The Hub Cool News

Uber Ideas

gigwalkUberfication is wending its way into traditional companies, reports Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal (11/16/15). For example, at Crossmark, an in-store merchandising company, full-time employees use an app developed by Gigwalk to streamline their reports. Gigwalk was designed, in true Uber fashion, as a way to help companies manage freelancers to do similar work. That didn’t work so well, because it’s critical that store managers know and can trust the merchandisers — a requirement that’s difficult to fulfill with “rotating cast of freelancers.”

“One of the things I rely on in the stores I go to is relationships,” says Jarrel Gainer, who “builds those eye-catching stacks of Huggies or pyramids of canned soup that sit at the ends of grocery-store aisles” at Walmart stores. “They know when I start and finish the job it’s going to look good and they’re not going to have to question why I did it this way or that way.” So, rather than putting Crossmark out of business, Gigwalk is helping it move into the 21st century by “upgrading its information-technology infrastructure … It is as if Uber had decided to sell its technology to taxi companies instead of driving them into oblivion.”

Gigwalk is also re-balancing work and life for people like Jarrel, who used to spend “two hours a day on paperwork and data entry alone … At the end of the day, he would have to manually enter all he had done into a website on his personal computer at home.” With Gigwalk’s mobile app, “he does essentially all his work on a smartphone,” saving about two hours each day … “his longest workday is now 4-6 hours.” “The concept of the nine-to-five workweek is an anomaly of the 20th century, a product of mass production,” says Gigwalk CEO David Hale, suggesting that this is “just the beginning” of a new era of workforce management.

Levi’s Eureka

levisLevi’s Eureka Innovation Lab is all about creating unique jeans on a mass scale, reports Matthew Schneier in The New York Times (11/6/15). Levi Strauss & Co. is a $4.8 billion business, and when its Dockers brand is included it “produces more than 100 million pieces per year in nearly countless styles.” Its Eureka Innovation Lab, which has been around just two years, is the source of lo these many variations on the denim theme. “We’re not very old here,” says Bart Sights, who heads the lab. “But this is 13,806,” he says, referring to a recent recipe.

Eureka “is a nerve center and skunk works for innovation, a place to test out new treatments, new finishes and new ideas.” Even though Levi’s mass-market jeans are made using synthetic dyes, Bart keeps a vat of “naturally fermented indigo dye” on hand for inspiration. “Really, it’s like our blood,” he says. “This is what we came from.” Where they are headed is to replicate any number of “colors, fades, finishes and degrees of wear.” Sometimes these are based on wear patterns from jeans worn a century ago by miners, and other times jeans simply worn for a while by a designer.

If you own a pair of “distressed” jeans, the look “may have been developed by a Eureka employee, etched on a sample pair using sandpaper. GoPro cameras on each workstation record the process, and when a pattern is complete, the video is edited into a kind of digital instruction manual to guide those who will do the distressing on a larger scale at the factories Levi’s uses.” Where the designer may have used sandpaper, the factory will use laser technology to achieve the effect. Design chief Jonathan Cheung calls the faux finishes “an homage to human nature.”

Crunch Time

snapdragonA trend in apple-growing keeps “tight controls” on new varieties, reports Melanie Grayce West in The Wall Street Journal (11/6/15). So-called “managed-release” or “club programs” require farmers “to be accepted into the program, paying it royalties based on how much they grow and agreeing to its quality-control standards.” This process is producing two new apple varieties — SnapDragon and RubyFrost — that “are patent protected … heavily marketed … and for now, kept to limited production.” They take direct aim at “the popular Honeycrisp” apple.

Jeff Crist, “a founder of the cooperative that grows the SnapDragon and RubyFrost,” describes the SnapDragon as having “dynamic, sweet, crunchy juiciness.” He says the RubyFrost is “a little bit like a fine wine. It appeals to an adult palate.” Both apples, which retail at a pricey $2.99 a pound, “have the Honeycrisp as a parent.” However, some growers say the Honeycrisp suffered because it has been mass produced and rushed to market.

