our national problems or a celebration of American values, thank Joe." ~ Tim Manners, editor.

21 Club

New York’s 21 Club "has loosened its tie for the first time since it opened at 21 West 52nd Street 79 years ago," reports Glenn Collins in the New York Times (1/28/09). The restaurant, known as "a power-dining oasis where Manhattan’s surviving masters of the universe daily attempt critical mass," already had abandoned its tie requirement at lunch back in 1996. Its dinnertime rule actually had ended "after Labor Day" last year. But "21" chose to issue a press release about the matter to let people "know about the policy in these challenging times." Bryan McGuire, the restaurant’s manager, acknowledges that last year’s revenues of $18.5 million were off "by double digits."

As Bryan explains: "We wanted to be on a more level playing field with our competitors." Whether the new policy will help is debatable, though. "I’m a traditionalist, and I don’t think this sends the right message to young people," says Alan Flusser, a menswear designer who has dined at "21" for 34 years. "Etiquette is on a downward spiral and politeness is disappearing," adds Michael O’Keefe, owner and proprietor of the River Cafe. Michael always wears a jacket and tie himself, but admits that he hasn’t required ties at his restaurant for decades because "it made no sense, to some very stylish people, that style had anything to do with ties."

Charles Masson manager of La Grenouille, where the tie rule was dropped in 2003, suggests neckties may be a thing of the past. "There used to be a time when men wore white wigs, too," he says. But others think that neckties are an indelible part of 21 Club’s identity — especially its legendary cloakroom "tie drawer," where the tie-less can make amends, and which some consider "as much a part of the restaurant’s lore as its checked tablecloths and the ceiling dangling with dozens of … toy airplanes." You can still request a tie there, and jackets remain required. But 21′s new policy leaves the teetering Rainbow Room as the only restaurant in town where neckties must be worn. ~ Tim Manners, editor.

Santos Party House

santos hat"It’s all about the crowd," says Rich Medina, in a New York Times piece by Alan Feuer (1/22/09). "A crowd’s a real relationship — a legitimate relationship," he continues. It would have to be, because there’s not much else to speak of at Santos Party House in N.Y.C., where Rich is a disk jockey. Santos is "a cramped black box of a place in a former discount clothing store in Chinatown, where the clientele is so casually sneaker-clad and the decor so unpretentious it can hardly be said to exist."

Rich’s own perch — the D.J. booth — "is a dark nook not much bigger than a walk-in fridge and lighted by a single naked bulb. Its one indulgence is the tub of ice that holds the D.J.’s liquor — nothing fancy, no Cristal or Ketel One, just some cheap tequila and a bottle of dark spiced rum." Out on the dance floor, a "single disco ball hangs from the ceiling, throwing dimes of light at a stripped-down loft for drinkers."

The crowd is suitably laid-back, "which in a neo-hippie sort of way, is unconcerned with seeing or being seen. They are actually there for the dancing. They are also hugely varied, and on a recent Friday night included hipsters, prepsters, fraternity boys in ball caps, soul men with their entourages, East Side girls in diamonds, Howard University grads and an old man pushing 70 in a navy flannel suit." The goal, according to Rich, is "to take diversity and spin it into oneness," and create "a relationship between the people and the jock." ~ Tim Manners, editor.

Holland Bar

"I feel like a homeless person without a cardboard box," says Harry, whose "cardboard box" used to be a dive in Hell’s Kitchen called the Holland Bar, reports Joshua Brustein in the New York Times (1/27/09). But there’s good news for Harry (who doesn’t give his last name for obvious reasons) because the Holland Bar, which closed last summer (video), is about to re-open in the same location, on Ninth between 39th and 40th. The Holland had closed because its landlord thought he could "make more money converting the building for residential use or selling it off." That didn’t pan out.

