The Hub Cool News

Priceless

"What we’re willing to pay reveals much about the chaos inside our skulls," writes Peter Coy in a BusinessWeek review of "Priceless," by William Poundstone (2/1/10). We think we know the value of the things we buy, but in fact we have little idea, and no clue how much we’re being exploited. As William explains in his book, "the numbers that make our world go around are not so solid, immutable and logically grounded as they appear. In the new psychology of price, values are slippery and contingent, as fluid as the reflections in a fun-house mirror."

This reality is famously played by luxury retailers who engage in a pricing trick known as "anchoring" — that is, featuring an extremely high-priced item that makes other high-priced items look like bargains. Ralph Lauren, for example, offers an alligator bag for $16,995 that makes its $2,595 bag, made of mere calfskin, seem a steal. Williams Sonoma didn’t sell many of its $279 breadmakers until it introduced a $429 model. Sales of the "cheaper" breadmaker doubled.

While all of this may sound obvious and old-hat — because it is — it raises the question of "why age-old pricing tricks work long after we should have wised up." The reason, according to William, is that the brain is wired to make quick decisions and therefore "constructs desires and beliefs on the fly," leaving us vulnerable to trickery. The solution, he advises, is simply to "stop and think of all the reasons that the proffered price might be unreasonable." Incidentally, the book’s cover illustration features a fake price tag of $599.99 … marked down to just $26.99.

Just $25,000

The magic number in automotive pricing is $25,000, reports Jonathan Welsh in the Wall Street Journal (1/27/10). That’s because $25,000 is a price many people perceive as affordable while also giving them at least some of the creature comforts they crave. In other words, they’re not setting for an econobox. It means they can "keep monthly car payments between $400 and $500 on a four year loan with an interest rate of 6.56 percent and a down-payment, trade-in or combination equal to 20 percent of the sticker price."

This explains why Chevy’s Camaro costs just $23,880, complete with "air conditioning, power-operated windows, locks and seats, a CD player and 304-horsepower engine. It isn’t the most powerful version of the car or the most luxurious, but it looks sharp and gets attention." The Honda Accord EX sedan comes in at $24,630 and the Volkswagen Jetta station wagon at $24,615. The Toyota Prius is $23,800 (sticky gas-pedal not included).

Subaru sells most of its cars for less than $25,000 and actually "lowered the price of its top-of-the-line 2010 Outback by $1,100, in part to help keep the model’s average price down." Of course, while it’s true that a $25,000 price helps attract buyers to showrooms, "dealers assume buyers will wind up spending closer to $30,000 after adding options, tax, registration and document fees." So, as Philip Reed of Edmunds.com advises, "If you want to end up paying $25,000, you should start with a car in the low 20s."

Store Check

Jayne O’Donnell of USA Today outlines four ways in which "shopping will be different" after the recession (1/26/10). First, there’s "what you can buy." Retailers are avoiding clearance sales by buying less stock to begin with. "I never saw anyone go out of business because they didn’t have enough of something," says Allen Questrom, a former ceo of both J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus. Penny has also expanded its store brand and "exclusive merchandise" lines, to a point where they "now make up 50 percent of the stores’ sales."

Changes too, in "how much you’ll pay," meaning less in the way of deep discounts and more in the way of "more-attractive starting prices." Some are using software to optimize prices while others are "using smaller packages and making cheaper versions of products they can charge less for." Retailers will also be placing more emphasis on customer service and special events. At Topshop‘s New York City store, a photographer takes pictures of "its young customers with their friends and then posts the pictures to their Facebook pages," for instance.

The fourth way in which retail will be different is "how green stores will be." Walmart, Target and others are offering more in the way of "green" products. Walmart is working up a "sustainability index" for the products it sells, while L.L. Bean has opened a "prototype store in Mansfield, Mass.," where the flooring and some fixtures are "made of recycled materials (link)." Several retailers are offering small discounts for shoppers who bring their own bags, while others are charging for plastic bags.