The “managed-release program,” called Crunch Time Apple Growers, is designed to protect these new apples from a similar fate: “Last year, SnapDragon and RubyFrost made up only 33,979 bushels of New York’s 30.9 million bushel harvest.” This results in “varieties that are uniform in size, appearance and flavor from bushel to bushel, helping to ensure that consumers come back for more.” Crunch Time also mandates that “SnapDragon exteriors are at least two-thirds red.” If not, they are used for “juice, applesauce or other processed goods.”

& A Goat

fair-folks-goatA membership-based shop is creating a new kind of caffeinated experience, reports Richard Morgan in The New York Times (10/10/15). Fair Folks & a Goat, in New York’s Greenwich Village since 2012, has attracted about 1,000 members who pay $25 a month for “unlimited coffees, teas, lattes, espressos and lemonades.” Members say this results in something different. “It feels like a hangout more than a store,” says Eugenie Thompson, an NYU student. “I grew up here, and it’s nice to have something new that doesn’t go against what Greenwich Village was and can still be.” Another member, Ryan Egan, says: “It’s not urgent. It’s not that in-and-out New York rush.”

Ryan is “an alt-pop musician who has performed two concerts at the shop,” which “also sells art, clothes, home design pieces and beer and wine.” Other members “have included an emergency-room doctor who moonlights as a trapeze instructor, a Chinese scholar translating Allen Ginsberg into Mandarin, and a 74-year-old psychotherapist who invited members for a cross-generational chat … The baristas are equally intriguing” and include “a self-styled poet,” and “for a time, an Australian barista so absurdly handsome that female members came more for his coiffure than for his coffee.”

“It’s my sanctuary, safe-haven, go-to spot,” says Pawi Bitanga, a filmmaker and breakdancer. “New York annoys you so much it’s hard to relax even in your own apartment.” Fair Folks’ first member was NYU professor Clay Shirky, who says: “I’ve been there for years, my 7 am espresso since Day 1, and there’s never been that January moment where a bunch of fair-weather strangers flood your gym.” Non-members simply pay regular prices, and newbies are greeted warmly, sometimes by barista Will Thompson who tells them: “Plot twist: You’re the fair folks.” The “goat part” of the shop’s name “is part homage to Pan, the bacchanalian satyr, and part hat tip to Heifer International, a charity to which a portion of members’ dues are donated.”

Ikea Sliders

ikeaIkea hopes to find a way to make small apartments seem larger, reports Jens Hansegard in The Wall Street Journal (10/1/15). The impetus is that apartments are shrinking in size: “In Sweden, the average size of two-room apartments has fallen to roughly 580 square feet, from 670 square feet in 2001 … Similar contractions are occurring in many US cities, with average new apartments shrinking 18% in San Francisco and 22% in Boston over the past decade.” Bunk beds and collapsable couches only help to a point, so now Ikea is working on “sliding walls and multipurpose furniture … The challenge, Ikea says, is to meet safety regulations while making such products affordable for middle-class families.”

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” says Mikael Ydholm, head of research for Ikea. “It will be another three years of work before they appear in a catalog.” Mikael envisions the concept, which is three years in the making, as “part of a wider system, like Ikea’s kitchens,” perhaps “an assortment of room configurations using components such as a plug-in wardrobe or collapsable bed … The initial objective was to find ways to create flexible interiors, by-passing the constraint of fixed layouts.” Electric cords are particularly frustrating “because they are tantamount to shackles, preventing people from shuffling floor plans.” The wall sockets “are always in the wrong place” when rearranging furniture.