So, now, Gary Kelly, who had been running the place since 1998 (the Holland claims to date back to 1927), has a new lease on the place and a lot of work to do, restoring the Holland to its former glory. The cheap beer and the "tiny, crusty room barely wide enough to fit the bar and the stools in front of it," won’t be hard to replicate. Fortunately, the great, "12-foot neon sign that spelled out the bar’s name … on the wall behind the bar" is still there because Gary, ever the optimist, refused to remove it in hopes the bar would re-open someday. But much of the rest of the place was ripped out or given away, leaving the joint in a shambles.

Gone are the photos of now-dead former patrons, along with "poster for shows at the dear, departed CBGB … One of the relics of the Holland’s lore — an urn containing the ashes of Charlie O’Connor, a former bartender — had gone missing too." The Holland’s former bartenders have also left for other bars. But what never left, apparently, was the spirit of the place. "There’s something about a small bar, people talk to one another," says Gary. Patching together the pieces won’t be easy, but perhaps most important, Gary says "the bar’s philosophy, that people would rather pay $4 for a beer here than $8 for the same drink across the street, would remain the same." ~ Tim Manners, editor.

Nyack Starbucks

tim manners
On November 26th, at approximately 10:45 a.m., Starbucks store No. 7449 in Nyack, New York, lost its greatest asset. (more)

 

Segregated Shopping

Ethnic neighborhoods may be diversifying, but shopping centers are as segregated as ever, as reported in The Economist (1/24/09). Queens, New York, for instance, "is now one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the country. More than 140 languages are spoken there, and more than a third of the population is foreign-born." Schools are also more integrated than ever before. The retail situation is something else again, however.

If you were to take the 7 subway line to the 74th Street stop in Queens, you might think you were in "a South Asian neighborhood. There are shops selling saris and Indian jewelry … Yet nearby flats are mostly occupied by immigrants from Central America. The shops are patronized by South Asians who travel into the neighborhood." Irvine, California, an L.A. suburb, is only one-third Asian. But that population tends to shop at the local H-Mart in the Diamond Jamboree shopping center, where they can buy their favorite Asian specialties.

L.A.’s Koreatown, meanwhile, "is largely, and increasingly, Hispanic. Yet businesses catering to Koreans are thriving." This type of shopper segregation does have its limits, however: "Latinos also go to Gap, as well as to Asian supermarkets like 99 Ranch." And H-Mart carries American brands as well as Asian foods. Their patrons perhaps "are not so much clinging to their parents’ and grandparents’ ways as creating a new culture that is both pan-Asian and American." ~ Tim Manners, editor.

Fiat PSA

"It’s more efficient speaking about people’s values instead of gadgets," says Fiat’s Olivier Francois, as quoted by Aaron O. Patrick in the Wall Street Journal (1/26/09). Olivier is explaining the thinking behind a new public-service announcement on behalf of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi "that doubles as an ad for Fiat’s Lancia Delta car." In addition to low production costs (U.S. $78,000) the spot is being run for free, as a public-service announcement" by "networks in nine European countries, including Italy, France and Germany."

Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but because she leads "the opposition to Myanmar’s repressive military junta … has spent about 12 years under house arrest in Myanmar." Fiat, as sponsor of the Ninth World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, arranged to film four other Nobel Laureates, including former Polish leader Lech Walesa, arriving at the event in black Lancia Deltas, as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev looks on. A fifth car — a white car — pulls up, but when the door opens the seat is revealed as empty, in honor of Suu Kyi’s absence (video here).

Fiat worked under certain limitations, in that it could only film the arrivals, not stage them. Some of the television stations say their airing of the spot was not exactly free, that it was part of their "general advertising agreement with Fiat," or a "little Christmas gift" for the automaker, which is "a big advertiser." Opinions are split on the ethics of this approach. Michael Boylan, a philosophy professor and co-author of Advertising Ethics, thinks it isn’t because Fiat isn’t offering Suu Kyi any direct help. However, Tony Pigott of Ethos JWT, "says the ad is well made and unobjectionable." ~ Tim Manners, editor.