Bierkraft Growlers

"Growlers have been around since Christ was a child … We’re not doing anything new," says Ben Granger in a New York Times piece by Robert Simonson (1/27/10). Growlers? They are "64-ounce glass vessels that look like a moonshine jug," that, despite their ancient origins "have become the beer accessory of the moment." Ben introduced them at Bierkraft, his "grocery store and beer emporium, almost four years ago. Instead of picking up a six-pack, his shoppers bring in their growlers and have them filled with any brew from one of Bierkraft’s "13 taps and 3 cask lines."

Ben says he was surprised by the Growler’s appeal. "In the beginning we tried to figure out, ‘Who’s going to be our market?" he explains. "We thought, mullet-heads and beer-bellied dudes. But the first run was ladies with strollers. They will tell you they’re buying them for their husbands. Three weeks later, they’ve got two. One’s his and one’s hers. The next one that caught me was dads coming in with their kids. Then there’s the beer crowd who’ll rush in to get on this or that before it’s gone."

The appeal of Growlers is pretty obvious: Re-filling a jug of beer is both relatively inexpensive and environmentally friendly. Then, of course, there’s the beer, which is always interesting and usually fresh — provided the Growler is filled properly. Ben Granger makes sure of that with "a system in which bottles are filled under pressure through a plastic hose to keep out oxygen." Ironically, what you don’t want is to hear the beer growl: In the old days Growlers were "small galvanized pails" and the name "is thought to be inspired by the rumbling noise escaping carbon dioxide made as the beer sloshed around in the pail."

Pljeskavica

"Throughout the western Balkan region, ground meat is raised to an art form," writes Julia Moskin in the New York Times (1/20/10). That art form is known as pljeskavica, a "burger as wide as a birthday cake" as well as cevapi, a sausage "the size of a fat pinky finger." It’s an art form that’s now common in New York neighborhoods "like Astoria and Ridgewood in Queens, where Bosnians and Croatians, Serbs and Montenegrins now open businesses side by side." While comparisons to American hamburgers and hot dogs are obvious, the Balkan take is really quite different.

"American burgers seem strange: soft and without much flavor," says Irena Kuzmanovic, a bartender from Serbia. Not much chance of that with either pljeskavica or cevapi, because "the entire animal is fair game. Formulas including beef, veal, lamb and — except for Muslims — pork are part of the butcher’s mystique." Some butchers like to add "fat from around the beef kidneys, grinding in a little pork neck, or adding baking soda or mineral water to lighten the mix."

At Brothers Pizzeria, owner Elvis Kolenovic "grinds six different cuts together to arrive at the goal for both dishes: meat that is springy, savory and firmly gripped together. Pljeskavica are formed from ground meat and minced onion, pounded thin and then grilled on both sides to a smoky brown." Traditionally, they were "served flopped on a plate," but now it is "standard to sandwich pljeskavica between the two halves of a fluffy, spongy pita-style bread called lepinja." Toppings range from chopped onions to clotted cream to cucumbers to a roasted red-pepper spread that adds a "tangy sweetness," kind of like, well, ketchup.

Mons Camembert

Herve Mons was tired of finding nothing but crummy Camembert in the States, and so he figured out how to fix that, reports Harold McGee in the New York Times (12/30/09). Most Camembert exported to America has "a thick plaster-like coat of penicillium mold and a white, bland interior that’s either chalky or runny." That’s because of government regulations specifying "that all cheeses aged fewer than 60 days must be made from pasteurized milk to kill any potentially harmful microbes. Camemberts go to market after 21 to 30 days."

Herve’s solution began with finding the best possible milk — the kind normally reserved for raw-milk cheeses. This milk "has high protein and fat levels that contribute rich textures and flavors, from farms that feed their cows on pasture much of the year." His manufacturing team "uses the same coagulating enzymes and ripening cultures used in other pasteurized cheeses, but adds less of them." They also cut "the coagulated milk into pieces before draining," which isn’t "allowed by the strictest definition of Normandy Camembert."