David Pérez, a noted Spanish architect “who has designed walls that can slide or even pivot at the touch of a button,” is doubtful Ikea will get anywhere with the idea. He thinks installation would require significant technical support because apartments vary in size. Meanwhile, Ikea is testing its solutions in a “so-called living lab … inside a nondescript building” in Sweden. Mikael “described the space as representative of many residential areas in Europe, Russia and China.” A “single father who stayed at the lab apartment with his three sons” liked it. “The apartment felt much bigger than mine, which is actually 20 square meters bigger,” he said.


urb-eThe URB-E “promises to give your commute a jolt of fun,” reports Dan Neil in The Wall Street Journal (9/22/15). The vehicle is “sort of a motorized bar stool.” Its Black Label model features “a bit more aggressive throttle than the standard-issue version and a lot of black powdercoat paint on a 6061 aircraft frame, which folds neatly at the top. The cantilevered seat rests on a BMX-style monoshock. Traction is supplied by a 250-watt in-wheel motor at the front, backed up by a 36-volt lithium-ion battery boxed inside the front frame.”

The URB-E reaches “speeds up to 15 mph,” although its “ape-hanger” style handlebars can cause “moments of deep kinematic consternation.” To the bystander, the rider looks “like someone making a low pass on a witch’s broom.” It “moves through a crowd in a bubble of astonished murmurs.” So captivating is the URB-E that it was voted “Best of” at the January 2014 Consumer Electronics Show and made an appearance on The Today Show. It has since had its share of struggles, though. “We were huge for about a week,” says Grant Delgatty of Urban626, the URB-E’s designer and marketer.

The trouble is that Grant’s deal to manufacture with a Chinese company fell through, forcing him to make the URB-E in the United States, which roughly doubled costs. So, a ride into the future of personal transportation aboard a Black Label will set you back $1,699. What’s more, its 36-volt battery “gives the URB-E a range of up to 20 miles,” but weighs 35 pounds … “A hinge at the top allows the scooter to fold for easy storage” but given its weight, could make for sweaty passage through, say, a subway station. “But this can’t be denied,” Dan reports. “It is fun.”

Adrian Frutiger

frutigerA good font should be both eminently legible and forgettable. That was the credo of the late Adrian Frutiger, who compared type to a spoon, reports Margalit Fox in The New York Times (9/18/15). “The whole point with type is for you not to be aware it is there,” Mr. Frutiger once said. “If you remember the shape of a spoon with which you just ate some soup, then the spoon had a poor shape … Spoons and letters are tools. The first we need to ingest bodily nourishment from a bowl, the latter we need to ingest mental nourishment from a piece of paper.” Perhaps his most visibly invisible font is that seen on airport signage worldwide, known simply as Frutiger.

“Frutiger is basically the best signage type in the world because there’s not too much ‘noise’ in it, so it doesn’t call attention to itself,” says Erik Spiekermann, himself a type designer. “It makes itself invisible, but physically it’s actually incredibly legible.” Another of Mr. Frutiger’s most visible typefaces is equally unobtrustive — OCR-B — which is the typeface used for the numbers at the bottom of checks. “He managed to do something that is legible by machine and by people alike,” says Erik. In his lifetime, which ended earlier this month, Mr. Frutiger designed a total of “40 fonts, a vast number for one lifetime.”

He discovered early on that the most beautiful typefaces were not the necessarily the most legible. However, he did believe that a letter should follow “the same canons of beauty as a face: A beautiful letter is in perfect proportion,” he said in 2001. “The bar of a ‘t’ placed too high, the curve of an ‘n’ too low, are as jarring as a long nose or a short chin.” Perhaps Mr. Frutiger’s most famous “hallmarks is the square dot over the lowercase ‘i.’ The dot’s crisp, angled corners keep it from resolving into a nebulous flyspeck that appears to merge with the stem, making ‘i’ look little different from ‘l’ or ‘I.'” Mr. Frutigers “fonts include Avenir, Centennial, Egyptienne, Herculanum, Iridium, Serifa, Vectora and Versailles.” (link) Adrian Frutiger was 87.

Local Motors

stratiThe future of the automotive business may be in open-source enterprises like Local Motors, reports Jonathan Gitlin in Ars Technica (9/15/15). “The idea,” says Local Motors CFO Jean-Paul Capin, “was to reduce R&D costs and have a better vehicle at the end, because the mix of people doing the collaborating during the design process — a mix of engineers, designers, hobbyists, and even consumers — would have a say from the beginning. It was different from the traditional process where engineers and designers don’t always work together, they bring a product to market and involve customers through focus groups and so on.”