Pirate Fix

music pirateThe Isle of Man — which gave birth both to the Bee Gees and 3G — may become a cradle of a re-born music industry, reports Eric Pfanner in the New York Times (1/26/09). The idea — which is not a new idea — is to charge broadband subscribers a small fee of about U.S. $1.38 a month. In exchange, subscribers would be able to download as much music as they want, "perhaps even from notorious peer-to-peer pirate sites." The incremental fees "would be sent to a special agency that would distribute the proceeds to the copyright owners, including the record labels and music publishers.

The copyright owners "would receive payments based on how often their music was downloaded over the internet, as they do now in many countries when it is performed live or on the radio." Leading this cause is Ron Berry, who says the plan is in response to the "utter failure" of the music industry to reinvent itself. "A lot of people in the business are concerned with how much money they are losing, but now with how much money they could make," says Ron. In fact, "music sales have fallen nearly 25 percent since 2000," worldwide. And an estimated "95 percent of tracks distributed online are pirated."

Not everybody likes this idea, of course. John Kennedy, who heads a record industry association, calls the plan "a state-imposed tax that would be unworkable in practice and discriminate against consumers who want internet access without music services." Michael Nash of Warner Music has his doubts, too: "You don’t want to completely displace all your existing consumers and end up with a lower-value model." In any case, the proposal is pending approval by the Isle of Man legislature and Ron Berry is lobbying music companies for their support. "Our size, demographics and history of innovation means that the island could be an ideal test bed," he says. ~ Tim Manners, editor.

King David

The eccentric ways and "wandering personal narrative" of the legendary adman David Mackenzie Ogilvy is captured in "The King of Madison Avenue," by former Ogilvy CEO Ken Roman, as reviewed by Paul B. Carroll in the Wall Street Journal (1/21/09). Little did we know, for instance, that Ogilvy’s famous campaign for Hathaway shirts — featuring a man wearing an eye-patch (image) — was perhaps rooted in the man’s personal heritage. It seems one of Ogilvy’s ancestors had "stirred up trouble when he became angry at a relative of his wife, who had only one eye: He returned her to her own family on a one-eyed pony, with a one-eyed servant and a one-eyed dog."

It also seems that nearly everything Ogilvy did on his tortured path into the advertising agency business contributed to his ultimate success. During the Depression, he worked as a cook, where he was assigned "to decorate the thighs of cold frogs with chervil leaves," which was "a lesson in (among other things) the value of perfectionism that would serve him well in advertising." He went on to work as a salesman for Aga Cookers, which convinced him "of the importance of companies supporting the poor guy who peddles their products."

Ogilvy’s first taste of the advertising business came with a job at his brother’s London ad agency, before "working for George Gallup‘s polling firm, where he learned the value of research." He also did time as a farmer in Amish country, perhaps influencing his habit of using "sharpened pencils instead of ball-point pens." Ogilvy’s talent as a writer apparently worked against him "once television ads made image more important than words," but his penchant for data presaged today’s data-driven, direct-sales ways. All the while, David Ogilvy opposed" the slippery surface of irrelevant (ahem!) brilliance," and favored the idea that "ads should promote some key attribute of a product." ~ Tim Manners, editor

King Records

king records

Few people have heard of Syd Nathan and King Records, but a "historical marker, financed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," at its crumbling former headquarters, might help change that, reports R J Smith in the New York Times (1/24/09). It was Syd who signed James Brown, among others, "and helped change pop history" in Cincinnati. Yes, Cincinnati, Ohio. As Larry Nager, author of Memphis Beat, observes: "While no single city has naming rights as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll — the blend of country, blues and the big beat — were being created at King Records."

Syd "worked at a pawnshop and promoted wresting matches" before opening his own record shop. Because he was not an industry insider, he made the rest up as he went along, building out "a facility not just for recording music but also for pressing records, designing album-cover art, and packing boxes and shipping them out." The only thing he didn’t do in-house was manufacture the cardboard album jackets, but essentially he "assembled a music industry that he could control." Amazingly, King Records could cut a record in the morning and have acetates in radio D.J.s’ hands the same night.