But cutting the cheese (sorry) "releases more whey from the curd, so the cheese is drier and gets sticky rather than runny when ripe." Herve carefully managed every processing detail — "moisture, salt, acid, enzymes and microbes" — to maximize the flavor. The result is a Camembert that travels well and tastes like the real deal — "softly clotted, its flavor intense, persistent, mouthfillingly fruity, mushroomy, earthy, buttery and meaty." Herve says it goes great with brut Champagne. Mons Camembert available nationwide at Whole Foods, and under the Pommier label in the Pacific Northwest.

Sundance Steps

Some filmmakers are "using Sundance not just as a sales tool but also as a platform for immediate digital delivery," reports Brooks Barnes in the New York Times (1/25/10). Their reasoning is largely based on hard numbers. Of the $3.7 billion worth of films submitted to Sundance Festival this year, "only about $120 million worth make the schedule, and of those less than $30 million worth will find their way to market through the traditional system." So, for a film like "One Too Many Mornings" (trailer), which cost about $50,000 to make, it’s a no-brainer to try something non-traditional.

Michael Mohan, the film’s writer and director, is making it available for download for $10 and is selling DVDs for $20. "For $35, customers get a DVD, a poster and a piece of the sofa featured in the film." Michael is also offering theatrical rights via his website for $100,000. "Forget a bidding war," he says. "Whoever gets to their laptop the fastest gets it." Michael doesn’t see any downside to his approach. "There’s no reason it can’t go to theaters after it’s available online; it’s two different groups of people," he says.

But this probably wouldn’t work for a more expensive film. "If you’ve made a movie for $5 million and you’re only doing a video-on-demand deal, your investors are getting killed," says Jay Cohen, an agent. Indeed, the average Sundance candidate cost about $1 million to make. But some think a hybrid distribution strategy like Michael’s might have a future. "It probably does send Hollywood some signals," says Joshua Sapan, ceo of Rainbow Media, a Cablevision subsidiary that, among other things, owns the Sundance Channel. However, he cautions that specialty films generally don’t "have broad commerciality as a goal."

Aderall Diaries

Instead of the usual 33-city book tour, Stephen Elliott promoted his latest novel, "The Adderall Diaries," by holding discussions in strangers’ living rooms. As he explains in a New York Times essay (1/17/10), Stephen decided that he "didn’t want to travel thousands of miles to read to 10 people, sell four books, then spend the night in a cheap hotel room before flying home." Instead, when his new book was published, he let it be known via his website that he’d hold an event in anyone’s home, provided they promised at least 20 guests.

Stephen would sleep on their couch, share airfare expenses with his publisher and hope to make up the difference by selling books. Most of the attendees had never been to a "literary event" before, and usually were a reflection of the host — a nurse brought hospital workers; a musician brought rock ‘n’ rollers; and an artist brought other artists. Unlike previous book tours, he encountered few aspiring writers interested only in advice on how to get published. He found his audiences to be friendly and engaged — after all, they were having a party.

Stephen sold his books one at a time, all told moving some 1,100 copies over 73 events. Not surprisingly, when reading to people with money, he found they would "buy books out of obligation, just to be polite, because you did a reading in their home, or for a signed souvenir of a fun evening." But he also said one of his best audiences was a group of 40 college students, who bought a total of just 10 books. For the most part, he concluded, his do-it-yourself, living-room tour didn’t attract the "standard literary audience … they were better."

Night Lights

Headlights and taillights — "often referred to as jewelry by auto designers" — increasingly "express brand identity and model personality," reports Phil Patton in the New York Times (1/10/10). "I want the cars to be recognizable as Volvos from twice as far away," said designer Steve Mattin, when the Volvo XC60 was introduced. Steve’s no longer with Volvo, but the "XC60’s sinuously shaped taillight was recently included in a collection of notable designs of the last decade."

Lincoln signals itself "by simply extending the taillight all the way across its MKX crossover in a bold, horizontal band … On the Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon, LEDs are deployed in upright strips that echo the traditional Cadillac tailfin … Audi headlights are accented with strings of dotlike LEDs, faintly suggestive of holiday decorations. Other forms of LEDs are used as taillights, resembling tubes or ribbons of light, on the A4 and A5." Audi head designer Stefan Sielaff, thinks the look expresses precision and high technology.