The Local Motors approach involves “setting up challenges for its community to respond to.” As its name would suggest, “Local Motors is about local manufacturing,” says Jean-Paul. So, the company identified 20 cities and collaborated with its community to design a car for each. A community vote picked a winning design — The Rally Fighter — and then Local Motors moved production to that city. This turned out to be Phoenix, where Local Motors used the “local supply chains and local knowledge” to build an “off-road racing car.” While the way the car was designed was innovative, its manufacture was traditional, but this, too, will change. Its next project is “a road-ready 3D printed car.”

The Strati, as the car is known, is printed “out of carbon fiber reinforced plastic.” Whether this will pass federal and state regulations is yet unknown, but Local Motors hopes “to show it’s just as safe, or safer, than any other car.” The company’s open-source community is estimated at about 50,000 across 120 countries. Only about 10 percent of active members actually lead design, with the others offering reviews and comments. A backend analytics system quantifies contributions and “royalty payments are set aside for community members who participate on products that go to market.” However, “none of the community members live off their contributions to Local Motors.”

Apple Wheels

apple-carWill today’s automakers become tomorrow’s Apple Car factories? “We do not plan to become the Foxconn of Apple,” says Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche in a New York Times piece by Jack Ewing (9/18/15). Dieter was referring to the Chinese company that manufactures iPhones and responding to the suggestion that as cars become “rolling software platforms,” those who make the hardware will take a back seat. Indeed, at this year’s Frankfurt International Auto Show, the buzzword “connectivity” has subsumed the traditional chatter about “horsepower” and “torque.” The excitement is over “self-driving cars, battery-powered cars and information technology designed to link cars with data networks.”

It’s not just because of rumors that Apple might already be designing a car. It’s also because “the only way the automakers can meet increasingly stringent emissions standards is by selling more hybrid vehicles, and eventually all-electric cars. Both technologies require more software than gasoline or diesel engines. Technology that links cars to data networks … also plays a role in reducing emissions and satisfying regulators. Systems that help drivers quickly find a parking space or avoid traffic jams, besides being convenient, help limit unnecessary driving and save fuel.” But it’s true that Apple — and Google — have the resources it would take to get into the car business.

For what it’s worth, Google says it has no intention of manufacturing cars. Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t license its software to those who do. Google is already working with a company called ZF, a components maker, whose CEO says a Google-branded car could be produced in collaboration with other partners providing other parts. Few know what Apple is planning, but to marry hardware and software would be in keeping with its operational philosophy. “The Apple style is the ability to do software and hardware at the same time,” says Luca de Meo of Audi. With younger consumers showing less interest in cars, the entry of Apple and Google might also make driving “cool again.”

Corsair Distillery

corsairQuinoa whiskey and “unabashed youthfulness” are separating Corsair Distillery from the pack, reports Adam Brown in Forbes (9/7/15). “Our ethos is, ‘If it’s been done before, we don’t want to do it’,” says Darek Bell, the distillery’s co-founder, along with Andrew Webber. The pair has “made peculiarity the defining characteristic of Corsair’s spirits.” Among their biggest hits is “Triple Smoke (made with Scottish peat and American cherry and German beech woods”). They also make “a barrel-aged gin,” and in a departure from convention have appointed “a woman as their head distiller.” Unlike traditional distillers, which make a virtue of “products with a sense of advanced age,” its products are “always a year old or less.”

“If you want an aged whiskey, I’ll tell you my favorite,” says Darek. Releasing young whiskey may not optimize its strength, but it “enables Corsair to release a lot of whiskeys quickly.” Other than Triple Smoke “it has debuted such unusual recipes as Oatrage (which tastes like a mouthful of Honey Nut Cheerios).” Its quinoa whiskey is “nutty with a peppery finish.” Corsair also produces a beer, Hopmonster, which is “reminiscent of Belgian Tripels and American IPAs … a well-received red absinthe (ruby-hued and floral-tasting after adding red hibiscus) and a gin made with classic botanicals such as juniper and coriander suspended in a basket above the still rather than directly steeping them.”