Syd’s other breakthroughs were his racially integrated management team and his "colorblind" pursuit "of the widest possible audience. He didn’t just record both white and black acts; he had his ace R&B studio band playing on country records, and his country bands trying their hands at black pop hits, an almost unthinkable practice at the time." And he did so from an unlikely place. "Cincinnati was settled by good, solid, German folk," notes Larry Nager. "To them, honest work was making soap … not making music or cutting records." But Larry believes that King Records is, in fact, "Cincinnati’s most important cultural contribution to the world." ~ Tim Manners, editor

Born to be Good

"We are wired for good," writes Dacher Keltner in his new book, "Born to be Good," reports Janet Maslin in the New York Times (1/19/09). Dacher "uses a broad range of jokey, playful examples to illustrate an intriguing central thesis: that laughing, blushing, touching, teasing, loving, empathizing and other not-very-scientific-seeming subjects can be methodically analyzed in terms of their importance to our survival."

He "identifies the adaptive benefits of each emotion … and makes its case for the biological functions served by physical expressiveness." A professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Dacher’s methods include "elements of social science, neuroscience and clinical psychology." He explains, for example, "that touching … is a physiological way of encouraging cooperative behavior (and) that embarrassment is a way to deflect combat."

Dacher’s point is that "a better understanding of these shared emotions can lead to a more fulfilling life." However, Janet Maslin thinks he fails to "connect more dangerous and destructive behaviors to states of bliss." Given that the field of "affective science" is new, Dacher plans further studies in hopes of proving that "sincere smiling, regard for others, trust, cooperation and kindness can demonstrably enhance our lives." ~ Tim Manners, editor

What the Nose Knows

what the nose knows

If you think that “no sense of memory is stronger, or more intensely personal, than the olfactory kind,” you might be wrong, suggests Avery Gilbert in “What the Nose Knows,” as reviewed by Bill Hayes in the New York Times (10/15/08). “Olfactory memory obeys the same rules as memory in other senses: it erodes with time and is muddied by subsequent experience,” Avery writes. “The purity and infallibility of smell memory … doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny.” Avery supports his argument with “studies showing that the rates of forgetting are the same for odors as for sights and sounds.”

Avery also “writes about the physiology of the nose, the connection between taste and smell, trends in scent marketing … and other smell-related topics … Readers will also be disabused of the notion that blind people have a heightened sense of smell … that dogs can easily sniff out bladder cancer … and that a palate cleanser is needed for proper wine tasting, or that the size and shape of a wineglass significantly affects aroma.” Avery also offers up trivia, such as “who invented scratch-and-sniff technology, which perfume pioneered the now ubiquitous perfume ads in magazines and … the rich history of ‘scented movies’.”

“Smell-related quotations” are included, ranging from “Walt Whitman to John Waters, and from Emily Dickinson to … who, else, Andy Warhol, who said, “the smells in my life were all just whatever happened to hit my nose by chance.” In that spirit, he created “a kind of smell museum” consisting of bottles of his leftover colognes, so he wouldn’t forget them. Okay, so if our smell memories aren’t as powerful as we think they are, why do we think they are? As Avery explains: “A lot of it has to do with surprise. You weren’t trying to remember the paints, oils and solvents in Grandpa’s workshop — the memory popped up, unasked for, when you walked through a random odor plume.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

GameStop Rocks

GameStop is reporting “a 22 percent jump in sales” this month, thanks largely to its focus selling used videogames, report Yukari Iwatani Kane and Miguel Bustillo in the Wall Street Journal (1/21/09). GameStop, which originated as a Barnes & Noble spinoff, is also reporting an uptick in sales of new videogames, but its sales of used games “are expected to reach $2 billion, or 23 percent of (its) revenue for its fiscal year ending January 31, according to Pacific Crest Securities. That is up from $1.6 billion, or 22.4 percent, of revenue a year earlier.”