You can’t miss an Infiniti at night, with "their circular constellations of red light, like Betsy Ross flags (link)." BMW has a new concept in mind with a plug-in hybrid, featuring a grille "equipped with slats that close and glow blue when the car is powered by electricity, but open and brighten when the car is running on diesel." Renault, meanwhile, is working on a concept for Ford called the Glo-Car. Its surface is "covered with smart LEDs signaling the driver’s mood, pulsing red when locked in a traffic jam," for instance.

Alpha Autos

When Adolf Hitler ordered Volkswagen to name its new sedan the KdF, he was way ahead of his time, reports Paul Ingrassia in the Wall Street Journal (1/21/10). The initials stood for Kraft durch Freude, which means Strength through Joy — also the name of the Nazi labor union. The name was dropped after the war, and of course the car became known as the Beetle. But the German tradition of using "alphanumeric" names continued at Mercedes and BMW, which used the monikers to indicate engine size.

Then, about 20 years ago, when Japanese automakers decided to take on the Germans, they imitated this idea, with Lexus naming "its first two models the ES 250 and LS 400." Acura eventually followed suit, re-badging its Legend, Integra and Vigor plates as alphanumerics. Acura now has cars known as the ZDX, RDX, MDX, TSX, the RL and the TL. Not to be outdone, Lincoln now offers the MKS, MKX, MKZ and MKT.

Mazda, meanwhile, is trying to have it both ways with its so-called MX-5 Miata. Mazda USA svp Robert Davis says the MX-5 is the "see name" for print advertising, while the Miata is the "say name" when talking about the car. Hm. Maybe it’s time to do what Ford did in 1956, when it hired a poet, Marianne Moore, to name its new luxury car. Her suggestions included: Mongoose Civique, Varsity Stroke and Utopian Turtletop. Unfortunately, Henry Ford II had other ideas, and the car in question now lives in brand-name infamy … otherwise known as the Edsel.

Rising Starbucks

While others were slogging through the recession, Starbucks apparently got its mojo back, reports Claire Cain Miller in the New York Times (1/21/10). This was supposed to be a time when we were giving up the lattes along with other luxuries, but at Starbucks, in the first quarter, net income went up by $64.3 million, revenue rose by four percent, as did same-store sales. Over the past year, Starbucks "stock has nearly tripled to $23.29, though that is still significantly below the record high of nearly $40 in 2006."

Starbucks chief Howard Schultz, who returned to the company two years ago, suggests this is just the beginning of a revival that returns to the company’s roots. "We lost our way," says Howard. "We went back to start-up mode, hand-to-hand combat every day." After closing stores and laying off workers, his goal was to get his people "to think like employees of a scrappy little company that just wants to serve a good cup of coffee." This meant buying coffee beans in smaller batches, and tailoring drink menus by region, for instance.

It also meant re-designing stores to achieve a certain "local-ness." For example, at Starbucks stores in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, "bunches of wildflowers sit in mismatched jugs on tables found in antique shops. Beans are ground to order and poured through a cone like those used in artisinal coffeehouses. On the outdoor patio, coffee grounds are piled in a bucket with a handwritten sign encouraging neighbors to take them for composting their gardens." Howard plans more of the same in more cities. "I think we’ll be able to scale this in a similar fashion at a lower cost," he says.

Great Lake Pizza

"In the food service business, it’s assumed that customers have a set of God-given birthrights when they come into an establishment," says Nick Lessins co-owner of Great Lake, a Chicago pizza place, in a New York Times interview with Kermit Pattison (1/14/10). He continues: "It’s like they’ve been wronged in a lot of parts of their lives, and this is their chance to even the score." Nick’s partner, Lydia Esparza, while asserting that "the customer isn’t always right," says that great service is really about "the quality of the food we bring to the table."

This means that at Great Lake, Nick makes every single pizza himself. He makes the dough, the mozzarella and grinds his own sausage. He orders his supplies from local farmers. "It took several years for me to come up with what I have now," he says. "It’s not an ego thing — I just enjoy working with my hands and putting this whole puzzle together and creating something." This means no substitutions.