“We don’t have a board,” says Darek. “We don’t have outside investors. There’s no power struggle. If we want to make a crazy whiskey, we can just do it.” In yet another departure, the Corsair label features a photo of “three black suited dudes,” as opposed to the usual old-timey artwork and reference to an “ancient family recipe.” All of this is working for Corsair, which was founded seven years ago and today sells its spirits “in 39 states and seven countries for about $50 a bottle.” This translates into about “14,000 cases a year, up , from, well, nothing a few years ago.” The duo’s next big more is to grow its own grain on 300 acres of Tennessee farmland, where it “has already built a malting facility.”

Gershwin Shirt

gershwin-shirtA concert violinist is designing performance wear for musicians, reports Michael Cooper in The New York Times (8/18/15). Kevin Yu got the idea that the formal attire that orchestra players must wear should wick moisture like athletic wear after sweating through a concert in Texas. “We were so uncomfortable, wearing what we were wearing,” says Kevin. “We were sweating through our undershirts, through our tuxedo shirts. My bow tie was completely soaked.” Kevin is also a runner, and it occurred to him that he should be just as comfortable onstage in his tuxedo as he was wearing Under Armour on the road.

He first created a prototype shirt called The Gershwin, featuring “a wing collar and pleats” but “made of flexible, moisture-wicking fabric like that used in athletic shirts … Its raglan sleeves extend to the neck without shoulder seams, like some baseball jerseys, to make it less restrictive for musicians who wield a bow, extend trombone slides or beat kettle drums.” The shirts are machine washable and require no ironing. Kevin formed a company, Coregami, and “sold out his first run of 300 shirts in nine days,” priced at $120 each.

The shirts do lack the weave of a traditional shirt, but “it would probably be difficult to detect the difference onstage, especially if the musician is wearing a jacket.” As word of his shirts has spread, Kevin has received requests for black shirts from orchestra-pit players, breathable gowns from choirs, and shirts without pleats from marching bands. He’s already designing “a new tuxedo shirt with a point collar instead of a wing collar” and plans a black shirt for next year, as well as “a women’s line.” He also plans to reinvent the bow-tie so it stretches and gives, as well.

Fish-Eye Filter

fisheyeFish-eye mucus could be the next big thing in sunscreens, reports Rachel Pannett in The Wall Street Journal (8/1/15). It seems that “fish living off Australia’s sunbaked coast” produce a substance that helps “protect their eyes and tissues from sun damage … In laboratory tests, the material was found to be twice as effective at filtering out ultraviolet radiation as traditional sunscreen compounds.” “It protects from both UVA and UVB radiations with an absorption capacity higher than typical products used … in sunscreen creams.”

A “research team … used organic compounds called mycosporines … in combination with chitosan, a polymer derived from crustacean shells and insects. So far, the material has been used to create a clear film whose properties have been tested in the lab. It can also be formed into emulsions and gels that are nontoxic and resistant to moderate amounts of heat and don’t easily wash off in water. The material is odorless, despite its origin in mucus from reef fish, algae and fish-eye lenses.”

This “could lead to new sun creams made of all-natural ingredients and to coatings that protect products from degrading in sunlight, such as outdoor furniture and car dashboards.” While the material “appeared to be relatively photo-stable, meaning it doesn’t degrade when the first UV ray hits the skin,” it “hasn’t yet been tested in real-life situations.” “Whether the UV that a fish is getting through the water is relevant to the UV that you get above the water at the beach is a whole different matter,” says Diona Damian, a dermatology professor.

Innovation Economics

driverlessInnovation doesn’t seem to have much effect on America’s productivity, reports Greg Ip in The Wall Street Journal (8/13/15). “Productivity — the goods and services a worker produces in an hour — grew just 0.4% per year over the past five years, one of the slowest stretches in the period since World War II.” Some think it’s just that “productivity stats don’t capture … the benefits of the Internet and social media,” while others say such benefits “are overblown.”