GameStop is also finding relatively fat profits in used videogames: “GameStop’s gross profit margin was a hefty 48 percent for used products in the quarter ended Nov. 1. In contrast, gross margins for new consoles and games are seven percent and 20 percent, according to analysts. About 42 percent of GameStop’s overall gross profits came from its secondhand business, compared with half that level for new games.” As Pacific Crest analyst Evan Wilson points out, “When you consider that most retailers operate on single-digit margins, it’s astronomical.”

It also eclipses the performance of entertainment products, including videogames, at Best Buy, which “plunged 12 percent in December from a year ago.” GameStop accepts used videogame trade-ins from its customers, which are then sold at about 100 percent markup. Naturally, videogame makers, who don’t share in profits from used videogame sales, don’t like this. Other videogame retailers meanwhile are at a disadvantage because GameStop also “employs a young staff of game enthusiasts.” As Game publisher Brian Farrell observes: “Look at all the mass merchants. They don’t have that kind of knowledgeable sales clerk behind the counter.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Buzz-A-Rama

buzz a rama

Frank “Buzz” Perri first opened his slot-car track back in 1965, and has managed to stay in business “in the face of several generations’ worth of electronic competition,” reports Susan Dominus in the New York Times (1/19/09). When he first opened Buzz-A-Rama in Brooklyn, Buzz figures there were “30 or 40 other slot-car tracks … operating in the city … but as far as he knows, Buzz-a-Rama is the last of its kind” in New York City’s five boroughs. Even Buzz only opens on weekends and certain holidays.

Buzz-A-Rama may no longer attract hundreds of teens the way it once did, but Buzz’s wife, Delores, says the smaller number of customers is no less enthusiastic. “The kids spend all week working on their cars, and then they come in on Saturday and get to see the rewards,” she says. At one time, “a whole generation of kids knew how to soup up their tiny motors … Enthusiasts spent their free time taking the cars apart, tinkering with the motors, shaving down the tires for better balance and adjusting the gears.”

The cars are meant to look like “miniature versions of actual motor cars,” and can hit “upward of 100 miles per hour” if you spend enough time tuning it. Joseph Migliaccio, who has been a Buzz-A-Rama regular since “1972, when he was 8,” and at one time raced real cars, says he prefers the slot cars because they are “a lot less expensive and you don’t get hurt. And you get the same speed.” As for Buzz Perri, who is now 73, closing his doors is out of the question, even though his accountant advises it. “You don’t make any money in this business,” he admits, but adds that he’s “too young to retire.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Apple Elite

"Like eating only locally grown food or majoring in gender studies at college, Macs have become luxuries that command a premium out of all proportion to their utility," writes Dan Akst in the Wall Street Journal (1/16/09). Dan says he’s a former PC guy who two years ago switched to Macs, but is now back to PCs. "The reason," he writes, "is simple: Macs nowadays are computers for the rich." He says he switched to Macs because of the PC’s "random glitches and security problems," but switched back because of the Mac’s price.

"Today," writes Dan, "a Mac costs roughly twice as much as a comparably equipped PC — and in my experience, the PC performs impressively indeed." His box of choice is a "$646 Dell … complete with 20-inch flat panel display and gigantic hard drive." He says it "runs superbly, thanks to ample RAM and a discrete video card." He adds that he even likes "the much-maligned Vista operating system." As for security issues, he feels that Norton Internet Security software has proved to be a useful antidote."

Dan’s issue, then, is that it’s just too expensive to be cool. "It’s cool, for example, to spend a fortune on solar panels or hybrid SUV’s that will never pay for themselves in saved energy, even though the money could do far more for the environment spent in some less ostentatious way," he writes. This particular "kind of cool disdains luxury labels like Rolex and Coach yet works just as hard to impress." As for the Mac, Dan notes that Apple’s response to trends toward tiny $350 netbooks "that focus on the basics" is a 17-inch, $2,700 laptop with all the bells and whistles. "Cool just isn’t worth it anymore," he concludes. ~ Tim Manners, editor