"We don’t offer crushed pepper," says Lydia. "When we put options together, they’re put together for a reason, We have such an edited menu, and its shocking how much people still want to manipulate it." This also explains why Great Lake is open just four days a week and seats just 14 people — even though the place has been mobbed ever since it was written up in GQ. "We wanted to start a business so we could get some control in our lives," says Nick, who wouldn’t think of expanding to satisfy demand or make more money. "We value time as much, if not more so, than money."

Tesla Time

Nikola Tesla, a scientist and inventor who died friendless and penniless almost 70 years ago, is re-emerging as "geek god"of "hip techies," reports Daniel Michaels in the Wall Street Journal (1/14/10). Tesla, as you might recall, "achieved fame and fortune in the 1880s for figuring out how to make alternating current (AC) work on a grand scale … He created the first major hydroelectric dam, at Niagara Falls … His inventions helped Guglielmo Marconi develop radio." Tesla started out working for Thomas Edison, but "quit in a spat over pay" and the two became rivals — with Edison advocating direct current (DC) versus Tesla’s AC.

Tesla eventually sold his AC patents to George Westinghouse for lots of money, but "burned through much of his fortune testing radio transmissions." He also "stumbled upon — but didn’t pursue — lasers and X-rays, years before their recognized discoveries … He sketched out robots and a death ray he hoped would end all wars." But while Edison racked up some 1,093 patents in his lifetime, "Tesla left few completed blueprints." All of this has created a certain "geek mystique" about Tesla among some, like director Terry Gilliam, who sees him as "more of an artist than a scientist in some strange way."

In 2006, David Bowie played Tesla in a Gilliam film, "The Prestige," and 1984, was featured in an OMD song called "Tesla Girls." Today, his name brands an electric roadster (link) and is being used for a videogame "character who could understand alien spaceships." Edison, meanwhile, is maybe less "current" (sorry) these days, with his phonograph and motion-picture camera "becoming historical curios," and even the incandescent bulb losing favor to compact fluorescents. OMD’s Andy McCluskey calls Tesla "a romantic ‘failure’ figure," and says, "I can’t imagine writing a song about Edison … too boringly rich, entrepreneurial and successful!"

Johnny Weir

As he seeks Olympic Gold, skater Johnny Weir is testing "the conflict inherent" in reconciling "performance and competition," reports Jere Longman in the New York Times (1/19/10). On the performance side, Johnny pretty much has a lock on things, with a style said to be "more burlesque than Bolshoi." At a recent performance, he skated "with a head-bopping playfulness" in a costume featuring a "pink shoulder tassel and Lycra corset." His skating, however, apparently was a bit less impressive.

"Not long ago, there was a balance in the contrast between the compelling, understated elegance of Weir’s skating and the too-too costumes he prefers," wrote Philip Hersh in the Chicago Tribune. "That balance has tipped toward shtick," he added. But Johnny sees it differently: "My obligation has always been to bring the artistic side of my sport out. Jumps are jumps, and everybody can do those jumps. But not everybody can show something wonderful and special and unique and different."

Former Olympic skating champ Scott Hamilton agrees: "What he might be suffering from is one of my favorite things about figure skating — shameless self-promotion … I did it for 30 years. It depends on how you do it. It can rub some people the wrong way." However, as another former champ, Brian Boitano notes, "You have to be a champion to be a star." And Johnny’s performances reportedly can be "curiously remote and lacking in energy and speed." While this might concern the judges, Johnny doesn’t seem worried. "My costume looked pretty," he said.

MyGofer

Everything that’s old is new again for Sears, as it searches "for fresh ways to sell Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools in an age of iPhone apps and Twitter," report Miguel Bustillo and Geoffrey Fowler in the Wall Street Journal (1/18/10). Back in the day, shoppers would place orders using the grand old Sears catalog, and then pick up their orders at a Sears store. Now, the hope is, they’ll order via site called MyGofer and, once again, retrieve their goods in-store — this time by swiping their credit cards at a kiosk, and then waiting "while workers resembling hamburger-stand carhops bring out the goods."