Google, for instance, “has poured money into exotic ventures involving contact lenses, drones and driverless cars, but none has yet yielded a commercially viable business … The buzz over how smartphones have changed so many things obscures how many more they haven’t … economists at JP Morgan note that Americans spend about 10 times as much on air travel as on taxi and livery cabs, and productivity statistics don’t capture ways in which the quality of air travel has deteriorated … Jetliners may carry passengers more safely and cheaply, but don’t reach their destinations any faster.”

Others note, however, “that ride-sharing app Uber is improving car rides in ways not captured by productivity data.” Why it is that “innovative breakthroughs outside technology have been so elusive” is not clear. “One reason may be that industry must devote more of its innovative efforts to ensuring its products are safer and less environmentally harmful, which is good for society but doesn’t raise productivity … Another explanation is that as knowledge accumulates, truly transformative discoveries become harder.”

SoulCycle Loyalty

soulcycleThe promise of self-improvement is the ticket to big profits for SoulCycle, reports Josh Barro in The New York Times (8/9/15). SoulCycle, an “indoor cycling chain,” has but “47 studios in seven states and the District of Columbia.” However, it “reported $25 million in profit on $112 million in revenue in 2014, indicating a fat profit margin of 23 percent.” SoulCycle gets there by charging as much as “$35 a class (plus $3 to rent special shoes that clip into the bike), with discounts to about $28 to participants who buy bulk.” A sold-out “class in a 60-bike studio can gross about $2,000″ and do so nine times a day.

The high price-tag might make SoulCycle seem vulnerable to price-cutting competitors, except that it offers “something unique: a sense that what it sells is more than a workout.” “It’s sold convincingly and addictively as personal growth and therapeutic progress through fitness,” says Ben Dreyfuss of Mother Jones, who counts himself among the addicted. “It’s got the calming bits of yoga mixed with the group-pack mentality of team sports and the weird psychological whatever you want to call it of following a leader into battle.” Another devotee describes the experience as “strangely secksual.”

It seems SoulCycle “is closely associated with a transcendent experience other gyms don’t offer. Replicating that experience is not simple for would-be imitators, because convincing people their workout is a path to personal growth” is not down to just one thing. It is somewhat like Southwest Airlines’ ability to convince customers that “it’s fun not to have a seat assignment.” For SoulCycle, the magic mix includes “mood lighting,” “support staff,” “charismatic instructors” and “custom playlists that match musical beats to choreographed cycling.” The result — and bottom line for SoulCycle — is an enduring customer loyalty.

Fringe Cocktails

blackbirdBartender Del Pedro considers it a success if only 10 percent of customers like his cocktails, reports Robert Simonson in The New York Times (8/6/15). This is not true of every cocktail he makes at Tooker Alley, his bar in Brooklyn, New York — but it is true of one in particular, called the Amethyst. This cocktail is a mix of tequila, genever, Parfait Amour, and Martini bianco vermouth. The result “is light lavender in color and tastes a bit like a violet candy … Though the cocktail is ordered often, one out of every seven or eight is sent back.”

Pedro proudly calls the Amethyst a “ten percenter.” At Blackbird, in San Francisco, such concoctions are know as “Easter egg cocktails,” because they are “surprises that await patrons who give cocktail lists a close read.” Matt Piacentini of the Up & Up in Greenwich Village, NY, calls these drinks “experimental tracks,” and says his goal is to fight complacency. “We have to put stuff out there that pushes the envelope in one way or another and see if people are going to like it,” he says. “Either way, it’s a conversation.”