So far, MyGofer is only a test, with a single pickup center in Joliet, Illinios, at a converted Kmart store. But it seems to be working: "We have taken the good ideas out there and evolved them," says Imran Jooma, svp of e-commerce for Sears. This even includes bringing back an old-fashioned "layaway" program, which helped Sears "boost revenues" over the holidays. And while Sears continues to struggle overall, the retailer’s "executives say that the online business has increased by double digits in the past two years. It notched an estimated $2.7 billion in 2008 … more than Walmart’s $1.7 billion."

It’s all part of a plan by Sears chairman Edward S. Lampert, who bought and combined Sears and Kmart five years ago, only to find "its same-store sales have dropped off every year since the merger." Rather than "pour money into Sears’ crumbling stores … he is far more bullish on web ventures, with their small capital requirements and vast potential audiences." Other initiatives include an "iPhone app, called Sears Personal Shopper," that lets you take pictures of stuff you want "and dispatch images to workers who can track them down for sale." In addition, a pair of social-networking sites, MySears.com and MyKmart.com, "now have 400,000 registered users."

Chronodrive

"There are many other things to do in life than fill a shopping basket," says Martin Toulemonde, co-founder of Chronodrive.com, in a Wall Street Journal piece by Christina Passariello (1/14/10). In partnership with another retail executive, Ludovic Duprez, Martin started Chronodrive, in France, back in 2002. They reckoned that if it was too expensive to order groceries online and then have them delivered, they’d just take a page from McDonald’s and let people do their own pick-up via drive-through. Oh-la-la. The idea seems to be taking off.

The first Chronodrive opened "on the outskirts of Lille, in northern France, in 2004. They chose a suburban neighborhood near main thoroughfares with a high number of middle-class families with cars — the ideal consumer who does a lot of grocery shopping but is short on time." They just opened their 16th store, in Toulouse, and plan "to expand to 32 outlets this year." In addition to ordering online, customers can also "use a terminal outside the store to make quick orders for any of the 500 products it makes immediately available."

Shoppers can specify a pickup time within two hours of an online order, Chronodrive guarantees delivery to your car within five minutes of your arrival, and all orders are held for 24 hours in case you’re late. Workers make sure you like the produce, and the bread is fresh from local bakeries. Chronodrive says it has 130,000 customers who order "an average of 40 items per shopping trip." Other retailers, including Carrefour, are developing similar concepts around France. Rumor has it that Walmart is also eyeing the concept, although so far the company hasn’t commented about that.

Mark Girls

More than 125 years after David McConnell pioneered Avon, 22-year-old Kristiauna Mangum is "ringing doorbells" for cosmetics on Facebook and Twitter, reports Camille Sweeney in the New York Times (1/14/10). Kristiauna is not an Avon Lady but a Mark Girl, but it’s all in the family because Avon launched Mark about seven years ago. Being a Mark Girl means Kristiauna is "one of more than 40,000" young women in North America, "who are changing the nature of direct sales by using the brand’s personalized e-boutiques, iPhone app and new Facebook e-shop."

So successful is Kristiauna that she "manages 155 other Mark Girls" at Ohio State University, "selling Mark beauty products and fashion accessories for a commission in the range of 20 to 50 percent." She makes about $800 a month at this, using the proceeds to help pay off her student loans. "It’s really a grass-roots kind of thing, hitting the dorms, sororities, Facebook," says Kristiauna. Claudia Poccia, president of Mark, says the concept is a natural.

"We’ve taken the same DNA of direct selling that has always been a part of Avon’s history and applied it to the digital world for our Mark reps to reach our customers," Claudia explains. Mark also features its own product line, offered at relatively lower-price points than Avon products. The products themselves are designed with a younger shopper in mind, as well. Hook Ups, which sell for about $10, are "two-ended cosmetic dispensers that can be customized to connect, for example, lip gloss and lip pencil, eyeliner and mascara." Last year, Mark’s revenues were about $70 million.

Vitamin Boys

When it comes to taking fitness supplements, there seems to be something that separates the boys from the girls, reports Max Roosevelt in the New York Times (1/14/10). A young guy like Alex Feintuch, 20, for instance, has "spent more than $1,000 on fitness supplements" over the past year. Before heading to the gym, he takes a pill called Arimatest, to raise his testosterone levels. "Before, during and after his workout, he drinks "a branch-chain amino acid powder mixed in water to hasten muscle recovery. And he caps his gym visits with a whey powder shake."