One of his creations, called Peat’s Dragon, is “a sort of Rob Roy with two types of Scotch and a black pepper tincture.” For the most part, it’s about “bartenders and enthusiasts, people who haven’t tried something with a particular ingredient,” says Matt Grippo of Blackbird. Sometimes curiosity alone predisposes an adventurous drinker to liking the result, even if they maybe don’t, exactly. Nico de Soto of Mace in New York’s East Village says the idea is not “to please everyone … You have to push,” he says. “Otherwise you’d just put raspberry and lychee in every cocktail.”

Applied Minds

applied-mindsWhen it comes to innovation, engineers rarely get as much credit as creative types, reports Jon Gertner in a Wall Street Journal review of Applied Minds by Guru Madhavan (8/4/15). For example, when Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, died, he “was hailed as a national hero” and given “a statesman’s funeral” in London. Margaret Hutchinson, who “developed a fermentation method to mass-produce the drug,” making it available on a large scale, “died fairly anonymously on a winter’s day in Massachusetts.” The value of the way engineers think can indeed be an underestimated asset.

Guru offers “a unifying, cognitive approach” to engineering thinking: “Structure, constraints and trade-offs are the one-two-three punch of the engineering mindset,” he writes. “They are to an engineer as time, tempo and rhythm are to a musician.” Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval took this approach when he developed portable cannons. In terms of structure, the cannon had to be lighter and have interchangeable parts. The constraints were “sometimes those of physics (how wind and air resistance affect ballistics) and sometimes those of industry (the capabilities of 18th-century manufacturers).”

The trade-offs included things like maneuverability versus firing force, or the cannon’s weight versus its durability. He worked it all out, and not only did France boast “the most effective artillery in Europe” but his innovations provided “a blueprint for precision and large-scale manufacturing that has since affected the far reaches of our society.” Such a thought process could be applied to problems in our everyday lives, Jon writes, as “an organizing principle for personal or professional progress … Engineers translate the realm of ideas into practical reality; they not only make the world work, they make the world not break.”

Combat-Ready Kitchen

combat-readyThe US Civil War made the world safe for “an almost limitless variety of foods,” reports Arthur Herman in a Wall Street Journal review of Combat-Ready Kitchen by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo (8/8/15). The mass-canning techniques developed by the US Army “for soldiers who would fight at Shiloh and Gettysburg … spread into the commercial market in the 1870s thanks to Chicago meat packers like Swift and Armour and Co.” The US Army later “developed ways of thermally and chemically treating meat products to kill off bacteria,” to help canned meat withstand the “tropical heat of the Spanish-American War.”

Then along came Spam, during World War II. “It may be a mocked comestible now, but Spam — with its portability, durability and affordability — was a nearly miraculous one in the postwar years.” With millions of troops to feed (“4.7 million in World War I and almost triple that number in World War II”), the Army applied “new flash-freezing, freeze-drying and de-boning methods.” Airtight packaging was deployed for “bread, vegetables and snacks.” Once World War II ended, food manufacturers “focused their marketing efforts on the consumer. Overburdened housewives … were happy to oblige.”

“In significant part because of military influence, food science has made breathtaking strides,” Anastacia writes. However, the “military-culinary complex,” and the “hyper-efficient machinery of American agribusiness, food processors, packers, shippers and retailers,” does come at a price. “Cooking, like music before it, is a dying art,” writes Anastacia. Then there’s the “long-term effects” of “high levels of chemical additives, preservatives and fructose syrups” in our diets. Yet Anastacia acknowledges that the US Army’s innovations do offer her “freedom from drudgery, freedom to do more of what I like and want.”

The EcoTank

ecotankEpson has finally broken the ink-cartridge cartel, reports Wilson Rothman in The Wall Street Journal (8/6/15). We all know the drill: Buy a way-cheap printer for about $60 and then spend something like $400 on ink cartridges each year. Then there’s the inconvenience of ink cartridges running out (allegedly) in the middle of a job. Epson has now introduced a line of printers, called EcoTank, that instead make you pay up front for a printer that includes enough ink to last about two years. At that point, a set of replacement ink canisters can be had for about fifty bucks.