Steve Hoffman, a trainer, approves of certain supplements, too. "If you’re looking to bust through a plateau, taking five grams of creatine before your workout might help you do that," he says. Steve also likes "products with arginine (an amino acid) or caffeine." He says, "They’re awesome for working out — just be careful." However, Dr. Teri M. McCambridge, a pediatric sports doctor, says most youngsters don’t need supplements and "don’t know the importance of a recommended dose" anyway. She’s also worried that using supplements might lead to harder stuff, "like anabolic steroids and human growth hormone."

Stacey Zimmerman, 25, is similarly wary. "The idea of needing to take a supplement to reach my fitness goals seems to counter the goal itself," she says. Another issue is that the supplements, while widely available, "are also minimally regulated, with a majority going untested by the Food and Drug Administration." Alex Feintuch admits this is a problem, and notes that he’s wasted a good sum on ineffective supplements. Gunnar Peterson, a celebrity trainer, thinks that’s reason enough to get the F.D.A. involved in regulating supplements. But he does see some pyschological benefit, even if the stuff doesn’t actually work. "It’s like putting jumper cables on motivation," he says.

The Doors

"The Doors were a blues-based band with literary aspirations," says Ray Manzarek in a Wall Street Journal article by Jim Fusilli (12/2/10). This may or may not come as a surprise to those who remember the Doors for AM hit singles like "Light My Fire," "Hello, I Love You" and "Touch Me," or even FM hits like "Riders on the Storm" and "L.A. Woman." But, in the early days, as Ray, the band’s keyboardist, recalls, the Doors had to fill their shows with something and so they filled it with the blues.

"We had to do four sets a night, maybe five on the weekend," says Ray. "That’s a lot of time to kill. So we started to play the blues." Both he and the rest of the band "admired Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker as well as groups like … Paul Butterfield Blues Band with guitarist Mike Bloomfield." But their blues roots were soon upended, recording just one blues standard, Back Door Man on their first album, but no others on the next three.

"We had our own material," explains Ray. And when the Doors played live, they just played the hits. But on their fifth album, Morrison Hotel, the Doors began to return to their roots, with some original blues compositions. A subsequent album, "Live in New York" recorded over four shows at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum, featured plenty of blues. They even punched up their hits with a more bluesy edge. Alas, just as the band was getting back to its roots, Jim Morrison died. Fortunately, a new, six-disc box set (link), captures the band’s final live performances, suggesting what might have been.

Copenhagen Wheel

M.I.T. researchers have re-invented a bicycle wheel "that captures kinetic energy released when a rider brakes and saves it for when the rider needs a boost," reports Sindya N. Bhanoo in the New York Times (12/15/09). Called the Copenhagen Wheel, the technology consists of "a sleek red hub" that "can be retrofitted to any bike’s rear wheel." It employs "the same technology used by hybrid cars … to harvest otherwise wasted energy when a cyclist brakes or speeds down a hill. With that energy, it charges up a battery inside the wheel’s hub."

The device "includes sensors that track air quality, a meter that logs miles and a GPS unit to track routes. All that data can be sent via Bluetooth to a rider’s smartphone and shared with others." It all sounds very cool, but Steve Hed of Hed Cycling Products, thinks it misses the mark. "Just the basic bike is so hard to beat," says Steve. "The latest thing now are the simple, fixed-gear bikes, so simple and light you can throw them over your shoulder."

William Mitchell, also of M.I.T., is skeptical, too: "Regenerative braking hardware adds mass, complexity and cost, and the energy efficiency gains from it turn out to be surprisingly limited," he says. Michael Lin, one of William’s doctoral students, is working on a plug-in bike, saying his "priority is to create a bike that is a true transportation tool." But Christine Outram, project leader for the Copenhagen Wheel, says the goal is to "get more people on bikes." And even Steve Hed admits that the Copenhagen Wheel could find a niche market among commuters and the elderly. "For my mother it would be perfect," he says.