The ink-onomics alone are appealing, although the savings over a traditional printer are not as much if you use bootleg replacement cartridges, which typically cost about two-thirds less than name-brands. The eco-nomics may also appeal to some, since an “EcoTank printer automatically saves you from about 80 little pieces of plastic. If Epson starts selling these printers by the millions, the planet may be spared whole mountains of spent ink cartridges.” For many, the deal-maker simply will be avoiding “the annoyance of changing cartridges and the potential bootleg ink failures.”

Epson is able to offer this alternative because its printers feature “permanent mechanical print heads, as opposed to the disposable thermal ones used by its chief competitors. Because Epson’s print heads are always connected to the printer, ink can be piped to them from anywhere — a cartridge or a tank on the side of the printer.” The EcoTank is designed with “containers on their sides that hold gobs and gobs of ink.” The mechanical heads are more durable than thermal, too, although Epson only guarantees the printer for two years and offers no repair services. The machines range in price from $400 – $500.

The Montainer

montainerHomes fashioned from recycled shipping containers are gaining in popularity, reports Eilene Zimmerman in The New York Times (8/6/15). Driving this trend is Montainer, which offers a turn-key service that includes interior design and construction, as well as local building permits. The containers — or “modules” as Montainer calls them — “come in many sizes but are generally 20 or 40 feet long … 8 feet wide and 9.5 feet tall. The 20-foot shipping container has 160 square feet of space, and the 40-foot container has 320 square feet … Customers wanting larger homes can fit several modules together like Lego blocks.”

“I love the fact that they are taking something that’s been discarded and finding a new use for it,” says Scott Crosby, who purchased a “24-foot-long, 8-foot-wide container that will provide his family with an extra bedroom, living room, bathroom and kitchenette.” “I don’t have to make any decisions about the layout, the appliances I need or about the permitting … I just clicked a button to buy and that was it.” The container will expand his existing 1,100 square foot beach house, which Scott shares with his wife and three young daughters. The cost: $65,000 — delivered ready to install on a foundation.

Scott is one of 15 Montainer homes shipped this year, just two years after the company’s launch. Montainer pre-orders, which require a $2,500 deposit, suggest another 30 to 50 will ship next year. The company’s target market is “mainstream buyers who otherwise could not afford to buy a house.” However, they likely will have to pay cash, as lenders tend not to grant mortgages for less than $100,000 and some don’t like backing newfangled ideas. Montainer co-founder Patrick Collins acknowledges the hurdle, but says banker attitudes will change over time and meanwhile, “there’s no shortage of people willing to buy one with cash.”


cymbalA trio of recent college grads have filled “a strategic gap in the digital music business,” reports Denali Tietjen in Forbes (7/29/15). Their creation is an app called Cymbal that is like “Instagram for music. The app adopts a simple interface embracing a ‘less is more’ vibe, allowing users to post just one song, illustrated by colorful album art … Your Cymbal is your song of the moment.” It is added to your “home feed” which “becomes an updated playlist” and “the soundtrack to your life.” Like Instagram, you have a “personal profile, followers, likes, comments, hashtags and tags.”

Gabriel Jacobs, who graduated from Tufts this past May, based the idea for Cymbal on a music blog he created while in high school where he reviewed “one great song per day.” Gabriel became bored with concept after “four years and a thousand songs” and thought that music should be more like a conversation. At Tufts, he met two other computer-science enthusiasts, Amadou Crookes and Mario Gomez-Hall, and they collaborated to create “a social network for song sharing,” or, as they put it, “music discovery powered by friends, not algorithms.”

Within “a few months” of its release, Cymbal was “downloaded at least 17,000 times.” The trio has now “landed $1.1 million in seed financing” and is valued at $6.1 million. Cymbal is actually just one of 34 apps the three guys have developed, including one called iJumbo that Tufts students use “to find out everything from when the next shuttle bus is coming to what is being served at the dining halls.” None of this is new to Gabriel, who created his first app hit at age 14. It was called Fart for Free and featured “some 16 different fart sounds.” It was #1 on iTunes briefly, and generated more than “4 million downloads.”